Me And My Home: A large-scale canvas

Rosalind Russell talks to Tom Helme about making a home, modern interiors and Mouse's Back
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Tom Helme is a director of paint and wallpaper makers Farrow & Ball and was formerly the National Trust's adviser on decoration. He developed the Trust's range of paints, including String, Ointment Pink, Pigeon, and Dead Salmon. He lives with his wife Mirabel and four children on a farm in Wiltshire

This was a model farm, designed in a square, and still is a working farm, although I have no experience of farming. Mirabel comes from a farming background. So I get all the pleasure of living on a farm with none of the headaches involved in running it. When we came here in 1987 - having lived in a cottage nearby - the wing of the house with the sitting room in it didn't exist. It was the barn where the farmer parked his combine harvester. The old kitchen had a Rayburn, Formica worktops and an orange ceiling, so we had to do quite a bit of work. Now we have the Aga with the blue-and-white tiled panels behind, painted by a local potter and artist called Laurence McGowan. He incorporated Mirabel on her horse, the dog, the house and the children in the scene, which is similar to Portuguese tiled scenes.

"When I was working for the National Trust, the policy was conservation and restoration, rather than decoration, and this is what we tried to do here. I designed everything in the new wing, it was such fun. They say there are two things which everyone should do: build a house and publish a book. Now, with the Farrow and Ball book out, I'll have done both. It was immensely pleasurable working on the designs and took probably two years longer than most people would take because I did all the drawings, right down to the cut nails on the floorboards, which are English elm. The only screws are in the planks over the service access. We created a guest bedroom, with dressing room, bathroom and door to outside at the end of the wing for friends who come to stay who are not used to children, so they can escape.

"As an adviser to the Trust it's my job to notice all these details at work, but I'm the most unobservant person in friends' homes. To me, comfort and hospitality is what good decoration should be about. We don't have a front door anymore, but use the back door where you can walk all the way through the house in gumboots from the farm because the floors are stone and painted wood and easily swept.

"This is a family house - with four children and all their friends, you couldn't follow behind clearing everything up. I'm really against knocking down walls, but we did in the old drawing room to make a big library, which is where the children hang out. Although we have traditional furnishings, if I had a pad in London I could quite happily live in a modern place although it's hard to find a good modern domestic interior.

"I love the progression in a house, the 18th-century idea of a stone entrance hall, progressing through the rooms becoming finer and finer, from wood, to hard floorboards and rugs to the fitted carpet, gilding and patterned paper in the bedchamber. I have tried to do that here. The progression leads to the bedrooms and my dressing room, decorated in F&B's Tented Stripe wallpaper to look like the Duke of Wellington's campaign tent. The design was taken from Kingston Lacey, a restoration project I managed for the National Trust, and the paper was made specially for it. Because I like trompe l'oeil, a friend John Sutcliffe made me a wooden 'shirt' on a peg which hangs on the cupboard door. You can't take everything about decorating too seriously.

"I've used Farrow & Ball throughout. That's not out of loyalty, but if you have been involved in everything down to the level of sheen in a paint, then that's what you like. The floor of the kitchen is painted in Mouse's Back, the hallway in the wing is in Entrance Hall Pink and the original entrance hall and passageways are all in Cooking Apple Green.

"We have never used the word 'heritage' in connection with our paints. I think the whole heritage thing is rather old hat. When I did the colours for the National Trust range with Farrow and Ball I thought it was just going to help people restore crumbly old houses. But the colours from historic houses are also relevant to apartments and lofts and aren't stuck in any one period. Some colours are repeated through successive generations because they work well.

"My favourite colour is green and my least favourite is yellow, which was a top seller in the last 20 years. It's amusing to see Farrow and Ball paints now mentioned in estate agents' details as being selling points.

"Do Mirabel and I always agree on decoration? We spend such a long time working on the plans, we come to a consensus. The interesting thing is once we've done a room, we never change anything. Move from here? No. I feel we're just beginning to belong, after 15 years."

'Paint and Colour in Decoration', ed. Farrow & Ball, is published by Cassell Illustrated, priced £25