Five must-have books on home life for Christmas

Carol O’Callaghan peruses some of the recent publications that might provide you with ideas for your own home, as well as satisfying your curiosity about what other people have in theirs.

Five must-have books on home life for Christmas

Romantic Irish Homes by Robert O’Byrne, photography by Simon Brown. Published by CICO. €30.

It’s easy to think Irish architecture, which was born in a time of colonialism, reflects the conflict of the haves-and-have-nots; where there were just two types of rural home: the grand house for the Anglo-Irish and the thatched cottage for the impoverished peasant.

While the latter remains the most significant type of vernacular rural architecture in the Irish psyche, overshadowed by what we know as the Big House, there were others in between that reflected a class which was prospering in the 19th century and which has created a legacy of housing stock that is valued today.

Author Robert O’Byrne’s foraging expedition amongst castles, country houses, farm houses and eclectic little historic builds in search of romantic homes, has yielded an unexpected selection of home interiors, devoid of the anti-romantic glass and concrete epidemic of the 21st century.

Let’s face it, there’s little romance in a grey streamlined sofa and a chilly white tiled floor, but neither is O’Byrne necessarily extolling the virtues of clutter and ancient sofas with recalcitrant sprung upholstery.

Many of the homes featured are, indeed, filled with— shall we say — well loved treasures collected, if not hoarded, by generations of the same family.

Other homes have changed hands many times, and those which have suffered decades of neglect, or arrested development, have been brought back to life. The Strong Farmer’s house— a new one to me — features large.

It’s a secure structure built in its heyday for farmers who rented larger tracks of land from a local and often absentee, landlord.

A lovely example set in Co Tipperary had been continuously occupied from the early 19th century to the 1980s but without indoor plumbing, and had a mere three, electric light bulbs.

Now brought back to life with sensitivity and care, honouring the integrity of the building while making it suitable for modern living, it’s a simple, throwaway quote from the owner on page 53 that sums up what all of these homes — from castles to cottages — have in common.

“One of the reasons I bought it,” he says, “is because this was a place with a soul.”

For we interior voyeurs who can’t visit these private homes; who drive past historic houses wondering what is behind a set of forbidding iron gates — we imagine a stately structure. This book with its calming narrative and gentle photography might just satisfy an inquisitive and romantic soul this Christmas.

Everything in Its Place by Rebecca Winward. Published by Peters Ryland. €23.98.

I was about one third of the way through this book when I was reminded of how, some years ago, I undertook a ruthless decluttering, my first ever, which nvolved hiring a skip into which I threw he contents of my attic and much else besides.

The exercise left me with what can only be described as an insecure feeling, as if I had thrown way half my life, which I probably had, as I was pretty much a neat-freak at the best of times. That for me is the unsettling part of decluttering — the insistence on getting rid of things.

What for me is more important, once genuine rubbish is dispensed with, is making a place for everything you want to keep, so you don’t end up as I did.

Even now I have regrets for things I threw away, simply because I hasn’t used them in a while and didn’t have anywhere to store them.

Tidying up and finding a home for everything is Winward’s starting point, advising on where and how to store. Let’s face it, there’s never enough storage in the home, and often what we have by way of cupboards and shelving, is used inefficiently.

Winward systematically works through each room in the house, helping us to audit our storage needs, making bedrooms and kitchens the top priority, but prefacing it by advising us to look at our homes right now to see where storage is clearly lacking.

Is it the dumping ground of grubby trainers inside the front door, or ill-organised kitchen cupboards where the space is not maximised? In doing this, you, in effect, restyle your home and give it a fresh look as an unexpected bonus.

Tidy up and store and either throw away, give away or recycle, but don’t ruthlessly declutter your life simply to go from messy to immaculate. I’m converted.

Hand-Made Christmas by Tessa Evelegh. Published by CICO Books. €17.98.

Who has time to make everything by hand for Christmas? Not me. I’ve barely made a modest batch of mincemeat, and my aspiration to conjure up a Christmas cake has gone no further than taking a photo of a friend’s recipe and buying a new storage tin for what may never be a finished product.

I may get there yet, but the idea of making decorations for the house — 35 of which Tessa Evelegh illustrates in her book— makes me want to retreat to the sofa with the remote control and stay there until Christmas is over.

This is definitely a book for the dedicated home crafter, or some arty children old enough to handle a scissors.

Sketched templates for decorations at the back of the book seem a great idea at first glance, but a more beady-eyed inspection suggests these are guidelines only, but then I suppose home craft making is not an exact science,and the resulting items will probably be made all the more charming by a misshapen aesthetic.

But it’s the creatively simple things that can be done with the Christmas dining table that offer something achievable, if not downright enticing — Christmas crackers and napkins are transformed into festively temporary decorations.

Baked gifts feature large, with surprisingly quick and easy projects like tree and star-shaped biscuits spread with a slap of icing.

