Susan McGowan: 'Only bring what you love into your home'

Home Editor Eve Kelliher talks to interior architect Susan McGowan as she sets the scene for Christmas 
Susan McGowan: 'Only bring what you love into your home'

Susan McGowan's festive interiors. Pictures: Ashen and Cloud

I'm smitten with Susan McGowan’s super-practical yet fabulous attitude.

The Athlone-based interior architect’s design advice says it all: “Only bring what you absolutely love into your home, as anything else is clutter. That’s also life advice!”

As we speak, Susan is putting the finishing touches to her own decorations — right on schedule to meet her personal deadline, RTÉ’s Late Late Toy Show.

And, as exquisite as they are, they still tie in with her love for comfort and minimalism. Susan and her husband Liam have three children, Julianne, eight; Jacob, five; and Brody, two.

“When I first moved into this house, I couldn’t get the decorations up early enough. Now it’s mainly for the children that I put them up. The Toy Show is the deadline,” she says.

“Last year we went to Center Parcs and when we came back, we didn’t have the decorations up and it was such an anti-climax.”

As a design professional, what’s her golden rule for a Yuletide ambience? “For me, it’s all about comfort, so we go extra on the cushions, throws, and blankets. 

This, combined with candlelight, firelight, and a few twinkling lights, can be all that is needed to create an inherent sense of warmth and comfort — even if the festive decor is very minimal,” she says.

The post-Christmas look is every bit as important: “The decorations come down on January 1,” adds Susan, who is founder and creative director of Ashen and Cloud in Co. Westmeath.

Susan’s Instagram account is followed by 45,500 design enthusiasts, many of whom have watched her chart her own self-build from the very foundations. That story began in 2014, when Susan and Liam’s daughter Julianne was born, and they decided to relocate from their Dublin apartment to their native midlands.

Her festive focus is clear: “We have a busy house with three children and a new dog, so to be honest, the goal this year is to come out of it as unscathed as possible! 

"I was definitely a little more pedantic about Christmas decor before I had children, and followed Pinterest carefully for all the beautiful ideas, but now, I just want everybody to feel happy and at home, so the perfect decorations are combined with the sentimental ones that are made in pre-school, and it’s generally more relaxed and nostalgic. And that makes me very happy.”

Q&A

Where is your happy space at home?

Our sitting room has a large chaise-end sofa (the Long Beach from DFS), which we all cuddle up in to watch movies and relax. 

My husband and I are both business owners, so Christmas is really the only time of year when working life is closed off for a brief period of time, and we try to make the most of that time together as a family.

How would you describe your home/interiors?

I always find this question difficult because I like to mix styles, and I think the expertise of an interior designer is brought to the fore when interior styles are successfully mixed, layered, and combined. I have some classical pieces in my home, and I also have a lot of contemporary elements.

 

I love antiques, I love original art. I love richly detailed interiors, but I’m not a maximalist, so there is a fine balance in there somewhere. It could be called eclectic, but I feel my home is perhaps too streamlined in style for that label too. Only surround yourself with pieces that you absolutely love. Undoubtedly, it takes effort to make style combinations work, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

Who do you share your home with?

My husband Liam, my daughter, Julianne, my sons Jacob and Brody, and our dog, Suki.

Where is home?

Athlone, Co. Westmeath.

Best bargain ever for you?

I bought a small collection of brass candlesticks at an auction once for €5. They are used in all our shoots and in my home daily.

Biggest extravagance in your home?

All of the joinery was expensive — but worth it, and we’ve still some more to install before it is finished.

Favourite household chore?

I will be totally honest and admit that I find all types of housework perpetually boring — so I do not have a favourite chore, but when time is on my side, I get great satisfaction from a spring clean or a deep clearout of some place in bad need of it. I also love to cook; I wouldn’t call it a chore.

Fridge must-have?

Your signature dish?

I really love to cook and entertain. I usually host Christmas dinner for our families, and I enjoy every bit of the process. Even though it takes the guts of two days, it’s very chilled, as I’ve been doing it for about 10 years now. 

I used to have a little bit more flair for recipes, but I have landed back in “safe dinner” territory to ensure the children eat what is cooked, so I try to just cook the basics well.

Dream Christmas guests?

It’s hard not to wish for those who have passed away in our family, so it would be those treasured few who are no longer with us and sorely missed.

What is the best advice you got at home growing up?

Honesty and integrity are always the best policy, and if you combine that with simply doing your best, you will not go too far wrong.

What led you to work in a creative sphere?

I was always creative, so I was always going to lean towards a design career eventually. That being said, I didn’t find that path immediately after school, and instead meandered around a bit until I learned the importance of doing what you love for a living. I went back to school to study interior architecture as a mature student at 23 and the rest is history.

What will you be doing on Christmas Eve?

We will be in the PJs early, prepping dinner throughout the day, and sipping on a fine wine — please God!

And, come January, what’s on your to-do list, workwise?

We are working on a number of residential projects in the UK and Ireland and embarking on our fifth year in business. We have grown to a team of five in that time.

  • Susan McGowan is the founder and creative director of Ashen and Cloud
  • @ashenandcloud
  • www.ashenandcloud.com

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