Brendan and Kristan Kelly wished to create a house with interiors that respected their family heirlooms while honoring their love of the chinoiserie style, a European imitation of Chinese motifs in decorative arts, furniture, and architecture that became a popular aesthetic during the 17th and 18th centuries.
They found the perfect match when they hired M. Lavender Interiors to take on the project.
Located in Wilmette, Illinois, a leafy suburb on Chicago’s North Shore, the 6,000-square-foot home had been constructed in 1914. After a remodeling that significantly expanded the property, the house now features five bedrooms, four bathrooms, and two half baths. The new design was completed in three phases, starting in 2018 and spanning more than three years.
Kristan especially loved the “Shanghai” wallpaper by Scalamandré, a prestigious fabric house founded in Italy that has counted the White House among its clients. The pattern shows ancient Chinese figures relaxing inside pavilions, observing animals playing, or carrying goods on their shoulders.
Mark Lavender, head of M. Lavender Interiors, said, “We used that as the inspiration for the rest of the home, building on those colors with an overlay of plaid and chinoiserie patterns to create the design.” Green, red, and variations of blue and white—like the iconic Chinese porcelain—are found throughout the furnishings and wall colors, while multicolored chinoiserie fabrics are used in the upholstery and pillows.
The wallcoverings, found in the foyer and part of the stairhall, make for lively spaces, with a backdrop of subdued supporting rooms. The furnishings have strong elements of English furniture styles to create a truly traditional home with an updated twist.
Kristan had several heirloom pieces in her collection that the design team drew upon for inspiration. For example, the living room sofa was her grandmother’s. The firm reupholstered it in a Brunschwig and Fils cut velvet fabric, and it became the anchor piece of the room. Other decorative items from her grandmother included old chair seats, which were recovered in a vibrant teal-colored fabric by Creations Metaphores that inspired the color scheme for the dining room, and a Grange dresser that had been in her family for years—placed in the principal bedroom.
Lavender said his favorite design element of the remodeled home, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, is the dining room, because of the deep, saturated color in the walls and a lovely floral fabric in the window treatments. From a comfort and use standpoint, the sitting room off the main entry is his favorite.
What are his favorite pieces of furniture? A club chair featuring a cream-colored fabric from Thibaut and a chinoiserie “Xian” pattern from Brunschwig and Fils, and plaid-covered ottomans in the lower-level recreation room.
The project did pose challenges. All five of the couple’s sons are athletic, with two playing college football on scholarships. Given the boys’ love of both playing and watching sports, M. Lavender Interiors installed three large televisions on one wall of the recreation room. The firm was tasked with designing the space around the screens and making sure all seated areas had good sightlines. Because the boys often entertain friends, the furniture had to be durable and flexible to move around to accommodate different activities.
Another positive attribute of the house is the “invisible addition” on the lower level of the house designed by the architect. From the front of the property, one isn’t able to tell that there’s a newly added primary suite, kitchen, sun porch, mudroom, and recreation room.
Lavender Interiors is led by Mark Lavender, an architecture graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Design. He worked for several years at two Chicago architectural firms before starting his own firm, which draws upon “Southern roots to create beautiful, inviting spaces that reflect your personal lifestyle and aesthetic,” according to the company website.
English gardens can be traced back to Roman times, around A.D. 43–410. Roman villas and palaces in Britain are the original examples; the most famous is Fishbourne Roman Palace, built in the first century A.D. and destroyed in A.D. 270.
The earliest elements of English gardens can be found at Fishbourne and other sites built around the same time. Fishbourne demonstrates the use of large rectangular lawns and the symmetrical planting of low hedges edged by gravel walkways.
There are few records from the years following the first century, and it wasn’t until the Middle Ages when gardens came back into fashion. Early monasteries had herb and kitchen gardens, and green spaces would usually center around a well or fountain. There were few, if any, other decorations; sometimes, a few benches might line a garden to allow for reflection or meditation.
1066–1485 Medieval Period
Early castles sometimes made room for small courtyard gardens with paths and raised flower beds, or herb gardens for medicinal and cooking needs. As castles became less common and manor houses grew in popularity during the medieval period, gardens were transformed into simple grass spaces enclosed by hedges or fencing.
A major change in English gardens occurred during the “Reformation,” when villages were constructed with common land between them to allow for grazing by deer and cattle. More formal gardens, lined with hedges and various flower beds, could be seen as visitors neared a landowner’s manor house.