If you have time, they would make a lovely and affordable gift to take visiting, and far less intimidating that producing table runners and paper stars that look as if they’ve been conjured by an origami master craftsman.

Living Retro by Andrew Weaving. Published by Ryland Peters. €23.98.

For fans of home interior styles of the Mid Century Modern period, Living Retro is a surprising reminder of the extent to which design for interiors is influenced by what came in the aftermath of World War II.

At a time when raw materials were scare, which informed a complete paring back in the making of furniture and lighting, a no-frills style emerged that is as valid today as it was then, and one which is coveted by this 21st century generation of home-interior enthusiasts.

Modern retro aspirations for our homes mean a sideboard from the 1960s and a pair of ’70s fireside chairs are enough to satisfy, but this book takes retro to aspirational heights, illustrating how the big guns of styling live with high value pieces by the most renowned designers of the period.

Mostly located in America, their houses show a mix of Scandinavian and American furniture and interior design (the British G-Plan and McIntosh came later as a response to Danish design), that epitomises Mid- Century Modern.

It’s inspiring stuff if you happen to be a fan, although some of the interiors have the sense of being caught in a time warp evenif it’s an indisputably stylish one.

For me, the most important thing I’ve learned from this book is that retro is an idiosyncratic style which is all about having the confidence to live with things we love, regardless of who designed them, made them, and when.

Home for Now by Joanna Thornhill. Published by CICO Books. €20.38.

Making your rental home as lovely as you would like, can be restricted by the terms of tenancy agreements, depending on what exactly you want to do and your landlord’s enthusiasm.

Similarly, a house purchase where you know you are likely to spend no more than five years in residence, or where your last cent has been swallowed by your deposit, gives you little scope to make changes.

Enter Joanna Thornhill who addresses these restrictions with ideas for transforming a home that might be a bit underwhelming at present and even, disheartening to live in.

Featuring a mix of rental homes and what we might term, home-for-now properties, the book offers some simple and, often, radical ways of claiming the space as your own, showing how to make really lovely homes with imagination and small-scale spending.

Tips for renters at the beginning of the book are worth reading carefully as they contain details about communication with your landlord and how to build up a rapport if you are planning to spend several years there.

Success can make the difference between living with a dodgy paint colour and living with your own (and sometimes), better taste, or being able to request moving out the landlord’s furniture, to replace with some of your own.

It’s a hefty book, but divided into no more than five sections: Living spaces; kitchens and dining; bedrooms and bathrooms; creative workspaces, and plants and outdoor living.

My favourites were the pages dealing with kitchens and bathrooms, which can be the dingy legacy of those who have occupied them before you.

A good scrubbing can be transformative, but Thornhill has suggestions like buying freestanding kitchen cabinets which you can take with you, if and when you leave, and removing a door from a fitted cabinet to show off some of your nicer wares and even food containers. Simple and effective, these are winning ideas.

Bathroom are especially challenging as you cannot disguise a suite you don’t like. If the colour is dated, Thornhill suggests embracing your inner vintage style and using accessories as an eye-catching distraction.

Although some of her tips can be implemented with bought pieces, some are homemade but, thankfully, lacking that amateur, hippy-finish. If the photos are a fair reflection of the results, it’s all very stylish or stylishly eclectic.

How to be a Perfect Farm Wife by Lorna Sixsmith. Published by Write On Track. €12.95.

You don’t have to be a farm wife or have aspirations in that direction to appreciate the humour and almost biographical account of what it is like to be married to an Irish farmer.

Programmes like Glenroe offered us a glimpse into rural life and animal husbandry, if not wifery, as the role of women down on the farm is ostensibly the same as it has ever been.

That being said, the modern farmer is more hands-on domesticlaly, not seeing his role as being exclusively in the fields and surrounding sheds,

Inevitably, that phenomenon known and loved by us all makes an appearance: The Irish Mammy.

She for whom baking is a religion that receives suitable worship at the local agricultural show; is singled out for special attention and makes her presence felt in other parts of the book too, as the rural version appears to have an even sharper ability to see the shortcomings of her daughter-in-law as her urban counterpart, when it comes to assessing the interloper’s suitability to fill her shoes.

“Imagine, she’s feeding him rice for his dinner,” is just one laugh-out-loud quote.

Of course, it’s all tongue in cheek, but far from superficial, as it deals with every topic from how to wear mucky wellies, to how to bring the cows in to be milked; from how to get a farmer to take a holiday; to how to keep your hands soft.

And just to make sure you’ve read it thoroughly, there’s a quiz at the end of each section.

It’s clear how much regard Sixsmith has for farmers’ wives, not least because she is one herself, and for all the hard work, worries, debts, expectations and compromises, she is happy to poke fun at herself and a way of life that she wouldn’t change.

How to be a Perfect Farm Wife is one for the Christmas stocking, and its companion book by the same author, An Ideal Farm Husband is worth adding too.

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