Leaving bustle of London for a Fifties house in the Buckinghamshire countryside has completely transformed Emma McMullen's life.
When Emma and Patrick McMullen moved into their 1950s house, they certainly didn’t expect to be picking up a paintbrush within a few months. ‘We’d spent the best part of the last nine years decorating our previous home from scratch. It took up most of our spare time and money, and totally wiped us out,’ explains Emma. ‘So when we spotted a recently renovated house for sale, we were planning to simply take up residence and start living a laid-back country life.’
In January 2013, the family moved from their Victorian property in south London to a large, four-bedroom, mid-20th-century home in Buckinghamshire. The house is surrounded by countryside, close to where Emma grew up and where her family still live. ‘Patrick and I both worked long hours in the capital and needed a change,’ explains Emma. ‘I decided to give up my job and be a full-time mum to Jemima and Finn, while Patrick would commute to London.’
The developer the McMullen’s bought the house from had totally renovated it, adding extensions at the front and rear and contemporary fittings in the kitchen and bathroom. ‘We loved that the property was an empty shell with space for the kids to play, as well as having a large garden,’ says Emma. ‘But after just a few months of living here, the place felt bland and soulless compared to our old home.’
The main problem Emma faced was how to add character to the boxy spaces. She began by tackling the large living room, which she considered a featureless area. She spent ages playing with the layout to try and make it feel snug, but nothing worked, until she hit upon the idea of putting in a wood burner. ‘As soon as we had the stove installed, it transformed the room,’ she recalls. Emma bought two comfortable sofas, which she positioned to encircle the fire. ‘This has now become our grown-up space, where Patrick and I can cuddle up together,’ she says. The living room has gone from being cold and unwelcoming to the cosiest space in the house.
After previously living in a Victorian house with high ceilings and dark wooden floors, Emma was keen to give this house a different style. ‘I wanted a place that felt clean and bright, and an interior that would still work with young children,’ she explains. ‘I think the layout, scheme and choice of furniture should reflect the type and age of a house as well as being family friendly.’
At the rear of the property, there were several small, separate rooms and Emma found it hard to work out how each one could be used. ‘We waited to see how the light moved around the house in the summer months before making a decision on what to do,’ she says. In August 2013, the couple called in a local builder to tear down a dividing wall, opening up the space at the back to create a large open-plan kitchen and dining area, plus a cosy snug for the family to relax in after dinner. In addition, two sets of double windows, opening out on to the garden, were installed. ‘We love having large groups of friends over for dinner parties or summer barbecues, as the layout works really well for entertaining,’ she adds.
The family then sold a treasured antique dining table to buy a lighter, reclaimed wood design instead. ‘We went for the biggest one we could find – over nine feet long,’ Emma says, ‘so we could fit a large group of people around it. Now adults and children can cook, eat and relax together while enjoying each other’s company.’
Over the next year, Emma decorated the entire house, painting walls in a soft, neutral palette. Once that was done, she realised she needed to create focal points. ‘As this house is relatively new, it doesn’t have any period details or much character, so I struggled to put a stamp on each room,’ she says. ‘My friend had a huge ornate mirror in her dining room and I loved how it added a statement to the space.’ Emma then went on a mission to track one down for herself, but when she failed to find something similar on the high street, she had an idea. ‘When I left my job, my former colleagues joked that I wasn’t the type to stay at home and do nothing,’ she recalls. ‘Within a year of giving up work, I had completely renovated the house and started my own online business, Mirrors by Ottilie [mirrorsbyottilie.com].’
Emma has become an expert on how to use mirrors to add interest and personality. Her home is filled with her latest finds, which feature mottled glass and ornate frames, and come in unusual shapes and generous sizes in contemporary and vintage styles. ‘I’ve also used mirrors around the house as substitutes for pictures or photographs, which can clutter up the walls,’ she says. ‘They make a space more welcoming, and my home has now become my showroom.’
Emma’s work-life balance has been restored thanks to her home, too. ‘Our move to the country has given me more time with the children, but I’m still using my brain,’ she adds. ‘Now I slot my work around the children as much as I can, because I don’t want to miss any more precious moments.’
Photography: Jonathan Jones