Bags of style: At home with designer Bill Amberg
They swapped a chic Notting Hill flat for a 'poky' Victorian semi. But with a little ingenuity, the handbag designer Bill Amberg and the magazine editor Susie Forbes made it their own
Saturday 25 October 2008
As a young creative couple living in London in the early 1990s, Bill Amberg and Susie Forbes wanted to be at the centre of things and chose to live on the top floor of a white stucco house in Notting Hill. Bill had just established his eponymous label, which continues the tradition of British luxury brands together with his own modern take on hand-crafted leather bags and accessories, and Susie had just joined Vogue as a features editor and was working closely with innovative British designers and photographers. Fifteen years on, Susie is now editor of Easy Living magazine and Bill's company has gone global.
Bill and Susie discovered Queen's Park through mutual friends, and despite Susie's misgivings about this "Godforsaken part of London", they began to see the potential of moving to the area.
They decided to put a note through the door of any house that they liked the look of. Eventually someone wanted to sell, and they bought their new home in early 1996. Their semi-detached, red-brick Victorian house had a traditional layout, with two small, dark rooms and a long hallway on the ground floor. Bill and Susie weighed up the pros and cons of keeping the period features, before deciding to open up the whole ground floor to create one light-filled room, with windows at each end. "We worried about sacrificing the original character of the house," Susie explains, "but the existing layout really did feel too poky."
With the addition of silver metallic wallpaper, mosaic mirror tiles and Moroccan lanterns, this family house could now be a rock star's pad. In the vast ground-floor space, Bill's furniture designs, including a huge blue velvet sofa and a distressed leather console, are prominently featured alongside a Louis XIV-style three-piece suite, which the couple customised by painting white and re-upholstering in soft pink fabric from Designers Guild. The snug, where the family gathers to watch television, received its Moroccan flavour from the addition of decorative wooden cupboards – which have been painted white and given mirrored backs – and embossed leather floor tiles designed by Bill. Susie found the vivid green curtains with their pom-pom trim at Designers Guild, and picked up the bold print cushions from Anthropologie, a favourite store in the US. Also in this groundfloor space is a small loo, where Susie has hung an iconic poster-sized Vogue cover featuring Kate Moss on the wall.
Bill and Susie have gone to great lengths to obtain bespoke pieces or customise vintage furniture, rather than buy brand-new designs. For the kitchen, they commissioned a joiner to build the units and the white shelving system, which is filled with Bill's collection of Georgian glass together with a white candelabra from The Cross in Notting Hill, while Bill sourced the surfaces from the old St George's Hospital (now the Lanesborough Hotel). Susie, meanwhile, had seen some elegant mother-of-pearl chairs in interiors shops, but wanted to see if she could buy them directly from India. She simply typed "12 mother-of-pearl Indian chairs" into Google, and six months later her chairs arrived from Jodhpur, via the extremely efficient company, Art and Decorative Objects.
When it came to her daughters' bedrooms, Susie looked for unusual pieces on the internet, or simply commissioned pieces. Instead of buying a contemporary bunk bed, Susie wanted to re-create a design she had seen in a magazine, which had the appearance of two single antique French beds stuck together; she contacted La Maison, a specialist bed company in London's East End, to come up with the look. On a trip to New York, Susie visited Anthropologie and brought home vintage-style fabric letters spelling out "Poppy" to hang from the upper bunk. And continuing with the down-home American feel, Susie picked out some vintage floral wallpaper from an American-based website. Closer to home, she found the antique mirror and chandelier in Portobello Road. Perhaps as a concession to Bill, their own bedroom feels more restrained, with white-painted walls and floors. It is only the furry headboard and velvet ottoman in pink that add a splash of colour.
Susie speaks with dismay about chipped floorboards in the kitchen and children's graffiti on the leather bedside tables, but there is something incredibly reassuring about visiting a lived-in home, as opposed to a pristine designer pad. This is a house with soul that reflects the lives of the whole family.
'New London Style' by Chloe Grimshaw, published by Thames & Hudson, £19.95
Get the look
Chateau Library chair, £449, Graham and Green, grahamandgreen.com
Venetian floral mirror, £150, Marks & Spencer, marksandspencer.com
Cerise paint, £22 for 2.5l, Laura Ashley, lauraashley.com
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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