Michelle Ogundehin needs little introduction; the editor of Elle Decoration for 13 years (from 2004) she is now a regular television presenter, creative consultant and is just finishing off her first book.
Notoriously private about her home, Michelle posts only corners of her rooms and has said she will never, ever, invite a magazine into her house to photograph it. So Sophie Robinson and I were both thrilled and privileged to be invited into her Brighton cottage for a full house tour and to chat about Michelle’s decorating philosophy for our podcast The Great Indoors. You can listen here.
We were allowed to take some pictures to illustrate the points we make in the podcast and Michelle has given permission for these to be used. Because, as she says: “This is my home. It’s not my work and it’s a very personal and private space. It’s a very intimate thing to invite someone in.”
On the day we arrive, the two basset hounds are out with the dog walker while Michelle’s young son is at school and Michelle has time to chat.
The double fronted cottage was built in 1821 and has the leaded windows and low ceilings associated with that period. Downstairs there is a hall with an L-shaped kitchen and living space fitted around it and a separate writing room with a sofa where Michelle meditates when she feels the “overwhelm”.
A dark herringbone parquet covers the whole downstairs floor. It came from Ecora and Michelle is unapologetic about how long it took to get the colour just right.
“Each piece was laid by hand – it’s not engineered wood – and I knew I wanted it dark. But not black. And not too brown. So it was a case of darker, darker, no that’s too dark. But now it’s too brown.
“I didn’t have a particular colour in mind I just knew how I wanted it to feel.”
The walls are painted in Arquerite by Little Greene, a soft greyish lilac that Michelle calls Bruised Purple. It was Brassica by Farrow & Ball but there was a drop too much pink in it and it had to go. It’s all about the details but when you spend time getting those details right it’s really worth it. Michelle’s home is warm, calm, comfortable and full of interesting things to look at.
The ceilings throughout are painted in full gloss Blackened by Farrow & Ball, while all the walls are eggshell. This soft sheen bounces the light around. In the dining room at the front the curtains are floor length velvet, in sitting room at the back they are dark to match the dark green wall. And there is Anaglypta wallpaper everywhere bringing texture to the spaces while a foxed mirror wallpaper lines the back of some shelves.
“The walls are your biggest palette” says Michelle. “That’s where you can play and it’s such a shame when it’s all one plain flat colour.”
A self-confessed “tinkerer” who was inspired by Sir John Soanes, Michelle points to an inch wide mustard coloured stripe that runs along the top of the dado rail and under the bottom of the shelves that is only visible if you are sitting down.
“I was sitting at the dining table one day and noticed it and just thought I wonder what it would feel like if I painted it,” she says.
But there is method to her tinkering because the ceiling at the back of kitchen is painted the same. And there is a gold velvet sofa in her writing room.
The key is that it all comes down to the palette. You can do what you like in a space as long as you have worked out your palette. And that includes not just the colours but the materials as well – from marble and wood to metals (two only can be mixed) and every single detail.
Once you have worked out your palette then you can take it throughout the whole house using it in different concentrations in different spaces. Get this right and the whole thing will flow. And you will create the feeling that you need from your home which, in Michelle’s case is one of calm and retreat.
With her son’s drawings covering every wall and the two large dog beds in the kitchen, this is clearly a family home albeit one that has been meticulously planned. The hall is clutter free; coats live in the cupboard under the stairs, shoes are tucked into the living room because it’s crucial, for Michelle, that she walks back into a clear and calm space.
Another of her tricks is to have lots of built-in furniture. This is mostly made up of Ikea kitchen units that are bolted to wall and “float” over the floor. Yes there is the old trick of seeing more floor space, and this is not a huge house so that matters, but also because she wants to keep everything tidy and in its place. The cupboards have Superfront doors on and Michelle has added marble, left over from the bathroom, to the top to make them feel more luxurious and “like a sideboard”.
Currently she is pondering replacing the grey Ikea kitchen doors with brass. And no this doesn’t mean a change of taps because her two metals of choice are brass and stainless steel. And within those two colours you can vary the finish to include polished, matt, shiny and dull but you must only have those two colours.
If you want brass and copper that’s fine too because those are your two, but make sure it’s consistent throughout or you will break that feeling of coherence and calm that is the key to creating a home that will soothe your soul.
“You want it to feel effortless but that takes a lot of work. Do it slowly and think it through.”
To that end Michelle also recommends a good declutter. “It’s not about Marie Kondo sparking joy. I am into stuff. Stuff is the talisman of our lives and tells our story but everything in this house has meaning for me. Either it does a good job [she is referring to her spatulas] or it was given to me or bought for a reason.”
Once you have found a house with good bones (to save lots of knocking about) and decluttered you work out your own palette. And there are 28 steps to getting this right, all of which will be detailed in the book, which is out next summer.
Then you look at the zones and the difference between public and private spaces. And you consider each wall. It’s not just about painting it in one colour and leaving it at that. Hence the Anaglypta.
It’s about considering how you will dress that window on that wall, and then relating it to the wall next to it – perhaps with pictures you choose to hang on it and then considering the shelves on the wall next to that and so on round the room.
It’s worth noting that the television is a Samsung Frame which looks like a painting until it’s turned on. It has a white frame, as do the two pictures hanging either side so that unless it’s on, it simply looks like a wall of art. These are the sorts of details that look effortless but cost time and money to get right.
Spend time thinking about it and considering every detail, says Michelle before adding that a house is never finished because your story isn’t finished so that doesn’t mean you can’t change things and add things.
When we visit the back wall is dark green but Michelle admits that, two or three paint colours in, she’s not entirely sure about it and it may change again.
Upstairs, the most private of spaces in which I take only one photograph, the calming colour palette continues. Soft sagey greens, dusky pink and lilac tones dominate with more of the marble from downstairs in the wall white bathroom. This bathroom has floor length grey velvet curtains which look stunning and soften the acoustics in there. Given that the room is well ventilated, there’s a window after all, there’s no reason not to have curtains in a bathroom and it’s an idea that has been swooping around in my own head ever since as my own north-facing bathroom is also large and echoey.
But it’s the tiled headboard that I love most. The dark lavender tiles from H E Smith, who used to make tiles for the London Underground, have been built out from the wall to create a narrow shelf for photos while there are sockets built in too for a bedside light. The same thing has been created in white in the bathroom behind the basins. It’s simple and clever and effective.
And that sums up Michelle’s philosophy. Interestingly when we asked what her personal design crime was she insisted, at first that there was no such thing. That if you decorate your home according to what works for you and stick to your palette then there are no crimes.
Except that in itself reveals the crime; be consistent and don’t be random. If you want leopard print and neon colours that is fine, but make sure there is an element of that in every room. And just double check that that explosion of colour and print makes you feel the way you want to feel in your home.
You will be able to learn more about this when Michelle’s book comes out next year. The title hasn’t been finalised yet but I will keep you posted.
With grateful thanks as ever to our sponsors John Lewis & Partners and to Kate Taylor for producing the show. It’s exactly one year since we first aired and we thank you all too for listening every fortnight.