English Home Interiors: Classic Gentleman’s Decor
Have you ever wanted to feel like the lord of the manor? Classic English decor is an excellent source of inspiration for the aspiring gentleman, and while it has many distinctly masculine elements it is also uniquely suited for a family home with a variety of occupants.
Classic English interior design is a subject upon which many authors have spent hundreds of pages dissecting. It’s the subject of many glossy coffee table books for a reason – the style has timeless appeal. Given the close association with the British aristocracy as the source of original “gentlemen“, traditional English style will always have allure for modern men seeking a classic look in their homes. It’s suited to homes large and small, cozy and formal alike. Secondhand finds, worn edges, collections and bit of dust is all ok!
English Home Interiors: A Style to Suit Every Classic Gentleman
The main appeal of classic British interior design is its longevity. Nearly every style that’s come and gone in the last 500 years is still in use, even if it’s a bit worse for wear.
Ian Russell, the 13th Duke of Bedford, was renowned for his wit and had an insider’s view on English style. (We talked about him here.) In his The Duke of Bedford’s Book of Snobs (now unfortunately out of print), with Brits’ typical self-deprecation, he says that you may open your stately home to visitors, “as long as you permit them to look at old cobwebs and ramshackle furniture in uncleaned rooms”…
I’ve read that the English hate to buy furniture: they just get the needed piece in the attic, left there by an ancestor, and replace it. In general, the style is heavy, blended, and full of details with a distinct emphasis on classic, i.e. non-modern, design. It’s certainly not for the minimalist who doesn’t like collections or clutter, nor is it a modern aesthetic.
English Design Styles
Classic British design conjures images ranging from dark medieval rooms hung with tapestries and hunting trophies to bright formal sitting rooms dotted with high backed gilt chairs in shades of pale yellow and green. Homes decorated in a single style are equally as interesting as those that layer different types of style together. The beauty of the classic British aesthetic is that all these style elements can either remain pure or they can be mixed together.
Let’s take a look at some key elements that you can add to your home to recreate typical British interior design.
Classic Furniture Pieces
Chesterfield Leather Furniture
Some items are above any argument when we think of a proper gentleman’s home interior, such as the Chesterfield sofa and armchair. It is not a new item: the Oxford English Dictionary says that the word chesterfield was already in use in the 1800s to describe a leather couch.
As you may have imagined, its inventor was the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, Lord Phillip Dormer Stanhope (1694-1773). He was a politician, trendsetter, and writer (his book Letters to His Son on the Fine Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman is an amusing read for the aspiring gentry and may be found here). As such, he commanded a local craftsman a sofa that allowed a man to sit upright without wrinkling his clothes. It had deep buttoned upholstery and nailhead trim.
Some say that when he was about to die, he called his butler and ordered him to give his godson, a Mr. Dayrolles, a chair. He took the heavy chair home and his visitors admired the attractive and comfortable furniture, commissioning copies for themselves.
You may find the Chesterfield in its variations – seats with or without buttons, rolled or straight arms, in many colors, with fabric or leather covers. But the classic version – and the one that is more associated with English interiors – is the chocolate leather chesterfield. It gains an heirloom-quality wrinkled patina over time.
The best companions for it are vintage style sofa pillows, preferably with embroidered fabrics featuring hunting elements – dogs, horses, foxes, pheasants, etc. A brass floor lamp with green shade provides lighting with style.
Ralph Lauren – ever the anglophile – has explored the Chesterfield design in his furniture to the point of extending the studded trim to the drawer chest.
A Grandfather Clock
Few people realize that England has a long clockmaking tradition. An interesting book on the theme tells how John Harrison, an unschooled carpenter, solved the problem of precision in a ship, enabling England to pinpoint their maritime routes precisely. (You can find the book here.) A longcase clock will provide you with a comforting chime every hour and give your library an unmistakable Briddish look, connecting you to history.
By the way, the library would be one of the best places to put a grandfather or longcase clock, complete with Big Ben chime on the full hour. You may find them new or old on the web, many made in England.
Cards and Pool Tables
Every time you order a sandwich at your local burger spot, you should make a mental reverence to John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792). In 1762 (if you want details, it was November 3) he was playing cards – poker, some say – and he didn’t want to leave the table to eat. So he asked his footman for a piece of meat served between two slices of bread so as not to smear the cards and the fast food was invented.
This anecdote shows the importance of a good cards table in a gentleman’s house. But do not think for any moment that the flimsy, folding table will do. It must be a solid piece of furniture, au pair with the rest of the décor, preferably with special places for glasses.
The same applies to a pool table. You don’t have to order a five-digit behemoth table with ornaments that would make a Baroque church blush, but a nice vintage model with new felt and rubber edges will look great. (Do buy new cues and balls; these items are hard to refurbish and not so expensive when new.)
A heavily draped 4-poster bed was once a necessity to keep out the chilly night air in an English country home, and these days the style is still synonymous with the British design aesthetic. Metal and wood are classic choices.
