Inside Abigail Ahern’s House

Nothing can quite prepare you for a visit to Abigail Ahern’s house. As you walk up this hilly residential street in Hackney your eyes are drawn to one Victorian villa which stands apart in a sea of white stonework. For this house is black.

On Saturday I was fortunate enough to attend one of Abigail’s master classes and was taken on a blissful journey into disorientation and drama, an adventure of delight and wonder that begins before you even reach the front steps.

There are plenty of images of Abigail’s house on the internet, most notably on The Selby, but as accomplished as these photographs are they do little to convey the incredible impact this house has on all of your senses from the minute you cross the inky threshold. I did of course take eleventy seven photos of the house but Abigail asked us not to post them as she’s having the house photographed again soon for her new book. So I’m afraid this is a rather wordy post (you can see old photos from the Selby here but the house has evolved since then).

I have never been to Sir John Soane’s museum (a shameful admission, I know) but I imagine it creates a similar impression on its visitors. As a testament to Abigail’s doctrine of not neglecting hallways and transitional spaces, the tone is set as soon as you walk through the door. I felt like I’d fallen down the rabbit hole and drunk from a bottle labelled ‘drink me’. The play on scale is surprisingly confusing but has a pleasingly odd effect. I felt oversized and Lilliputian all at the same time.

The darkness inside creates a cocoon of warmth and it made me feel a bit like a badger returning to its cosy set after a tumultuous night out in the winds of the wild. The colours create a sumptuous and inviting environment, I wanted to lie down everywhere and fall asleep but strangely at the same time I felt invigorated and alive.

The most surprising thing about the enveloping darkness is the profound effect it has on the display of nature. Even taking into account the glorious weather and the fact we are in early summer, the dark window frames make the greens of the gardens more vibrant and the colours of the flowers more intense. The garden felt larger and the plants move abundant and fecund, the outside was encroaching and welcoming. I resolved never to paint a window frame white again.

My favourite room was Abigail’s bathroom, painted in Farrow & Ball’s London clay. This beautiful dark taupey-brown provides a surprising foil for the ubiquitous natural and imitation stone tiles found in bathrooms all over the world. It warms up and enriches the in a way I’ve never seen before and the brings out the beauty of this often mis-used medium. Abigail’s bathroom has the decadence of a bathing suite in a Sultan’s place and there was something about it that made me very reluctant to leave. I don’t think I could ever paint a bathroom white again after being in there. Dark, cosy bathrooms are perhaps the last word in luxury and indulgence.

I also loved the kitchen, with the walls painted unconventionally in a deep grey and cabinets of the darkest navy. I’m not a fan of sleek white kitchens anyway and this room was somewhere I wanted to sit for hours and flick through the cookbooks stacked on the island and drink coffee out of a tisane. With Moroccan rugs on the polished concrete floor and exposed brickwork, it is an evening kitchen, somewhere to hang out with friends and pick at food all night long. It is so much more than a functional place in which to prepare food.

Abigail’s style is by her own admission quite masculine, more than mine certainly, and her home beautifully illustrates the point that dark walls make everything look better. Colours ping and textures seem more sumptuous. Everything seems better co-ordinated and detail becomes king.

There is something slightly impersonal about Abigail’s house if I’m honest. Much of the paraphernalia of life is missing, the handbags thrown on chairs and the shoes in hallways, there are no photographs, none of those things that we all have lying around. There is no television. Of course Abigail’s house is essentially her showcase and so it has to be kept looking professional at all times but I got the impression that it would be like that regardless. This is definitely the house of someone who is tirelessly dedicated to her mission.

When I left the house I felt a little glum, the rest of the street just looked disappointing. In the way you can feel when you exit a beautiful art gallery and the world outside looks pedestrian in comparison. I spent the evening reading shelter magazines and I was surprised at how uniform and conformist all the interiors appeared to me. I found nothing that displayed imagination – instead there were pages and pages of ordinary white interiors with obvious and predicable arrangements.

When I returned to our flat I wanted to throw out everything I owned (and everything of Richard’s too) as it all seemed so boring and uninteresting. I’ve got over that now, I’ve fallen back in love with (some of) my stuff. But I’m not sure I will ever quite get over that extraordinary house.

I’ve been on the path to the dark side for a while now, since a study of low-key paintings by old masters on the exposure module of a photography course last year made me see things differently. I’m not quite there yet, for me there are some hurdles to cross. I don’t really like that all the lights needed to be on on a blisteringly hot day like Saturday and I’m not sure that my preferred colour palettes of mid tones would work against the dark backdrops. But I know that I am one step further forwards to embracing it fully. Tomorrow I will write about the master class itself. But for today, some questions. Do you like Abigail’s aesthetic? Have you been to her house and what were your impressions of it?

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  1. Annie so glad you got to go. It’s a dramatic space for sure but the lack of storage would kill me!