By the 16th century, traditional formal gardens in England were influenced by Italian design. This design trend brought concepts, such as the mirroring of house alignment, that were used to create visual symmetry of lines and harmony of space, which had been missing from previous eras. Also missing since Roman times, statues and other artificial elements, such as fountains, were reintroduced to the design language. At the same time, the Tudors started using knot gardens, contributing their ideas to English garden design. Knots were patterns of lawn hedges, usually of boxwood, intended to be viewed from raised walks. The spaces between hedges were often filled with flowers, shrubs, or herbs.
During the latter part of the 16th century, French influence overtook formal garden inspirations. The French style is characterized by a broad avenue sweeping away from the house, framed by rectangular parterres made up of low, rigidly formal hedges. A parterre is a level space in a garden or yard occupied by ornamental arrangements of flower beds.
Around the 17th century, gardens saw another major change; where formality and control of the space had been the norm for several centuries, a more “natural” look began to be incorporated into garden designs. Lines were no longer straight, paths curved along the natural landscape, and parterres were replaced with grass. Trees were planted in more natural clusters, rather than in straight lines, and rounded lakes replaced the rectangular ponds of the earlier style. The garden became a space that joined the outside world, instead of a carefully manicured buffer zone.
In the final age of the early English garden, the Victorian period from the mid-1800s until the 20th century, gardens became masses of bedded plants. Complex designs and explosions of color were infused into the garden during this period of time, while the green spaces movement and the idea of public gardens introduced culture to the broader citizenry. Gardens were no longer limited to those who could afford them, they became accessible to all. Some of the best Victorian gardens are public spaces such as the “People’s Park” in Halifax, West Yorkshire, England.
Differences Between English, French Gardens
Why are we comparing English and French gardens? Mainly because it’s difficult to understand one without understanding the other. These two distinct and widely differing styles have influenced each other for hundreds of years. Both originated from the Roman villas that were built after Rome’s conquest of Britain in A.D. 43.
English gardens were meant to blend with the natural landscape, growing a little on the wild side and including romantic elements in the mix. Romantic elements, introduced in the 18th century, included ponds or small lakes with bridges or docks on the water, crafted ruins, and sculptures.
French gardens are also called formal gardens, and they’re exactly that—formal. They follow strict geometric lines. Plants are arranged to maintain geometric and symmetric layouts. In larger gardens, lanes or paths are built outward from the center, so visitors can stroll through each section.
English Gardens Today
Modern gardens are based on the cottage garden, in which the idea is to utilize as much outside space as possible to plant flowers while arranging climbing plants and trellises to add color to exterior walls—basically to fill the outdoor space with color and life. Arts and Crafts gardens, as they came to be known, combine structured layouts and architecture with more informal, natural-looking plantings. Designs include long borders with exuberant, colorful plantings and climbing plants.
English Gardens in America
Early American garden design was directly influenced by the Victorian-era English garden. It was also called the “modern style,” encompassing a more natural flow within the garden, imitating nature—unlike the French style, which consisted of geometric patterns with straight lines, attempting to supersede nature. A short quote from geographer Jedidiah Morse, published in 1789, describes how George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Fairfax County, Virginia, had a garden modeled after the English garden style:
On either wing is a thick grove of different, ﬂowering forest trees. Parallel with them, on the land side, are two spacious gardens, into which one is led by two serpentine gravel-walks, planted with weeping willows and shady shrubs. … A lofty portico, 96 feet in length, supported by eight pillars, has a pleasing effect when viewed from the water; and the tout ensemble the whole assemblage, of the green-house, school-house, offices and servants halls, when seen from the land side, bears a resemblance to a rural village—especially as the lands in that side are laid out somewhat in the form of English gardens, in meadows and grass grounds, ornamented with little copses, circular clumps and single trees.
—Jedidiah Morse, “The American Geography”
The history of the English garden is long and, from Roman to Italian and French influences, its development didn’t occur in isolation. English gardens have style and characteristics all their own that have inspired awe and wonder in the arts, even for well-known writers such as William Shakespeare. In “Richard II,” Shakespeare used the garden as a metaphor for politics:
Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks,
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight:
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.
There was also Robert Louis Stevenson, perhaps best known for his “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” who wrote a poem, “The Gardener,” about gardens and those who tend them.
He digs the flowers, green, red, and blue,
Nor wishes to be spoken to.
He digs the flowers and cuts the hay,
And never seems to want to play.
Silly gardener! summer goes,
And winter comes with pinching toes,
When in the garden bare and brown
You must lay your barrow down.
English gardens can be many things; they’ve gone from monastic, meditative, and herbal fixtures to sprawling examples of grandeur and nobility. In the present day, they’ve become natural and serene, colorful, dense, and intimate. The most important thing about English gardens, however, is that they’ve endured—and in enduring, they’ve given people the ability to interact with the beauty of nature that is all around them.
