All hail the pale: Can you create character with neutral colours and a few well-chosen items?

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Interior designer Sheila Dunlop has some tricks up her sleeve...

When your job is making other people's houses look gorgeous, you're bound to take your work home with you. No wonder, then, that Sheila Dunlop, an interior designer, has a carefully co-ordinated home, full of old treasures and nifty design solutions.

She lives in a late-Georgian house in a village outside Bath. It's a haven for the 64-year-old, who runs the Ivy House Design School in nearby Holt, and also travels the country offering a personalised interiors service. The spot she calls home has "fields all around. I like the quiet and the peace." That settled spirit is reflected in the décor, all pale shabby chic. It's not a large building (she took most of the doors out to add space), and the colour scheme helps keep it airy. "There is a harmony of colour going right the way through," Dunlop acknowledges. She mostly used one paint, called "Slate", a very light grey. "Everything is that colour – it loses the boundaries and increases the feeling of space. It has a light-reflecting quality, and it's a harmonious, calm colour.

"On the doors I've used Farrow & Ball 22, 'Light Blue'. When you've been at work all day, you don't want anything demanding. I just want to go 'Ooooh, this is lovely...'"

But it's certainly no show home; Dunlop insists her starting points are a few much-loved items. "I'm a great believer in using what you've got – it loses soul if everything is new and perfect."

At the heart of the house is a wooden kitchen table, which she calls "the workhorse of the family". She has three daughters, who were brought up around it, eating meals, doing their homework. Above it hangs an outsized chandelier. "It's from a taller-ceilinged house and is quite large for the kitchen, but I love over-scale," she explains. When she moved in seven years ago, she also brought with her the portrait in her front-room, and the Georgian knife box below it, which is now "full of old letters". The portrait, she guesses, is 18th century. "I've had him for 40 years; he's definitely a companion who has always moved around with me."

The sofa, too, is 40 years old, but Dunlop exhibits a make-do-and-mend spirit, albeit lifted by exquisite materials: the sofa has been re-upholstered in silk velvet. That's one of Dunlop's key tips – spread your budget. Buy cheap or old furniture then spruce it up with quality paints or new materials. Of course, she's used to working to budgets set by clients, but insists, "I'm into budgets as well! The kitchen is all Ikea but I painted it, and then I bought some quite expensive handles – it elevates it."

However she achieves the result, there's a consistent look to her home. But how does she deal with the tastes of clients? "Most of the time I think, 'This isn't the way I'd go, but it's your home.' My job is to detach from my tastes and to make that client feel a million dollars. But sometimes it surprises you – you go down different routes and find you like them. You've got to keep on your toes."

Dunlop's book, 'The Industry Interior Design Bible' (Industry Bible Publications, £45), is out now, theindustrybible.com

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