I spoke to interior designer Octavia Dickinson about how to style a family home. Compelled by her guiding philosophy that “a home should reflect its owner and that it should therefore be entirely unique”, I was looking forward to hearing more. As soon as we started talking I knew it was going to be a great conversation. Octavia talked about how to achieve her distinctive ‘countryside home’ style, we discussed how to find tasteful toys for children, and, of course, I wanted to know where interior designers go shopping (hopeful that there was a trade secret that could instantly make my home far more stylish).
You’re not here for this though, so I’ll get straight into the interior design talk.
How would you describe your style?
It’s definitely a mix of eras, including quite a lot from the Colefax & Fowler part of the 1950s and 60s. I bring in lots of traditional British florals and combine them with textures that I really love. To make it feel more contemporary I mix these fabrics with more modern furniture and fresh colours.
I love using old, traditional fabrics with floral designs from Colefax and Bennison which can look quite contemporary in the right setting. Unfortunately, some of the most beautiful classic designs have been discontinued which I am always surprised about and often have a rant to myself about!
You’re mixing it all up, some pattern here, some trims and fringes there.
Flora Soames (who I used to work for) has a new collection. The fabrics are based on antique textiles so they have a traditional feel, which I really like when upholstering a modern piece of furniture. I like the unexpected, mixing up different materials, styles, colours, textures. I think Robert Kime is incredibly talented at bringing together pieces from all over the world and from different periods.
I don’t go into a room and think “I’m going to make this look 1970’s traditional English”. It’s a mixture of lots of things, a real amalgamation I suppose.
How do you make a country home vibe in the city?
I go about it by filling the space with a lot of things (furniture and accessories) and large, heavy curtains. And mixing lots of different patterns, colours and textures togther. It’s not just filling a room with a single style, such as English traditional wooden furniture. You’re trying to bring some life into the space, some pattern here, some trims and fringes there.
Where do you find everything you use in your design?
There are now so many independent brands out there creating beautiful things. I am constantly bumping into new designers often through Instagram or in interior magazines. Then there is the Design Centre in Chelsea Harbour which is an interiors shopping centre where many of the more established brands have showrooms, and this can be incredibly helpful if you need to see a lot of fabrics in the flesh.
Where do you get inspiration from?
Anything and everything. Magazines, other people’s homes, interiors books, I have a continuously expanding collection of old interior books such as John Fowler: Prince of Decorators and traditional curtain making books from the 80’s which have fabulous designs in them. Inspiration can come from anywhere, from walking into a restaurant to wandering around a garden (during lockdown my parents garden inspired me).
You work with artists and designers on lots of bespoke pieces. How does that relationship work?
I love working with artists and designers because you’re creating something totally unique and creative and it doesn’t have to be hugely expensive either.
I tend to find things I like, play around with them, then get bespoke versions made. I often see an antique I love but it might not be quite right for what I am looking for. For example, I saw a pair of side tables in an antiques shop in Tetbury that were really beautiful, but I needed a console table. So I found a wonderful furniture maker who could convert this design into the size I needed.
I collaborate a lot with artists too. I had a TV cabinet made to hide my TV, and commissioned an artist to create the artwork for the front. I also work with mural painters like Tessa Newal, and Flora Roberts who are both incredibly talented.
Artists are realising that there are other outlets to reach people with their work, for example through painting chairs or lampshades that people can afford and fall in love with.
Can you share a bit about how you’d design a family home?
I like a child’s bedroom to have a timeless feel to it. You don’t want to put up Winnie the Pooh wallpaper that you then have to rip down in a couple of years. I love using wallpaper in children’s bedrooms, often quite small prints that can be paired with beautiful curtains which even when they are older the child will love. I use accessories and artwork to make it a bit more childlike. In my son's room I have a wonderful blue wallpaper from Penny Morrison on the wall and a Robert Kime peapod sheer for the curtains, which are both quite grown up, but surrounded by all of his toys and animal prints, looks really sweet.
You want something colourful but also charming
I like to treat a child’s room as I would any other room in a house; make the room totally unique by adding in antiques. For example, you can source some pretty antique shelves, paint them and put some children’s books on them. Or you could find artworks of animals. Or plates - I’m a big hanger of plates on walls! I found a really sweet series of alphabet plates in Anthropologie for £10.
For some of my projects I’ll add a touch of childlike fun. For one of them, I worked with artist Tessa Newall on an enchanted forest ceiling with stars. In another room I matched the bright colours that the child chose with an Ottoline fabric for the blind. Ottoline do some really fun, playful, colourful designs.
What are your favourite things in your own child’s room?
During lockdown I painted a chair for our son. I’ve always loved these particular rush seat chairs but it's really hard to get hold of them. Then a few years ago I managed to find a woman making the chairs, all primed in white ready to paint, so I ordered quite a few. I’ve now painted six of them for nieces and godchildren.
At the start of lockdown I painted a floral spring one for my niece. For my son, autumnal trees and nuts. It’s far too laborious and stressful so I think I may have painted my last one!
There’s this beautiful trunk in his room as well, it's marquetry, kind of geometric. My husband found it before my son was born. His room is tiny but we’ve still managed to fill it with some antique furniture - this really sweet green painted shelf from my last flat, and a sweet Victorian nursery chair I had upholstered with a fabric my cousin had made in India.
Any recommendations for anyone preparing their baby’s nursery and looking for some lovely items?
Flensted make these lovely hot air balloon and aeroplane mobiles. I hate things that are too brightly coloured and made from plastic but these are designed beautifully and are a cheap and easy was to bring some colour and fun into a child’s room – they also can keep them occupied for hours!
Children love bright things made from plastic. How do you resist them?
I try to find old fashioned toys. Escor, who have sadly closed down, made these wonderful wooden toys. You can find old ones on Ebay and if they need a little repair you can repaint them.
If you can find what you like, you can always make it a bit more bespoke
I’m not the most sustainable person but I am trying! I don’t like buying things that will be chucked away in a year or so. Brio is the best thing in the world. I love playing with it with my son and I’ve just found a lot of bridges on Ebay which I’ve just bought him for Christmas.
The old things are the best. I remember playing with my mum’s barbies when we were younger. My sister has just got out her old dolls house for her daughter, and my best friend has bought a second-hand wooden dolls house which we are going to wallpaper together for her daughter.
I suppose it’s just like my work with furniture – if you can’t find what you want, try and find something similar and then work your magic to make it unique
Photos by Harry Crowder