Gardens encourage us to interact with nature; by planting flowers, herbs, or trees, we can cultivate our personal outdoor spaces to suit our tastes and invigorate our senses.
Imagine standing in the entryway to the living room of a country cottage—rain streaming down the tiled windows, long drapes flowing to the floor—as a dog snores, curled up on his master’s lap in front of a crackling fire.
The interior design writer outlines fundamental characteristics of the style, and provides tips on how to emulate it. Whether you live in a grand mansion, a small cottage, or even a tiny studio, Shaw demonstrates that anyone can add some English flair to their living spaces.
Created in England, Popularized in America
The English style is commonly referred to as the English Country House style. It was established in the 1920’s as a way to embrace comfort while retaining traditional elements. While it stemmed from the UK, it was an American heiress residing in England by the name of Nancy Lancaster who popularized the look after purchasing the English interior decorating firm Colefax & Fowler in 1948. She worked with interior designer John Fowler on restoring and decorating her first estate: Haseley Court, a large country house in Oxfordshire, England. Working together for over 20 years, they eventually epitomized the look of the English style.
“She brought forward an element of domestic luxury to the large, 18th-century homes which she owned and decorated,” explained Shaw in an email interview.
For example, Lancaster pioneered the practice of installing ensuite bathrooms to guest rooms and comprehensive whole-house heating systems. With her seamless ability to mix furnishings of different styles and periods, she introduced informality and comfort to rooms that might otherwise have appeared intimidating.
“All Nancy’s homes were renowned for being as lovely to inhabit as they were beautiful. She set new standards of warmth and convenience,” said Shaw.
The style embraces the use of mismatched furniture, and exhibits a fondness toward ruggedness and patina. Lancaster believed that a little informality went a long way in the pursuit of comfort and relaxation.
The style has remained perennially popular all around the world due to it not following a strict set of principles, but rather, being open to interpretation and creativity on the decorator’s part.
Features of the English Style
“The most important component of English domestic comfort is the lack of perfection,” said Shaw.
The English style is “perfectly imperfect,” and is a representation of English modesty, she added. It lacks any pretentious qualities, and embraces the shabby chic aesthetic typical of a lived-in family home. Nancy Lancaster once said every room should have “something ugly.”
Family heirlooms are desired—no matter how worn—as they provide the necessary charm.
For example, an English-style sitting room would feature a soft, well-worn sofa with a distinct pattern, paired with a few vintage mismatched cushions.
A fond appreciation for time-worn furniture and personal possessions is another key feature of the English style.
“Signs of use, a little wear and tear, curtains that are faded at the edges, furniture rubbed to a sheen by generations of dusters and polish, floors that show the passage of feet—surfaces that reveal their history,” wrote Shaw.
As interior designer John Fowler once described, the English style embodies a sense of “pleasing decay.”
Patina represents authenticity and serves as a key reminder that the past is real.
“Antique furnishings are integral to this style of decorating, conveying a comfortable aura of continuity and tradition, and the impression that possessions have been slowly accrued,” she wrote in her book.
The weatheredness gives items character and life. By possessing a timeless piece, you respect and value the item for where it came from and the years of memories it holds, Shaw noted. Therefore, patina is an important feature of the style, and particularly cherished by the English in their homes.
Bringing the Garden Indoors
The English have a deep appreciation for gardens and the countryside. In the English home, this is often expressed through floral paintings, patterns, fabrics, wallpaper, or vases with freshly cut flowers displayed in rooms, Shaw said.
Mixing Furnishings From Different Styles and Periods
The English style favors mixing and matching furniture, making it easy to incorporate what you already own into the decor. It is also a very English trope, as England has always been a melting pot of cultures and styles. The style can combine “the old with the new, the plain with the fancy, the rough with the smooth, and also by using different fabrics from different countries, such as Chinese silk, African cloth, or embroidered suzanis from Central Asia,” Shaw wrote. Adding these elements to a room is like “pepping up a rich stew with a sprinkling of spices.”
Mixing up different period styles also provides contrast and adds interest to your living space. Too much antique furniture can make your room look like a museum, Shaw said. That’s why it’s important to strike a balance by introducing differing furniture, such as placing a wicker chair in a room filled with antique portraits. This addition brings a sense of approachability and homeliness to an otherwise overly grandiose room.
Consider adding “a modern lamp on an 18th-century console, a mid-century-modern table surrounded by 19th-century chapel chairs, or an antique patchwork quilt, hung on the wall behind a newly-upholstered bed head,” wrote Shaw.
