The English country house is one of the most enduring and celebrated styles in the interior design lexicon. This scheme is hard to pin down because it doesn’t follow a fixed set of rules. Nonetheless, its powerful influence is blatant at every turn - whether you are conscious of it or not.
The country house interior is full of paradoxes. It feels quintessentially English, yet an American developed the scheme. The country house style is far from limited to England and celebrates cultures all over the world. Even the term ‘country’ house is no longer defining. In our recent interview with Turner Pocock, the interior design duo observed that this style is now as sought after for decorating London townhouses as it is for country piles.
Country house rooms are vibrant yet refined. They are curated yet lawless. Spaces look beautiful, yet they are inviting and comfortable. These wonderfully juxtaposed layers define the English country house interior.
A new English style is born
Grand English interiors often feel as old as time, which is an integral part of their charm. It is one of this scheme's great ironies of this scheme, then, that the style was only formally realised in the early 20th Century. The new approach to interiors glorified an old rural golden age and was the culmination of interwar sentiment. The bare bones of the style date back further, of course, with Georgian interiors laying the foundations. The stage was already set, but we owe one American lady an enormous debt for bringing the country house style to the fore.
Nancy Lancaster and the Colefax effect
In the 1940s, an American heiress was busy forging valuable connections in Britain. Nancy Lancaster was a prolific socialite who felt such a strong affiliation with England that she renounced her American citizenship in 1948. It was in this same year that she bought Colefax & Fowler, London’s leading interior decorating studio at the time. Together with John Fowler, Nancy began to spread the country house style through English interiors.
Lancaster herself inherited several properties that she wanted to respectfully maintain but also move on to suit her own tastes. Her innate flair for interiors became obvious through her work on her homes, those of friends, and those of Colefax clients. Nancy seized old English tropes and injected fun and imagination into them. Design movement was one of her key principles. For her, it was important that a room felt lived in and had space to evolve. This timeless feel became absolutely integral to the country house look.
Nancy Lancaster was not the architect of the English country house style. In fact, there wasn't one. Rather, numerous factors contributed to the style's evolution over centuries. The heiress, however, was the major facilitator needed to bring the style to the fore. Her key contribution was making the English home comfortable. She brought American luxuries like carpeted floors and central heating to grand old mansions, without detracting from their authentic value.
Colefax & Fowler shot to new prominence under Lancaster’s direction. She and John were a design force to be reckoned with and the company’s reputation flourished. Colefax & Fowler decorated Chequers and the Audience Room at Buckingham Palace, to name a few iconic interiors.
Key ingredients in the country house style
This interior style does not abide by any fixed rules and celebrates individualism. However, a certain essence makes the scheme feel familiar and recognisable. Comfort and easy living are integral; not only should a country house interior appear lived in- it should also BE lived in. The result is inevitably slightly dishevelled which is very much part of the charm- something John Fowler called ‘pleasing decay.’ Perhaps the reason this approach to interiors remains so unerringly popular is its forgiving nature. The house should feel like a home as opposed to a showroom. Parties, children, and dogs are all welcome.
Pull up a seat
Classic deep-seated upholstery of the sort that rose to prominence in the 19th Century is front and centre of country house interiors. Antique frames from the Queen Anne, Georgian and Victorian periods still appeal today, often upgraded with fresh upholstery. More is more, and you needn't limit upholstery to living areas. A cosy armchair in the bedroom provides a classic country home feel. In general, a range of seating of all shapes and sizes is key to crafting a welcoming space.
Classic antique pieces are the bread and butter of an English country house interior. Commodes, chest furniture, large cabinets, and other such timeless pieces provide useful storage and a traditional look. Layering time periods is key, and antiques will take pride of place in any successful scheme to make it feel established. Indeed, inherited possessions were at the core of these interiors when they first emerged. Country house interiors shouldn't feel like a showhome where you have carefully planned and sourced. Acquire pieces that you love and when it comes to styling them mismatching will only add to their charm.
Bookcases often form the architecture of a country house living or drawing room. Whether it’s a majestic breakfront piece, built-in shelves, or a matching pair of low-lying cabinets, bookcases are indispensable for achieving this look. Besides providing a beautiful piece of furniture, having treasured books and collectables close at hand and on display gives the country house its lived-in look.
Embrace the quirky, niche, and eccentric
Certainly one of the best things about the English country house style is its room for personality and eccentricity. Nancy Lancaster herself saw this as crucial: 'One needs light and shade because if every piece is perfect the room becomes a museum and lifeless.' Indeed, the origins of country house style were in florals, chintz, and china. For some, these details now feel dated and passé. However this is an unapologetic style, and there is plenty of room for ‘Granny chic.’ We all have antiques or collectables that we love in spite of them being a bit ‘kitsch.’ Souvenirs from our travels, our grandparents’ silver, Staffordshire pottery, an old family portrait… this maximalist interior scheme embraces it all and is better for it.
Much of the success of this scheme is in the details. Whether it’s a ball and claw foot, a fabulous gilded frame with the red bole showing through, or the blue and white patterns of a ginger jar, these decorative and intriguing accents draw the eye and make a space feel exciting.
Colour and pattern
The English country house style is far from drab and dreary; it is actually often daring and eclectic. When Nancy Lancaster bought a set of rooms above Colefax & Fowler on London’s Avery Row in the 1950s, John Fowler encouraged her to paint the drawing room bright yellow. The famous ‘Yellow Room’ set the tone for grand living rooms and is far from dull. Floral fabrics, plentiful wall art, and opulent chandeliers all complement the yellow beautifully. Colour has always been at the heart of the English country house style and it is becoming even more prominent in today's interiors.
Statement antiques, upholstery, bright colours, and due prominence to books and collections. The final key ingredient in this scheme is textiles. Not only do they bring colour and pattern to rooms, but textiles also give the English country house its crucial homely feel.
Rugs, runners, and carpets are vital for rooms with wooden or stone floors. There’s an increasing urge to bring far-flung destinations into our homes at the moment and fabrics are a brilliant way to achieve this. Our collection includes Swedish flatweaves, beautiful kilims, and vast carpet rugs.
Bedrooms ought to be the most comfortable and welcoming spaces in the home. Soften a traditional four-poster bed with antique linens galore- maximalism is the only way with furnishings. Pillows, quilts, bedspreads, and throws will make a bedroom feel charming and loved. Blending plenty of materials helps to achieve the layered tapestry that typifies an English country interior.
Make the English country house style your own
Contemporary designers have grabbed the reigns of the English country house style and are steering it in a new direction. The essence of the style will likely stand forever, but it's sufficiently versatile to welcome new interpretations. These adaptations and variations on this scheme reflect the powerful appeal of country house interiors and the desire to make them work with modern requirements.
Those who wish to live a less cluttered life can pare this style back and go for fewer but just as impactful pieces. When styling a smaller house or apartment, colourful paint, gallery walls and sconces will bring character whilst saving space. However, don’t fear large statement pieces either because playing with scale can transform a space. When it comes to bringing colour and vibrancy, the outdoors is your untapped resource. Bringing foliage and flowers indoors has a transformative effect on an interior.
Whilst grand English houses may have provided the original canvas for this style, today it is achievable in pretty much any home. This versatility is a testament to the design ideals at the heart of the country house style. It encourages fun and colour, it mixes historical pieces with new influences, and it reflects our human nature to seek joy and comfort.
Get inspired with our lookbook, 'Life well lived.'