Rose Martin visits a Kinsale house design that has the sea as a starting point

How’s this for a mission statement: “You won’t find any white paint in this house — at all.”

So says artist and interior stylist, Niamh McGowan referring to her most recent project, the Cluain Mara scheme at Kinsale, where her individual style has created a show house that’s not a show house — more a supremely stylish home.

And that’s not to do with expensive fittings, stand out elements or that familiar brashness of stage-set design, rather it’s the mood that’s evoked — the sense of a calm, beautiful space. This house is not bang on trend, it doesn’t have a touch of turquoise and you won’t immediately identify the look. It’s a completely original take on decorating, but what’s really good is that the elements are very ordinary — it’s the way in which they’re pulled together that allows the magic to happen.

The master en suite bathroom is fitted with rectangular tiles in a dark colour with a slight texture for a spa feel.
The master en suite bathroom is fitted with rectangular tiles in a dark colour with a slight texture for a spa feel.

Now, ordinary means different things to different people — there is a Kube kitchen here with Silestone top — not the cheapest — but not the dearest either. This is a simple, but sleek run in grey and white, with large island taking induction hob and the sink is set in the unit behind. There aren’t that many cabinets here, which works with a restricted budget, but the effect is fully there. Also, it works ergonomically too, which is another string to Niamh’s bow, she has good spatial awareness.

Originally, the kitchen area was meant to be the dining room in a separate room, and behind it was the kitchen. At the build stage, she moved all that around and her clients, Centurion Homes, backed her instinct. They were right. She’s pulled the kitchen to the front, (“who wants to be eating in front of the neighbours?”), and put the dining room to the back. Instead of a wall, or the more usual open plan scheme, she’s gone for a half wall division.

“I love half walls — I think they’re the business — they’re just the right height to lean against and put furniture up against.” And it works too, in letting light from back to front, while creating two discrete spaces.

Metal table frame units from Ikea support a desktop in bleached wood commissioned by Niamh McGowan.
Metal table frame units from Ikea support a desktop in bleached wood commissioned by Niamh McGowan.

Niamh uses colour in an unorthodox way — she paints all the way up the walls to the ceiling and down, and uses complementary colours in the skirting. The effect changes the way light works in a room, by day and by night, and depending on whether table lights or overhead lights are used. And she uses Colortrend throughout the scheme: “I wanted to use an Irish paint and one brand throughout — and it’s a great paint — very good and very durable.”

Then the other basics are well taken care of — firstly, there’s the gorgeous floor, a wide plank, half bleached/ half oiled amalgam that looks just right and runs seamlessly through the lower level. Where it turns into the hallway at the rear, it’s squared off beautifully — hat’s off to the joiner.

Walking the beaches of south Cork last winter, the daily swimmer says she wanted to convey the mood of the scheme’s surroundings and chose her colour palette on that basis. So, the living room has warm linen, wool and mushroomy tones, with light oak fiittings like the bespoke shelf/seat in the corner with log store underneath. The furniture, which she had commissioned, includes a sofa in oatmeal herringbone and pure wool twill carpet, which is also used upstairs.

Even household hardware looks good here. Bamboo handled kit is hung in the ordered utility room.
Even household hardware looks good here. Bamboo handled kit is hung in the ordered utility room.

A lot of the occasional furniture, like the linen Queen Anne chairs, the armoire in the kitchen and quality bed linen and throws, were purchased in Granny’s Bottom Drawer in Kinsale, whom, she says, went out of their way to help. She also likes the idea of buying locally and sourced the stove and limestone plinth down the road, but says Drury Street is her go-to place for good interior shopping — she bypasses the high street for the unique and quality goods on offer in this little quarter of Dublin. 

Her window treatments follow the subdued, moody theme of the house — she uses slubby grey and tan linen in a curtain treatment that’s ingenious — double depth frills on the pooling ends create weight and a liveliness to what could otherwise be a bland offering. The grey linen is carried through most of the ground floor, used in simple Roman blinds or else in curtains trimmed with a narrow lace bands or tiny grey bobbles, very Scandi — very earthy and very inexpensive.

The slate grey kitchen from Kube has a long island unit with Silestone worktop. Walls here and in the dining room are painted in Aged Vellum, with Greystoke on the skirting, both by Colortrend.
The slate grey kitchen from Kube has a long island unit with Silestone worktop. Walls here and in the dining room are painted in Aged Vellum, with Greystoke on the skirting, both by Colortrend.

Niamh’s other hack is upcycling brand new Ikea furniture, she swaps squat turned legs for rickity flat pack versions and replace knobs with bone or brass varieties, sourced online. She also repaints and waxes the finished product to give a functional, but distressed look. Also, the designer mixes up new, upcycled and antique to create an authentic living space — there are no set styles, or set eras, and that’s what makes this house original, and very inviting.

