The first thing that strikes you about Hugh Wallace’s house is its location.
Set among a group of pretty, red-brick parlour houses, McMahon Street is in the heart of Dublin but is a tranquil oasis from the hubbub of traffic.
The residents here are house-proud and there are pockets of wonderful colour along the street.
“The neighbours are great,” says Hugh as we go down some steps and into a surprisingly light-filled living room.
“Some are in their 80s. Then there are other new families too. It’s a great mix. And actually since the recession it’s been great; people seem to have more time so we’ve had street parties since 2008. We do it twice every summer. It’s great fun,” he says.
Hugh and his partner, Martin Corbett, a well-known hairdresser, have lived in Portobello since 2000.
Having met in The George 28 years ago, the couple have lived in six properties since moving in together.
Their last home was in Ranelagh but, as Hugh points out, that “had an east- facing garden so when you got home at night there was no sun left”.
“I couldn’t cope,” he says.
“This house faces south so there’s light until 8pm. It’s just great,” he says.
Having been used as a two-bedroom family home with a bathroom at the back the whole house needed a revamp and re-orientation. It was quite the undertaking but a challenge that the architect relished.
“All of the houses around here are parlour houses built in the 1880s for the Catholic middleclass,” says Hugh.
“So there’s a parlour room at the front which was the posh room and the back was working class, with a kitchen and a bathroom and you had the bedrooms upstairs.”
Everything was turned on its head. The aforementioned parlour room was turned into the main bedroom to which was added an en-suite bathroom reached by a small wooden stairs.
“This room is north- facing, so there is no direct sunlight. Perfect for sleeping but it would have been drab as a living room. And the street here is very quiet so it’s perfect,” says Hugh.
On the second level, the two bedrooms were removed to accommodate another large double bedroom and a second larger bathroom. A large black back-support in the bath gives away Hugh’s propensity for a good indulgent soak.
Downstairs, and at the underground level, there is a wonderful living space. When the couple moved in they put in an extension encompassing a living-room a corridor and kitchen which was wrapped around an enclosed terrazzo which itself acts as a second living room.
As you might expect the decor is perfect and there is lovely balance between comfort and style. There is very little uniformity but it does all fit together.
Statements are singular in that each wall has its own character; one has a modern painting, another has a print of Joyce, another has an antique mirror. There is nothing cluttered and everything is in order and its right place.
Hugh has worked in architecture and design since graduating from Trinity College in 1980.
He immediately set up in practice with his then business partner Alan Douglas, a conservation architect and he soon became the go-to man for luxurious design in Ireland working with clients such as Brown Thomas and Peter Mark.
His reputation at home soon spread abroad, Harrods and Espa International are now part of Hugh’s impressive portfolio.
To most people, Hugh is probably best known as one of the faces of RTÉ’s Home of the Year which had its inaugural run last year. The series was a huge success.
It featured 21 houses from all over Ireland which Hugh was asked to “snoop around”, as he says, with his co-judges, architect Declan O’Donnell and homewares designer Helen James.
“It was great to get into those houses,” says Hugh.
“They all had different qualities and some of them were very small; one of the cottages was just three rooms but it was so well restored it was just lovely,” he says.
“When we arrive in a place we don’t know anything,” he says.
“We go in and it’s very much off the cuff. The programme makers want to get those initial reactions and that to me is what makes the show special because they’re genuine. I mean we go into these houses blind; we don’t know who owns them.
The owners aren’t there. And we don’t even get into the next room until the cameras are there. So the first time we see a room is what you see on the screen,” he says.
After their initial mooch around the house, the judges will then “take four to six hours to look at a place properly”, according to Hugh.
Last year Ita Molloy and Andrew Harvey’s split level, eco-friendly home in Castletownbere in West Cork won first place. For Hugh it was a deserved winner.
“You’re often trying to interpret what the owners look like to a certain extent or at least what they’re about,” says Hugh.
“What I loved about them was that I was expecting a couple in their 30s. So it was more of a surprise when it turned out they were in their 50s. The design of the house was amazing and the attention to detail was amazing.
“On the inside you had this massive concrete wall which acted as a heat retainer in the house. It was just a lump of concrete which could have been pig ugly but because they put all those bamboos into it and the way they arranged them, all of a sudden a piece of concrete becomes a piece of sculpture. It was fabulous,” he says.
Such was the success of last year’s series that RTÉ has decided to run the competition again.
Entries opened last week and will remain open until July 26.
Hugh and Declan O’Donnell will again scour the country looking for homes filled with passion and clever design. Helen James has had to step down due to a busy work schedule.
“I enjoyed the bit of banter between us and the great thing about the three of us was we all had very different opinions. We come from very different backgrounds and that’s what made it interesting. We’ll have a new judge for the next series,” says Hugh.
“Helen was terrific and I hope we get some of the same flavour we had in series one because that was an important dynamic of the show.”
Hugh’s sense of hope for the next series is echoed in his overall view of Ireland’s evolving notions of house design. According to Hugh, there has been something of a shift in over the last 20 years or so.
It is a phenomenon that lends itself well to a programme like Home of the Year, a title that, two decades ago, may well have evoked images of cups of tea, ironing competitions and maudlin hospitality rather than cutting-edge design.
To Hugh, the changes in society have had a knock on and positive effect on Ireland’s houses.
“There are whole series of 70s and 80s bungalows down the country that are just regrettable,” he says.
“They’re built beside a road and they paid no regard to the sunlight so that even in the middle of summer you have to turn on a light in the front room. Now we’re much more aware of sunlight and the need for it.
“Dermot Bannon has done a great job to change attitudes in ways. It is about big windows and light. As a nation we’re much more confident to ‘do modern’ whereas even up to the late 90s we understood what the bungalow was, we understood what the corridor was, the kitchen was separate from the sitting room which in turn was separate to the dining room.
“We’re much more open to ideas and that’s because we’re more exposed to them; there’s lots of TV now highlighting best practise and we’re much more travelled. So we’re not as afraid to do things,” he says.
As we come to the end of our chat I’m sure to ask him for his favourite spot in the house. Without hesitation he points to his terrazzo.
“Without a doubt,” he says.
“Because it gets the sun. I love it.” It’s hard to disagree.
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