Casual Elegance Makes a Country Home

Furnishings should look as if they found their way into your house by accident, says author

Jenny Gibbs has a talent for taking the historical perspective of an interior and showing how it can bloom in the present day.

As a design historian and founder of the KLC School of Interior Design in London, Ms. Gibbs has just come out with a new book, "Country House: Classic Style for an Elegant Home" (Sterling, $40).

At first glance, the book's photographs featuring elegant settings may seem appropriate for only those who could afford the best. But a reader need only dig into Gibbs's text to find that such beauty can easily translate into inspiration for the same effect: lovely surroundings.

Gibbs was in Boston recently to give a talk on English Country design at the Boston Architectural Center.

Revealing the historical development of the country style proved enlightening as she noted the influences of politics, travel, lifestyle, and even technology in centuries past. (The first indoor plumbing was more expensive than having servants carry hot water to your bath, for example.)

The reason country-home style is so popular is its unique blend of elegance and a kind of informality, Gibbs says. Not a great deal has changed, either.

"The style reflects the desire to bring the outside in - it's very much inspired by nature."

Which is why the interiors of the most dignified stately homes can translate to even the smallest city apartment. One can gather ideas from grand sitting rooms, kitchens, and studies, and adapt designs - from window treatments and wallpaper to furnishings and floor coverings.

In her book, Gibbs writes, "Part of the charm of the archetypal country house is that the furnishings look as though they have found their way there by accident. This is because furniture and ornaments from a variety of periods have been lovingly collected and handed down through the generations.

"Colours and patterns do not necessarily match or even co-ordinate, yet they form a subtle and harmonious whole. Combinations are sometimes distinctly odd - but they work."

As she showed in her slide presentation, an eating area off the kitchen in the home of pop star Sting and his wife, documentary filmmaker Trudie Styler, illustrates this with its stenciled beams, long oak table, Windsor chairs, and ornate candelabras.

A kitchen can still look very "country" when high-tech amenities are imaginatively blended in. Gibbs notes, "A country house style kitchen has clean, unfussy lines, and as it is expensive to equip properly, it should be planned to last...."

In a brief interview after her talk, Gibbs noted a few trends in today's interior-design world.

"Design has gotten simpler and less cluttered," she says.

"The result of this is it has to be of much more quality. It's not minimalism - comfort is still of prime importance - but people feel freer to be more experimental. I feel very positive about it.

"For example, people are experimenting with more color, possibly as a reaction to having too much white. We have such myriad choices."

Another trend she sees is less use of fabric. "Fabric used to be used a lot; it covered a multitude of sins, but now it's less so," she says.

Recently she helped her daughter set up a flat in London. They ordered a lot of home furnishings and merchandise by catalog. "It's all there. I'm quite keen to persuade [people to consider catalogs].

And the apartment? "It turned out quite grand."

Over the last decade of writing columns and books and lecturing, she has found that the general public has grown increasingly interested in the below-the-surface side of interior design.

Witness the popularity of cable TV shows, books, magazines, and seminars. From ceramic tiling to the mechanics of fixtures, people seem just as interested in "how-to" as the end product.

Says Gibbs: "They really want to get to grips with the grittier side of design."

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