Wicker Outdoor Furniture
So, an English house would have Persian rugs, for instance, as well as Indian wicker furniture, which looks especially nice on the veranda.
Design by Room
In my view, the library is the center, the heart of a gentleman’s sanctum in a house. It is there that he conducts his business, write, read, have meetings with associates or friends, or simply relaxes after a hard day’s work. Frankly, it’s a far classier version of the basement “man cave” that’s become so popular these days.
The English library may be seen in many movies or TV series, and Downton Abbey quickly comes to my mind as an example of the latter. The shelves and bookcases should follow the style of wall covering used near it, which is usually mahogany or oak. You may use glass-paneled doors in some cases to protect rare books or documents.
Yes, I know it is expensive, but if you have taken the time, effort and expenses to build a beautiful library, go a bit further and slowly, one by one, have your most beloved titles bound in leather: their value appreciates considerably. Try to focus your library on titles related to your favorite hobby or to your work/profession, or on an author, or on a subject. As most stamp collectors will tell you, it is virtually impossible to have a worldwide stamp collection.
I have a friend that collects watches and so his library is full of books on particular watch models or brands; also, it is there that he keeps a few tools to make small repairs or to polish his timepieces.
The desk should be one of the central pieces of the library, if not its most important item. The preferred wood for a desk used to be oak, which is a beautiful wood and develops a nice patina over time. Most desks have a central leather cover to make writing smoother.
Equip your desk with your modern computer and accessories, and decorate it with a bronze or resin statuette of Churchill, Nelson or another favorite historic character. (You may have hesitated when you thought of a Napoleon bust; after all, it’s an English style you are after. But you would have good company: the Old Bulldog himself had a Sèvres biscuit bust of Napoleon on his desk at Chartwell.) The contrast of old and new is interesting and gives your desk an atemporal look.
The Formal Dining Room
The formal dining room is an essential design space for classic British style. It’s the second most important gathering space in the house, and it should be designed to both showcase your style and keep your dinner guests comfortable. Emulate this style by choosing a statement chandelier for the center of the room, an elegant wood table, bold wall coverings, and a heavy gilt mirror.
A Proper Dressing Room
A walk-in closet is a luxury, and for an aristocratic gentleman, he had an entire room in his home specifically for the rituals of getting dressed. It certainly is extravagant, but we wouldn’t be true clothes horses if we didn’t dream of having a similar setup. The general idea, however, is to follow the general wall covering concepts we have talked about in the present article. Take a look at the beautiful closet in the picture above – well, actually, it is more like a dressing room – and you will get the idea. For some organizational inspiration, take a look at our past coverage of closets and wardrobe systems.
Well, actually it is an optional space, especially if you live in a dry city or area. If you don’t, cursing the fact that someone left the tap in the sky fully open every other day, this place may save you sermons from your significant other.
Wall Coverings, Décor, and Tabletop
The first wall covering that comes to any English style aficionado is the mahogany panel, of course. (I would say oak may be the second option.) According to the Britannica online encyclopedia, its extensive use began in the Gothic period, mostly in oak or pine. The same source states that mahogany, as well as walnut, birch, redwood, and others, were adopted in the 20th century.
Striped wallpaper in sober tones may also be used, as well as sanguine paint for a bolder statement: it enhances the pictures, such as in the image above.
By the way, pictures are an indissociable part of the English home décor. They may be portraits – if you happen to have ancestors or relatives painted by Gainsborough or John Singer Sargent, for instance, even better! –, paintings or engravings with maps, landscapes, naval themes, hunting scenes, horses, dogs, golf, etc.
Taxidermy makes a bold statement, and it certainly doesn’t suit everyone’s taste. That being said, adding a classic deer head or bird in flight to your walls will give your home a masculine touch of hunting-lodge style without going overboard. In fact, taxidermy can help soften the look of an overly formal room or make a feminine space seem more balanced.
Drapes, once necessary to keep out drafts, are now just a beautiful accent piece in a room. It can be a challenge to keep them looking fresh and modern, but they are absolutely a classic British style essential – blinds simply don’t match this aesthetic.
Who has the budget to buy silver samovars to produce the pitch-perfect tea? Or the time to polish Victorian candlesticks?
We are talking about a few tableware pieces to eat from, or even to entertain dinner guests. You can find affordable vintage silver forks and knives on eBay or similar websites. I had a friend at work who used the sterling silver tableware that belonged to his parents every day. When I asked him why, he said, “They used this set only twice in their long relationship. I decided I won’t do the same mistake, and so I take pleasure in eating with good, beautiful and solid tableware.” It made sense to me.
If you are willing to take the extra effort, have your initials engraved on them: they are a beautiful heirloom.
The gentleman’s English interior is easy to copy, and you can build it up in layers over time. And remember, you don’t have to spend too much to create it at home thanks to the Internet and all the auction and vintage websites. It is much cheaper to refurbish an item than buy the same piece brand new. What do you already do in your place to create an English feel?