A Private View: bucking trends and buying on a budget in an interior designer’s flat in south-east London
Interior designer Catherine Olley turned an overlooked flat in Dulwich into a vibrant and comfortable home for her family, which is currently for sale with Inigo. Easier said than done? Careful consideration is her trade secret – plus a bit of bargain-hunting
Catherine Olley is no dedicated follower of fashion – and she’s glad of it. “If anything,” the founder of Dauphine Interiors says, “trends put me off.” Looking round the flat she shares with her family in Dulwich, currently on the market with Inigo, one is reminded that if you’ve as much style as she does, there’s not so much need for fashion.
When she and her husband bought it, the flat was in need of a little TLC. The fruits of their subsequent labours look to have been achieved effortlessly, though Catherine laughs at the suggestion that it was entirely straightforward. “It’s hard being your own client!” Taking it room by room helped – as did Catherine’s incorrigible eBay habit – not least since, as first-time buyers, she and husband Alex were on something of a budget. Buying second-hand also allowed her to develop and mature her interiors over time. “The best homes are cultivated,” she says – and they don’t need to cost a fortune to do up, either. These are lessons she’s learned from her parents, whose additive approach to decoration has informed her own and which she now shares with Inigo, taking us on a virtual tour of her discerning digs.
“We bought this flat in 2018. We were recently married and had been renting in the area. We love it round here but we were on a tight budget, which was going to make things harder – especially since we were determined to find somewhere that had a proper dining area as well as a decent kitchen and separate sitting room. We either had to move further out of London, or we had to find a doer-upper. That’s how we happened on this place. We moved in and started work straight away.
“Thankfully, we didn’t need to do anything structural – though we have in the last year built our studio at the bottom of the garden. My husband, who runs a tech company, was working throughout the pandemic in our bedroom. By then we had a baby and a dog and it was sending him – well, all of us! – bananas, so it was pretty crucial we found some extra space. The guys who landscaped our gardens are also builders; they put it up for us.
“It’s clad in Siberian larch; inside it just has bare plaster on the walls and ceiling. That was a happy accident – we put the floors in before painting and it just looked so good that we had to leave it as it was. I love the texture it brings. It’s somehow more atmospheric than if it were painted in the same colour. That said, we’ve used a Farrow & Ball pink in the sitting room too, which I love.
“I know everyone says this, but I’m really not led by trends or fashion when it comes to decorating, so when it came to doing my own home, I just followed my gut, really, and tried to work out what would be best in the space we have. I’d say my biggest influence, though, is the house I grew up in. My parents bought a converted Baptist chapel about 40 years ago and the way they’ve worked on it over the years is amazing. They really instilled in me this sense that the best homes are cultivated – created over time. Moving into something that’s done up and ready was never an option for them – and it wasn’t for me either.
“We had to furnish this flat from scratch, and relatively quickly too, but almost all of it came from eBay. The dining room table was a real find. It was a dining table that then became a work table with the addition of a zinc top. It’s still got big drill holes in the top. When I saw that online I knew I had to have it. Buying at auction is wonderful, but I’m always finding things I think I can’t live without. I buy them – and then comes the challenge of working out what to do with them.
“I don’t think I could choose my favourite thing about this flat. Everything has its own appeal. The garden is a great size – and very low maintenance. The office at the end of it is just so peaceful. The kitchen, on the other hand, can take lots of people, which is fun. I love having space for a big dining table. I love entertaining and there’s so much space to cook, even while having people in the room, which is such a rarity in London. I even love the hallway, which is quite dark and small. I tried to capitalise on that when decorating it, creating drama rather than pretending it was light and bright. I used a really rich, bluey grey, which contrasts beautifully with the wooden floors.
“I’m so used to decorating for other people, but doing it for yourself is quite different. It was very liberating but it was also almost impossible to whittle things down. I had to take it room by room, as I think it would have been overwhelming to tackle it all in one go. Doing it on a micro scale like that is really helpful when you’re doing your own place, I think, and also when you have a budget like we had. We didn’t splash out on anything. It was a nice reminder that you don’t have to spend a fortune to make things nice – you just have to carefully consider them.”
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