    However your admission about never having gone to the Sir John Soane’s museum is shocking. You will love it, its amazing. You need to do a trip in daytime and another at night – it changes so much.
    tsk tsk tsk we’re going to have to rectify this
    Mary Middleton Design (@Peagreen98) recently posted..Wednesday Wants {a trip to New Zealand}My Profile

  2. Can’t wait to hear more about the masterclass Annie! I love looking at dark interiors, but somehow I feel that no matter how fabulous it looks, I wouldn’t want to be surrounded by it all the time – and certainly not need to keep lights on at all times and in all seasons. I personally would keep it to occasional rooms, such as a study, a guest bedroom, etc., and ensure there’s a connection between the darnkness there and the rest of the house. Dark decor is a growing trend in kids interiors too, but I would personally prefer for my child to grow up with lightness. That said, Abigail’s “Girls Guide to Decorating” is a fab book for teenage girls looking for moody room make-over inspiration.

    PS – congrats on the new blog look! x
    ursula (room to bloom) recently room: ireneMy Profile

    • Thanks Ursula. Interesting that it’s crossing over into children’s rooms too isn’t it? Not a natural leaning I guess?

  3. Soane’s museum is fantastic – you have to visit! I remember the guided tour being v good (I think that only happens on Saturdays). Keep meaning to go back one evening to see it lit up by candlelight.
    Sui recently posted..Chelsea Flower Show 2012My Profile

    • I know I know I know! Sounds like I’m going to have to go now (and post about it naturally). So envious of your New York trip, you look like you’ve had the best time!

  4. Great post and love the new look too Annie.m I’m really looking forward to Abigail’s new book and would have loved to attend the master class-hopefully next time. I’m a huge fan of her work-some of my rooms are also very dark, but in a more subtle way as we have a 1960s house, so no period features, stunning windows or high ceilings to play with. I have to say, the one thing I regret in our home is the gloss white kitchen-it felt so right at the time, but I sorely miss being able to change the paint colour on the cabinets whenever I fancy…! Caroline x
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    • Thank you Caroline! Ah, can’t you change the doors? That’s what all the advice seems to be doesn’t it? I’m quite into 1960s houses, they have so much light don’t they?

  5. It’s so cool that you got to see her house. I bet I feels kind of weird when you see something in reality that you’ve come to know from pictures. I like her aesthetic but I’m not sure I could implement it in my house. Although I love dark walls, almost all the walls in our house are painted in light colors. Only used dark grey as an accent wall and in the vestibule. In her house it looks so cozy though…Looking forward to hear about the master class!
    Nina recently posted..week twentyoneMy Profile

    • It was so much better than in the photos too which was such a treat as I wasn’t really expecting to feel anything different. She just let us nose about as well, it was great :)

  6. I’m so disappointed that I couldn’t make it. It sounds like quite an experience.

    I love Abigail’s aesthetic – for the most part! I’ve never been to her home but I do love the fact that everything is big, bold, unapologetic and dramatic. That said, an entire house in dark colours (not to mention permanently bathed in artificial light) would do strange things to my psyche, I imagine.

    Great post, Annie – I really felt as though we were walking through the house side by side! :D x
    Chi@106 recently posted..Some Things About MeMy Profile

    • Wish you could have come too, that would have been so much fun.
      You too, I love your new one, it looks much more like you xx

  7. Phew… that one is over too… I know how much you were looking forward to have the masterclass with your design icon!

    I first encountered Abigail when she opened her first shop in Cross Street. She was both anxious and excited about her new venture but already had her designs on opening in Upper Street. I knew then she was going to do well. I have huge respect for her determination and convictions and love a lot of what she does.

    I suppose I would prefer to stay in a hotel designed by AA (a dream of hers which I hope will be fulfilled soon) then live in a flat/house like that because it would be for a short period and yet a very different and dramatic experience. (Probably would choose autumn or winter). I have no doubt I will be bawled over by her house which I’ve seen many pictures of but there’s nothing like being in the physical space. I’m definitely going to do a masterclass (been on my list).

    As you know I’m very much into Ilse Crawford’s philosophy of human and emotional design when it comes to interiors and so don’t follow any particularly rigid design aesthetics. Like everything with me I go, listen and learn and then make up my own guidebook and rules. Abigail is certainly someone I want to learn from.

    As always, Birdy, great writing which made up for the lack of pictures.:)
    tina recently posted..something about ‘me’My Profile

  8. I can’t believe you’ve never been to Sir John Soane’s! Even I’ve been there and I’m a yank. Come on, Bird, scoot on over there and check it out. It’s really something special, but not if you’re looking for those “homey” touches that make it looked lived-in. I can only imagine how thrilled you were to get to visit her house for a master class. You were probably on cloud 900, not 9! I want to hear about what you guys did there, too. You really write like a dream, so evocative and eloquent that even without photos I got a clear image of what each room looked like (and I’ll let that dig at stark-white kitchens slide ;)

    Happy Monday!

    • Hee hee yes sorry about that. I’m always thinking of you when I write about my disdain for white interiors. Can’t believe you’ve been to SJS, you’re so much more cultured than me.

  9. I’m crazy about terraced houses. I suppose they’re Georgian? The large windows, tall ceilings and spacious rooms really appeal to me. I revert back to the typical tourist expression whenever I come across similar type houses. I stand outside, gawk and snap away. I’d love to own something similar one day.
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    • Those ones are Victorian. It’s a funny houses because although the house looks huge the rooms are tiny and the whole house has really narrow, steep staircases. East London I suppose.