The English style prides itself on creativity and character, so don’t be afraid to be a little eccentric and add your own individual flair, Shaw said. A true English-styled home “paints a true reflection of the tastes, enthusiasms, and way of life of its inhabitants,” she wrote in her book.
While the English style has its particular characteristics, it’s also incredibly flexible and open to interpretation. Favoring informality and creativity, it’s a style that can be universally appreciated and incorporated into any home.
Miles away from the ordinary, yet mere minutes from the glitz and glam Ibiza has become world-famous for, is a quaint hotel in a picturesque valley. Nestled amid sumptuous orchards and olive trees, Cas Gasi is a 19th-century Spanish country house that was transformed from private residence to luxury hotel more than two decades ago.
Its whitewashed exterior is surrounded by lush vegetation, while the interior is resplendent in warm hues, handpainted tilework, and Moroccan-inspired textiles. Known for its privacy as well as its proximity to the sparkling nightlife, Cas Gasi is a favorite of loyal visitors who return to the carefully curated 12-room property time and again.
“The original farmhouse is from 1880, and it belonged to the family whose name it still has, the Gasi family,” according to Cas Gasi Founder and Director Margaret von Korff. The main house contained five rooms, while adjoining structures included animal pens and spaces to store tools, carts, and carriages.
According to Balearic law, the eldest son of the Gasi family would become the primary recipient of the family’s inheritance, including the farmhouse. He eventually sold the property to a person from Mallorca, who later also wished to sell it—looking for someone who would not simply buy the home, but fall in love with it.
When von Korff and her husband, Luis Trigueros, entered the house for the first time, it was “love at first sight,” von Korff said. “Was it luck, or was it fate?” she thought. They bought the property, a traditional “finca”—literally meaning estate, a piece of land in the Spanish countryside, usually with a farmhouse or cottage—in 1989.
Von Korff described the house as being in relatively good condition at the time. Thick whitewashed stone walls protected it from both harsh hot and cold temperatures. Sabina beams held the flat roof, designed to collect rainwater and move it to a cistern. Small windows let in natural light. Yet the roof required restoration, and humidity presented a problem. Neither of its new owners, with two small children in tow, envisioned the home would become the Mediterranean getaway it is today; they initially thought of it only as a private home.
“To build anew is more difficult than to restore,” von Korff said. “The traditional elements and proportions were fundamental to keep the soul of the house. [It was a] partial restoration, lovingly guided … on a day-by-day basis, with the architect integrating their ideas and points of view.”
No effort was too great and no detail was too small, said von Korff, adding that the team wished to stick to the sober character of Spanish farmhouses and avoid fancy elements. Damaged beams were exchanged, yet the originals remained as “an important aesthetic element,” she said. The floors were renewed with handmade terracotta tiles and enhanced with floor heating beneath.
Orange groves and almond, fig, locust, and olive trees that were part of the original 9-acre farmland remained—the latter producing organic cold-pressed olive oil for the hotel’s restaurant. The couple also wanted to retain the existing harmony between the property and surrounding countryside, so they added rose orchards, vegetable plots, farm animals, and later, two swimming pools.
As the idea to build a hotel centered on agro-tourism was born, the goal became to share the beauty of Cas Gasi with travelers from around the world, yet maintain its authenticity, purposeful furnishings, and sustainability. Animal pens were converted into exquisite guest rooms. Gardens, a spa and yoga deck, and a restaurant were added in stages.
“It is easy to buy new; it is a statement to wear old,” said von Korff, who herself is well-traveled and has a keen eye for detail. “[I am a] strong supporter of everything which has stood the test of time, since it makes it more valuable. It has something to tell.”
To that end, von Korff filled the hotel with antiques from her family home, sourced by her parents from different European countries.
Eclectic pieces of furniture include those handcrafted by local artisans, and others collected via a sophisticated shopping scene among Ibiza’s auction houses and antiques shops. Personal touches are apparent throughout the hotel’s dozen rooms, including a thoughtfully stocked library, a kitchen that draws from the property’s vegetable gardens, and luxuries beyond the first glance, including feather pillows and luxurious linens.
Situated on a sunny hillside, von Korff said she wanted Cas Gasi to represent the idea of “farmers becoming hosts to visitors,” despite the shift toward bespoke accommodations that promise the perfect Mediterranean escape.
“We are ambassadors to the island’s culture and bounty,” she said.
To shop for patio furniture and furnishings inspired by Cas Gasi’s aesthetic, click here.