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A Home with a History: a three-bedroom family home zippily redesigned to maximise space and speed

Bella and Rory Smith already had one little boy when they started the renovation of their Victorian townhouse in north-west London. And by the time it was finished – with moments to spare – they had another. The result is a house that works just as hard for the younger generation as it does for their style-savvy parents

Eve Delaney
Ellen Hancock
A Home with a History: a three-bedroom family home zippily redesigned to maximise space and speed

The way Bella and Rory Smith describe their lifestyle conjures up the image of a marathon runner hurtling past an electrolyte drink: grabbing as they go, barely time to stop, grateful for the fuel. And their house in Kensal Green, north-west London, is perfectly designed for that. It should be, since the couple took such pains to make sure it worked for them: the widened hallway for prams and bikes; the under-stair storage for tennis rackets and boots; cabinetry to hide the “baby paraphernalia sprawl”; rainy-day outfits in easy-access draws; meticulously rounded corners on the walls; the tucked-away utility room at the back of the house. It’s all been carefully considered so the couple and their two boisterous children can make the most of their busy, fun-filled days.

Having decided not to extend the house, Bella and Rory have instead made a relatively small footprint work extremely hard. While open-plan living has become a staple of modern families who no longer want to shut anyone in the kitchen or hide kids out of sight, this couple have found a happy middle ground that works for them. “I wanted to close off certain spaces but still have them visible,” explains Bella, who works in product strategy, pointing to the glazed pocket doors separating the dining and sitting rooms, sourced from Retrouvius, the reclamation specialists based around the corner on Harrow Road. “These mean we can have friends for lunch and watch the children playing in the sitting room while having privacy and calm.” She adds that she is a “frantic cooker”, who would prefer to have a little space around her ten-pot fury, rather than company. As such, the slight separation – and a corner – between dining table and kitchen allows for communication without spectacle.

When they started the project in 2022, another of Bella and Rory’s priorities was reinstating the original Victorian features that had been stripped out by a previous owner. Before the family moved in, the house needed a lot of love and care to restore the historical elements the neighbouring houses had, from architraves to cornicing, ceilings roses to fireplaces. The couple were aware they had their work cut out, but they also knew they had to get the foundations right. As Bella says, “I wanted to know I could turn the house upside down and nothing would fall out.”

“Certain aspects of a house are the backbone to your existence, day-in day-out,” she continues, “so they’re worth researching and getting right.” As such, Rory – a motoring journalist and communications specialist – trawled the internet and found Kim Meredew, an English Heritage-trained stoneworker based in Norfolk. Though Kim normally works on cathedrals, the couple cheerfully cajoled him into helping on their project. And help he did, carefully carving rosette-studded columns, a new stone frontage and sleek, sturdy fireplaces, all perfectly in keeping with the period.

With all that utilitarian thinking, it could be easy to forget about design. But Rory and Bella put aesthetics on a par with functionality. Of particular note in that regard are the walls’ corners, rounded not just to prevent a meeting of sharp edge and head (the boys dash around them, cartoon ‘zoom’ lines virtually visible behind them), but also because they’re elegant and stylish. The soft curves complement the gentle colour choices, which range from dusty blue to plaster pink, and cut against the more strident painted floorboards in the kitchen, the sitting room’s candy-striped sofa, chequerboard rug and the leaded glass of the pocket doors. This balance is indicative of that between usefulness and flair, hard and soft, that dances delicately throughout the house.

Bella also wanted ensure that personality was never compromised, hence the emphasis on a varied palette of textures and colours. “I wanted to incorporate lots, without it being too hectic,” she says, introducing us to interior designer Jo Mitton, her great friend, who helped with the project. It was Jo’s idea, for instance, to line some of the walls with tongue-and-groove panelling, bringing a bit of tactility while nodding to the age of the house. Upstairs, the bedrooms are all nests of colour, especially the children’s, where felt animal art and hand-painted high-gloss ceiling stripes create a vibrant circus-tent fantasy. No “boring cream ceilings and neutral rugs” here; instead, Bella’s given the boys a den that any kid would bound up to bed for. “We repainted the ceiling so many times,” she laughs, “but that’s the joy of paint. It can be changed as the family evolves.”

A lot of the colour choices can be drawn back to the couple’s art collection – personal and varied, it ranges from Matisse-esque oils by Bella’s mother to a Tracey Emin drawing. The works are complemented by the occasionally irreverent design choice, like the vintage inky-blue Thomas Crapper sink in the downstairs loo, which Bella hunted down on Facebook Marketplace and contrasts excellently with the tangerine-dream walls and bubbling black mirror of the small space.

The house is aspirational in its mix of maximum storage and maximum personality. But both the couple and Jo are keen to add that they didn’t have maximum budget or maximum time (Bella and Rory’s youngest son was threatening to arrive throughout the project). “Lots of similar houses here have been extended, but choosing not to do that saved us money and a huge amount of time, particularly in terms of planning,” Bella explains.

They also maintained the staircase placement and overall footprint, instead making some clever and simple moves like taking out the false ceiling in the kitchen to maximise the height. Bella is clear that you also don’t need to “compromise on style when trying to save money”. Antique hunting is her big tip, admitting that she can’t go on a walk with the boys without a quick traipse to Stirling & Sons, another local vintage furniture shop. “And remember,” she adds, “when you’re second-hand shopping, no price is final. There’s room for negotiation.”

Ultimately, she believes designing a house is “about working out what the ultimate priority is for you and working backwards from there. What do you most want and what can you compromise on, or get later?” Happily, Rory tells us, the decisions they’ve made here have are “already standing the test of time” – and busy family life. That, he says, is what makes for a sustainable model of living, where a home is restored with a focus on durability and resilience, before being bedizened with the things you love.

Further reading

Jo Mitton

Jo Mitton on Instagram

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