From the magic of tidying to classic English styling and the Guinness family’s great mansion, Carol O’Callaghan looks at some of the best recent publications.
First published four years ago, with five million copies sold worldwide, and now launching its 10th edition, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying continues to do the rounds.
Written by tidying-up evangelist Marie Kondo, it’s truly biblical in its approach — believe and be saved, fall off the wagon and be condemned to the hell-fire of clutter.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t enjoy a Saturday devoted to sorting out the wardrobes and cupboards as much as I, so when a revisit to this book reminded me of her commandment, ‘Does it bring you joy?’ which must be asked when assessing possessions, it informed the pre-Christmas domestic sort out.
Now that I’ve halved the content of my wardrobe, I truly have discovered the joy of having only clothes that fit, flatter and are suited to purpose. Gone to the charity shop are expensive black trousers which I had deemed too good to throw out and intended having altered to suit current fashions.
The thought was to wear them to meetings which I never actually have as I work from home where my furry onesie is de rigueur.
But it all went wrong with her method for folding tops so every item is individually rolled and placed in lines in your drawers. Flushed with enthusiasm I went as far as arranging them colour-wise, and then sat at the end of the bed with a cup of tea to admire my work.
No sooner did I remove one to wear, than the whole line of rolled t-shirts started to unfold into the vacated space like recalcitrant Swiss rolls.
It was then I remembered that when this book was first published it prompted me to dispose of some particularly joyless old charger cables which had bred in a kitchen cupboard.
A fortnight later came a futile search when my camera battery was spent.
Put this book in the Christmas stocking of anyone who deems tidying an extreme support, but for a Saturday afternoon hobbyist like me, I’ll stick with the practicality of Cindy Harris, or better still Mary Berry for her personal experience and wisdom.
Relax and celebrate unstyled living, as epitomised by the projects of interior designer Emily Henson.
Previously a merchandiser for Anthropologie, she takes some of her interior design projects around the world and uses influences from the 1960s and ’70s.
It’s a look which informs some of the most popular Instagrams dealing with interior styling, so it has wide appeal, made easy to achieve with Henson’s styling tips and the typical lush photography of this type of book.
Gleaming white walls of pre-recession years are softened by a jungle-load of plants.
The angular sofa propped on chrome legs is now littered with patterned cushions and the obligatory cosy throw.
It’s eclecticism, for sure, where imperfections are celebrated in the style of shabby chic, upcycling and vintage, and where even home-made touches are regular features.
It’s a reminder of a way of home-making which used to be the norm but was lost as we bought into the throw-away society.
But it’s one which the Scandinavians never lost, buying things of style and real practical and aesthetic value, to achieve an evolution of style which will last a lifetime and beyond.
“Style is notoriously difficult to describe than to recognise”, says author Ros Byam Shaw in her latest book.
And how true this is with the selection of interiors she’s chosen, although she has managed to categorise the 18 she features into five categories: Simple English, English Eccentric, English Rose, English Country House and Classic English.
Not one is the result of an interior design project, she tells us, although it becomes clear that some are lived in by interior designers, so the flick of a professional hand was inevitable, and there are the homes of those we can assume have an ‘eye’. Philip Mould is one.
This art dealer and television personality, who pops up periodically on the BBC’s Antiques’ Roadshow also co-presents Fake or Fortune, has in his day uncovered a few lost Van Dykes and a Gainsborough, so historic art features large in his 17th century Oxfordshire manor house.
Incidentally, all are historic residences ranging from manors to farmhouses, and even a Bloomsbury flat, spanning a period of 500 years.
But even those which are lived in by interior designers whose professional creations are cool and contemporary, show in their own homes that English style is relevant and thriving, whether your taste runs to the ornate aesthetic of the Victorians, or draws on the simple, if not austere, styling of the post-Reformation era when everything opulent associated with the wealth of Catholicism was stripped back and replaced with a starkness rooted in the vernacular architecture of the day.
Stories of renovations, conservation and the delight of unearthing long-forgotten fireplaces are told alongside the heartbreak of uncovering dessicated plasterwork, but all show the lengths an Englishman or woman is prepared to go to for their castle.
The most decorative honey pot in Ireland was how the late queen bee, Oonagh Guinness, described her family’s Wicklow estate, Luggula, gifted to her on her wedding day in 1929 by her father Ernest Guinness.
A glance at the white Gothic Revival crenellated exterior offers what turns out to be a superficial insight into her description, so it has taken Robert O’Byrne’s book to expand the metaphor and understand the decades which followed how this eccentric and socially celebrated owner entertained on a scale few other country house owners could afford.
It was this generosity which established Luggula as a cultural axis, where everyone who was anyone in literature, art and music, along with ’toffs’ and hangers on, were invited to dine or spend a weekend. Seduced by the idyll, some didn’t surface for days or even weeks.
Brendan Behan was a regular as was Lucien Freud, and in more recent times U2 and even Michael Jackson, when fleeing the attention of the paparazzi in 2006, indulged in the lavish Guinness hospitality.
It was to her son Garech Browne that Oonagh bequeathed the house and who, in turn, maintained the tradition of hospitality and patronage of the arts.
Often referred to as the’ last dandy’ for his individual sartorial elegance, as the castellan of Luggala he oversaw its €4m 1997 refurbishment.
But it’s the honeyed stories of decades of elopements, sexual intrigues, tragedy and scandals with which O’Byrne lures the reader, but in his typical style he builds this on a firm foundation of architectural, cultural, social and genealogical facts.
Being a private home Luggala has never been a stop-off point on the coach tour trail to which many country houses succumb to ensure their survival.
That, sadly, may change as prior to Browne’s death last year, he, inexplicably, placed Luggala on the market where it remains at an asking price of €28m.
Interior designer Joanna Gaines is an unknown quantity in our part of the world, but after springing to fame on an American television show, Fixer Upper on HGTV, she’s now brought out this book.
It has a practical quality which separates it out from the coffee table book filled with aspirational looks we’re unlikely to achieve without a Lotto win, and it’s just in time for Christmas when we all want to hunker down indoors away from rain and cold.
Starting by choosing some different styles of houses, farmhouse and modern being just two, Gaines offers identifying descriptions of their interiors along with a list of keywords which should guide you in your purchases if you opt for that particular look.
For farmhouse style, she lists words like exposed brick, nostalgia and aged. For the modern home, she lists Scandinavian, mid-century and open-space.
The same goes for individual rooms so the dining room, for example, has its list of keywords including comfortable seating and versatile centrepiece.
She also adds brief but well-informed paragraphs about the location of the dining room - is it adjacent to or far from the kitchen, and how to make the most of either situation.
But here’s the rub. American house styles are distinctly different to ours, making the chapter on choosing the house style nearest to your own redundant.
After all, an American farmhouse bears no resemblance to its Irish ancestor.
But what is universally worthwhile is Gaines’s enthusiasm for us to make diagrams of our rooms, adding in where we intend placing furniture, and listing alongside them other items to be added or bought — lamps and textiles, for example.
Bear in mind, though, that you might need Google to translate some of the Americanisms.