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A Home with a History: embracing a slower approach to decoration at interior designer Carlos Garcia’s 17th-century manor house in Norfolk

Inigo pays a visit to the Norfolk home of Spanish interior designer Carlos Garcia to discover the joy of rural living

George Upton
Chris Horwood
A Home with a History: embracing a slower approach to decoration at interior designer Carlos Garcia’s 17th-century manor house in Norfolk

When interior designer Carlos Garcia and his husband, Michael Newman, found their charming, 17th-century manor house in Norfolk a few years ago, they only ever intended it to be a country retreat, a place to escape to and from London on the weekends. Then came the pandemic; the couple, seeking refuge in Norfolk, discovered something of a taste for rural life.

Now Carlos, Michael, and their two whippets spend most of their time at the house. For Carlos, the slower pace of life in the country has encouraged a slower approach to design. After peeling back layers of history in the house, Carlos has built up each room gradually; the unhurried experimentation with layout and decoration resulting in a series of spaces that appear to have evolved over decades rather than years. From vibrant Eastern textiles paired with muted grey walls to antiques sourced from local markets and Delft pottery, it all feels comfortable, settled.

Here Carlos shares how he came to discover the appeal of a slower, more contemplative approach to life and design.

Carlos: “My husband and I have lived in the same place in London for more than 18 years but we decided we wanted a house in the country at some point. I had been looking for a while when I came across this manor house in Norfolk. The previous two times that we went to Norfolk we ended up stuck behind a tractor but I managed to convince Michael that we should go take a look at it.

“When we opened the door, I was mesmerised. It was not at all what I would have originally envisaged – I probably would have gone with something more proportionally balanced, more Georgian – but it had bucketloads of charm. It was completely empty but you could see this wonderful history in all the very gentle interventions that had been made through the centuries. There was an enormous potential for it to be a beautiful home again by making only a few subtle changes.

“Structurally, we didn’t have to do much. The house had been built in 1635 and was probably still a proper, working farm right up until the end of the 19th century. It is a particularly long and narrow building, which is typical of the architectural vernacular of East Anglia. With the exception of a little extension at the back that dates from the early 20th century, it is only one room deep, which works really well. As you look through the house there is an enfilade, where you can see the perspective of one room after the other. It’s one of the many features that is surprisingly grand for a house of this type.

“The only wall that doesn’t fit into this perspective is in what used to be the hall, where there was a partition wall that was added later. The door is a little bit out from the others but that’s part of the charm, as is the original panelling from many different periods.

“We opened some fireplaces up that had been covered and installed a new bathroom, but otherwise, the only major work we did was unearthing the original 17th-century flooring in the entrance hall. We discovered this amazing hexagonal stone pattern with smaller hexagonal inserts in terracotta under 10cm of concrete. It’s absolutely beautiful.

“We were really starting with a blank canvas; most of the work that we did in the house was the decoration. I was very clear from the beginning, though, that I didn’t want the house to look like I had decorated it in one go. I wanted the design to feel as if it had settled into the house, as if it belonged there.

“That’s what’s wonderful about being in the countryside; I could really take my time and embrace a slower approach to decoration. We reassessed how we used some of the rooms – we moved the living room to where the dining room is, for example, because it’s at the end of the house – and we could also see what suited being where. I started with the wall colour and then built the rooms in layers from there. It was a really thoughtful process.

“I’ve always found that it’s important to get to know the house you’re decorating, as it gives you some degree of guidance as to which direction to go in. But it’s important for it not to feel like a museum – this house might have been built in the 17th century, but we live in the 21st. There are certain rooms where you can be reminded of that history, like the dining room and the entrance hall, but they need to be comfortable as well, especially the living room and the bedrooms. You have to balance preserving the idiosyncrasies of the house with making it habitable and adapting it to fit the way you want to live. After all, that’s what interior design is for: improving people’s lives.

“Throughout the house, I’ve tried to use local tradesmen and artisans, whether that’s for the tiles for the fireplace or the upholstery. Often they were only a few miles away but I’ve gone on to use them for jobs that I’ve worked on throughout the country. I didn’t set out to use a particular Edward Bulmer paint or Robert Kime fabric, it was just a case of seeing what suited the room and the mood I wanted to capture.

“In London, we live in a loft-style apartment – there are concrete ceilings and it’s very open. It’s completely different to being in Norfolk and I like to have that dichotomy. Somehow, though, I feel more comfortable out here, surrounded by all this history. It grounds you, knowing that whatever happens, you’re now part of a story that stretches back 400 years, and will continue after you. You feel like you are part of something bigger than yourself.

“The pace of life changes here as well. You do much more outside, of course, but also the way you entertain is different. In London, you tend to go to restaurants more, whereas here it’s much more about bringing people into your home. It’s what I love about living in the country, that relaxed and personal approach.

“I’ve now been working in interiors for 15 years. Working on this house has helped me to develop a slower and more personal way of designing for my clients.”

Further reading

Carlos Garcia Interiors

Carlos Garcia on Instagram

The Story of a Norfolk Farm, Henry Williamson via AbeBooks

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