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We all think we know what the perfect country room should be like. A series of gentle images dances before our eyes in daydreaming moments. There is more urgency today in the longing for the realization of this idyll because of the rapidity with which unspoiled countryside is being eaten up by unsympathetic development. So we dream of the perfect retreat, far from the banalities of modern cares and anxieties, where we can attempt to live a more peaceful life.
There is no shortage of ideas on how to create the perfect country retreat; it is a rich seam of design, philosophy, and tradition that has been mined in every generation to produce a new interpretation. From the Roman villas on the Bay of Naples to the converted farmhouses of New England and the woodland cabins of today's romantic spirits, country interiors have tried to combine an atmosphere of informality with differing measures of comfort and the joys of life in the country.
In our own century the Arts and Crafts Movement represented a purposeful revisiting of rural building traditions, at the same time that cottages were being bought up by the middle classes and an appropriate country look was being sought to furnish them. Since then, these two directions have been strong themes in the history of country interiors. Although it is easy to laugh at the quaintness of supposedly appropriate rustic interiors of the 1920s, the subjectiveness of taste and the speed with which it changes makes this inevitable. In the 1950s and 1960s, a specifically English country house look evolved—influencing taste on both sides of the Atlantic—in which well-behaved arrangements of good furniture and pictures lookedquietly elegant in a sort of "Georgian" interior. The discipline of this look gradually relaxed its grip as more and more people began to grow confident about expressing their personalities in their interior decoration.
As a result of wider travel and greater access to all sorts of inspirational sources, there has been a tremendous appetite for country things in the last twenty years and in response country interiors have been decorated and redecorated a hundred times, with endless textile ranges being dedicated to the "country look," kitchen designs conceived around it, and furniture built for it. More recently, it seemed that the country cottage was in danger of disappearing in clouds of flowery fabrics and hedges of dried herbs. Between the cliches of traditional country interiors and the new country products being marketed, the vision of a simpler life seemed to have become blurred. The country cottage had become like the aged actress who wears so much rouge that it is impossible to make out the dear old features.
So things have begun to swing back the other way, and along the route new ideas have been incorporated in sparer country interiors. Most importantly, it is now the architecture of the house or converted barn or water tower that sets the pace, and its history, its setting, and its individuality are much more often the cue for the decoration of the interior than this or that "look." The dignity of the architecture is paramount however humble the building and whatever new building work is carried out. The personality of the owner expressed in the evidence of particular hobbies or interests and in collections of books or pictures is then threaded through the house to create a new and individual synthesis of ideas in the interior.
The new spareness is about restraint rather than minimalism, but as much as anything else it has a lightness of touch and a sense of humor. The weight of too many possessions, the clutter of china in a dresser, the padded-cell atmosphere of the overly upholstered country bedroom is gone and instead a less acquisitive attitude prevails. A more discerning eye arranges two or three pots on a shelf rather than twenty and enjoys, alongside antiques, the good honest design of all sorts of more recently made simple utensils that, in a light-hearted imitation of conventional display, are laid out for appreciation on the mantelpiece.
In playing with conventional notions of the country interior every twist and turn in its twentieth-century history is revisited. Associations and evocations of different looks and atmospheres are made deftly, with the sure touch of a stage manager. Sometimes the traditional arrangement of a room will be respected but the furniture will have been made for other rooms or other countries. Color schemes will be picked up by the oddest assortment of elements in a room rather than using a carefully coordinated matched-lampshade-and-curtain approach, and illusions of depth and flatness are created by painting furniture the same color as the walls. Objects themselves are juxtaposed to almost surreal effect, with polished surfaces next to rough-hewn masonry walls and humble things mixing happily with grander neighbors.
Above all, there is space in the new country interior, space to appreciate the wide floorboards of an old house or the soaring loftiness of the roof space in a new barn- house. The quirky tastes of the owner are advertised splendidly when an object or a piece of furniture is allowed to blossom in isolation rather than being overlooked in a jumbled arrangement of too many bits and pieces. Scruffy worn objects set against brand new paintwork accentuate their patina and celebrate their long and useful life.
The most versatile interiors are those converted from rural industrial or farm buildings. Unhampered by the small scale of cottage architecture, the bolder owner can create a gently whimsical or grandly theatrical interior. A grand country house drawing room is evoked in the spaciousness of a converted schoolhouse-if you raise your eyes above the picture lights you see the roof timbers, but at ground level the proportions are those of an eighteenth-century gentleman's residence. In an old garage a bedroom the size of an opera set might be splashed with acid colors in a quite different vision of a perfect country room.
At the extremes of the new country look are the most romantic and simplest of rooms, those where modern conveniences have been removed in order to enjoy the essential comforts of life with no distractions. Ever more imaginative homes are set up in woodland cabins and seaside huts, or in the modern version of a hermitage-a tree house far from the madding crowd. Natural materials are used and these spare interiors are peppered with little luxuries because the search for simplicity does not deny the need for small concessions to comfort.
Kitchens and Dining Rooms
Bedrooms and Bathrooms
Halls and Stairways
Author Biography: Emma-Louise O'Reilly grew up in the English countryside and has studied the coastal plantation houses of South Carolina. She has been writing on architecture, interior design, and land conservaton for more than 10 years and now writes regularly for Perspectives on Architecture. She lives in an 18th-century townhouse in London with her husband and son.