The exterior of Jane Risby-Rose’s house – a large Victorian semi-detached in Margate, Kent – is plain and unassuming. “I wanted it to be like a brown paper package,” Risby-Rose explains. “You shouldn’t really know what’s inside.” Rendered and painted a muted shade of mushroom, it gives very little away.
But behind the front door, beyond the mauve, panelled entryway, is a huge, asymmetric room with three different ceiling heights and vast glass doors pivoting out to the courtyard. It is clad in narrow strips of plywood and painted in blocks of burgundy and canary yellow. Contemporary art, sculptural lighting and reclaimed Danish furniture fill the room – as does the sound of classical piano and the chirrup of starlings, which dart around the paved garden outside. The effect is exhilarating.
Risby-Rose is an “accidentally retired” PR events professional. As such, she knows a thing or two about creating experiences: “Really, that was my expertise.” Five years ago, she was made redundant and put on gardening leave for a year. Creatively frustrated, she poured her energy into building herself a new home beside the sea. “For once, I had the time and the luxury of being able to put myself in creative torment,” she says.
“I came from London to Margate, thinking I was going to buy a two-bedroom flat with a view of the sea. I thought I’d be working for another 10 years and that all I needed was a weekend bolthole. That was my brief,” she recalls. “Then I took one step through the basement here and I had that feeling you have. I knew I was going to buy it. All the things on my list turned out to be rubbish! I realised what I wanted was simply light and space.”
Risby-Rose spent a year renovating and selling her London home while overhauling the tired, disjointed, four-storey house she had just purchased. Determined to spend her money locally, Risby-Rose enlisted the services of Tam Landells, co-founder of local architecture practice Ratliff Landells. “I wrote them a note that said: ‘I’m living in a Quasimodo house, but I think it might have a heart of gold – can you help?’ They came and that was it.”
What ensued was a year-long collaboration. “Tam just did what you want an architect to do, which is ask a million questions, disagree with me if I was being a twat and give in if I was being really insistent,” Risby-Rose explains. “Plus, I got to be good cop with the builders. If there was ever anything wrong, Tam was the terrier. It was just a really good, positive experience.”
Refreshingly, Risby-Rose didn’t come to the project with an orderly set of Pinterest boards. Her inspiration for the interiors came from an amalgamation of unlikely sources: Tom Ford’s film A Single Man; the set of a 1960s police station in the TV series Endeavour; a photograph of a row of houses in Spain. “My eldest son summed it up when he said: ‘It’s like taking a walk through my mum’s brain,’” she says.
For the main room – now known as “the arc” – Landells combined a garage, a section of the garden, a dilapidated conservatory and a purposeless room. From here, a set of stairs leads down into the basement, where there is a small but perfectly formed kitchen, a dining area and a capacious snug painted in green, terracotta, pink and yellow (that Spanish street scene). A second staircase leads up towards a formal drawing room.
“This is me trying to honour the age of the house by completely overstuffing the room,” Risby-Rose explains. It takes a good few minutes to absorb everything that’s going on. There are two types of wallpaper, a cerise sofa, pink ostrich plumes and strange objects on every surface. “It’s sort of taken on a bit of an LGBTQ+ flavour,” says Risby-Rose. Alexander McQueen and Oscar Wilde are honoured; a framed Grayson Perry scarf hangs above a velvet green sofa on a yellow wall. On a console table under a gilt mirror are two glass domes: George Michael’s belt is under one; Boy George’s hat is under the other.
Carrying on up the carpeted stairs and further into the mind of the owner, are four bedrooms. The first has been decorated “in the style of a gentleman’s club” (Risby-Rose has two grown-up sons). The second is a gothic guest bedroom that many visitors are too spooked to use (there are several stern Victorian portraits on the wall). The third room – known as Narnia – is positioned above what was a flat-roofed garage. It is reached via a three-quarter size door that has been papered over so that it is practically indistinguishable from the surrounding corridor walls. As you approach, a small wrought-iron lantern above the door flickers on.
On the top floor landing, a spectacular textile pendant hangs from the highest point of the house. (“I’d always, always coveted it, so I just closed my eyes and bought it,” Risby-Rose admits.) It illuminates a faux-rococo dressing table that displays a wide selection of perfumes – a suggestion of what is to come behind the next door…
Risby-Rose describes her gloriously over-the-top master bedroom as “Marie Antoinette’s Versailles when it was all starting to go a bit tits up”. Statement wallpaper creates the effect of distressed plasterwork and powder-pink and baby-blue textiles give the space its distinctly feminine feel. This is all thrown characteristically off-kilter by Risby-Rose’s collection of original photography, collage and vintage posters. “I’m a natural disrupter,” Risby-Rose admits. “If anything looks too matchy-matchy or symmetrical, I always try to put a spanner in the works. I just can’t bear anything to look too sorted, you know? Chaos is probably my order.”