There is no telly in the main living room, she says, but a widescreen TV is located in the study, which is fitted with pared down and untouched Ikea lovelies and a sofa in a linen/tweed mix with a great floor cushion, in tie-dye blue and grey from Meadows and Byrne.

The master bedroom has muslin curtains, and pooled, frilled curtains in plain grey linen. The bedspread is a hefty, quilted number from Granny’s Bottom Drawer in Kinsale, in a soft, faded rose. The bed head was commissioned in linen by Niamh McGowan. Wall colour is Silk Seal.
The master bedroom has muslin curtains, and pooled, frilled curtains in plain grey linen. The bedspread is a hefty, quilted number from Granny’s Bottom Drawer in Kinsale, in a soft, faded rose. The bed head was commissioned in linen by Niamh McGowan. Wall colour is Silk Seal.

The smallest room in the house has an amazing green shade on the walls, Tropical Twist, (“it’s a Marmite colour,” she says) and chunky oak fittings with wall hung ware by Ideal, used throughout its four bathrooms.

On the long hallway, a felted, naive rug is used as a wall hanging, and there is proper art everywhere. “If you were to buy this house, then you’re buying the beginning of a very good art collection,” she says. Her background in fine art means she spent a good whack of the budget on what hangs on the walls — above average finishing.

Upstairs, the bedrooms are finished in soft, dusky colours with luxe bedspreads in velvet and cotton with wool throws and turned, wooden lamps, most of which were sourced at Granny’s.

A cream stove holds prime position in the living room, (find similar in House of Heat and Cork Stoves). The matte limestone plinth was commissioned locally and the copper lighting is hand-made by Phil Galbraith of Coppergreen.ie.
A cream stove holds prime position in the living room, (find similar in House of Heat and Cork Stoves). The matte limestone plinth was commissioned locally and the copper lighting is hand-made by Phil Galbraith of Coppergreen.ie.

The bathrooms are very low key -- the master is fitted in an almost black, textured floor tile on the walls and a cement grey, square tile on the floor — an effect which gives a spa feel. The tone is carried through to the walkthrough dressing room, finished in a burnished brown by Kube and lit by a copper flower light from Homebase.

It’s part of the Helena Christensen collection, says Niamh and gives firelight glow to this quiet space. For privacy, she uses sheer white muslin drapes on the bedroom windows: “I’m not mad about blinds — I love muslin drapes because you still see out — and nobody can see you in the nip,” she says.

The master bedroom has a pale, luxe velvet spread that pools on the ends and the guest bedroom is in soft grey quilting with an Avoca throw. The twin bedroom has fine wool crepe blankets, each is a varied, green/ blue tone, (“I don’t like too much matchymatchy,” says Niamh). Elsewhere, the landing has a hand-crafted console from James Carroll in Co Wicklow, a neighbour of the designer, and the stairwell is finished in an antique hanging. The floors are all in wool and the guest and main bathroom are finished in a softer grey, with wallhung ware and walk-in showers.

Furniture in the living room has a 60’s feel, with herringbone tweed used on the sofa and linen on the Queen Anne chair, which is supplied by Granny’s Bottom Drawer. The copper table completes the subtle metallic theme. Wallls are in Old Bone by Colortrend
Furniture in the living room has a 60’s feel, with herringbone tweed used on the sofa and linen on the Queen Anne chair, which is supplied by Granny’s Bottom Drawer. The copper table completes the subtle metallic theme. Wallls are in Old Bone by Colortrend

A lot of the furniture was sourced in Flanagan’s, Dundrum — including the circular, reclaimed wooden table in the dining room and the Wishbone chairs. Floors are from the Hardwood Floor Company in Dublin and occasional tables are a mix of Hedgehog, online buys and Ikea. The mix allowed her to play with the budget, to create a family home, but one with a certain flair and a few surprises.

She balks at describing herself as an interior designer — she’s more of a concept creator, she says, and because of her background, (she’s a printmaker and a member of Grafton Graphics), her aesthetic is all about the use of colour. It’s her thing. 

The twin bedroom is in Mistral and the beds are finished with fine wool crepe throws from Granny’s Bottom Drawer, Kinsale. All linen is from the same source
The twin bedroom is in Mistral and the beds are finished with fine wool crepe throws from Granny’s Bottom Drawer, Kinsale. All linen is from the same source

“In not an interior designer, I’m an interior stylist — I’m more into concept and colours. I mostly do creative consultations and choose ideas on a revamp — I work a lot with renovations and use heritage paints — it’s my passion.” In her day-to-day work she does mostly three-hour consultations — she flies in, looks around and suggest tones and shades and space shifting, an ability when she says grew from her training as an artist and an interest in interiors since she was very young.

Perhaps too, she just has a good eye. For this house she uses a number of interesting colour combinations and her focus, she says was to create an atmosphere that was authentic and not one that was consciously ‘styled’. 

She’s done just that. 

www.niamhmacgowan.com


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