      Yes I’d love one like that too but I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford even half a one :(

  10. I’ve never been to Soane’s either – hee hee. I’m glad you had a great time, Abigails enthusiasm is very infectious, Graham is lovely too – did he make all the coffee?! I agree with the impersonality, it is very tidy that you don’t imagine her getting any design books and magazines out on the floor and leaving them there to step over for a few days like I do. I love it in that it has been ‘worked on’, taken time to get to the amazing stage it’s at and I do admire greatly her grit and determination.

    You know how I feel about her design aesthetic, if I say it all again I’ll sound like an old stuck record :-)
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    • He did and I remembered what you said about her hollering down the stairs at him, well this time she actually phoned him from the top floor to tell him to come up and collect the dogs. Was so funny!

      She had a stack of interiors mags lined up on the bannister. All neat and tidy and full of post-its. I was rather curious about that and wanted to have a nose but thought that was probably going a bit too far :)

  11. I haven’t been to Sir John Soane’s museum either, I feel a KLC outing coming on…

    Love the idea of a dark bathroom, but I don’t think I would like my whole house to be like that…

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it, I find that when I get really excited about something it can be a disappointment. Your beautifully descriptive writing makes up for the lack of photos xx
    Kelly recently posted..A tale of two bathroomsMy Profile

    • Oh good I’m glad it’s not just me! I’m putting this down to us working too hard on coursework to be able to have extravagant days out at museums ;) Let’s make a date to go there. Wonder if Mary has been?

  12. I attended one of Abigail’s masterclasses last December…no doubt the place has changed significantly since then (from what I have read on her blog) but I have to say that I really really loved what I saw. At that stage she still had a TV, albeit a small one (though, having said that, we haven’t had one since 2003 so not having one isn’t that weird, is it?) and I noticed much hidden storage (e.g. behind all that bookshelf wallpaper & huge cupboards in bedrooms/bathroom/under the kitchen island)…it’s just sneaky/clever storage, which is my kinda storage! :-) I have no doubt that the evidence of everyday life was hidden away…open a cupboard & it may have all come falling out (well, I know this is what happens whenever anyone comes over to my house)…why do we do this I have no idea but if you’re in the business of telling people how to make their interiors awesome then clutter isn’t the best advertisement! Regarding the dark side, I am not entirely convinced that all spaces call for it, certainly those that are dark benefit well but a bright sunny room may not take to “downpipe” all that happily. There’s nothing that says you can’t do a bit of both in your home, so long as you continue a similar theme in some way, as she has said before. What I do love about her philosophy though is – embrace colour, break some rules, take some risks and hopefully that will lead you down the path of a home that reflects the people who live there and most importantly, one that you will enjoy, day in and day out! :-)

    • No not having a tv isn’t weird at all, I totally respect people who don’t as it means they’re doing far more useful things than watching tv. I love that you had such a good root around, I didn’t notice any hidden storage, which I guess is the point, but maybe Abigail should have pointed it all out so we could have got some tips. Maybe we need to turn up unannounced on a Sunday morning and see what it’s like when she’s not expecting loads of visitors ;)

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

  13. Hello dear! What a lovely description you gave…who needs photos!? And so thrilling to have been to a class. I can’t wait to hop up a post and read about it. I have mixed feelings about dark colors. My friend Mark’s whole house is painted darkly, and it’s stunning, just gorgeous. But I find, after trying it here in our little gray cottage, that I need light. Our bedroom is a deep, dark blue and I love it, but one room is enough for me.

    We have friends who have a house that is stark and without the human element that you describe as lacking in the Ahern house. Three kids and rooms with one sofa and a piece of art? Whatever. I like a house that has a heartbeat. But maybe I’m just rationalizing my clutter!
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  14. Well, who needs photos with your beautiful writing. I don’t even feel like I need to make a proper visit as Ahern’s house now sits lovingly in my imagination now. I have seen Ahern’s house on The Selby and it blew me away. You’re absolutely right, in a sea of sameness, Ahern shakes things up. I especially appreciate that she leans towards the masculine side. Glad you were able to see Ahern’s home up close. Looking forward to reading about the master class.
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  15. I find nice and intresting follow you detached advice on living room and artistic desing. I had a fall in love with Abigail Ahern models and attitude at decoration and furniture style.I inspirate my house at her teaching and i’ve found gourgeous and fantastic, i ‘ve rebuilt my whole house leaning and jumping like a blue siamese cat following in every detail her knoledge and good taste on entracing our path.She is extremly exquisite and delicate and raffined and Amorous and lovely.When i’m with her i find myself at home and i’ve found her light precious and positivly attracted;
    she make me feel at conmfort at ease and nice repair, i need her important teaching and cozy advice.Keep it close to the light and make it positivly passing.Please keep in contac and let’s try to talk about it.Elizabeth.xxxxxxx.Antonucci.V.S.Leonardo 22 Firenze.Italy cap 50125.

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