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How to inject character and charm into a modern property

Soho Home’s Interior Style Manager, Candy Murray, explains how to style a clean-cut space to add warmth

By Megan Murray

Period features are often seen as the source of a property's charm, but if you live in a modern home is it still possible to inject a sense of character? According to Candy Murray, Soho Home's Interior Style Manager, the answer is a firm yes.

'I would have loved a home with period features, but it was a modernist house that eventually felt like the right step for me and my family,' she says. 'I kept the walls neutral and created character with art and furniture, being careful to work with the building and consider the era it was built in.'

While it can be tempting to recreate period details, Murray advises making the most of the features already present. 'It's better to celebrate and enhance the parts of your home that you like,' she says. 'Don't recreate the past; faux panelling and ceiling roses are at risk of looking themed.'

With styling advice, the right statement pieces and vintage furniture, Murray shares her tips on how to make the most of minimalist features, and create depth and character in a modern space.

Celebrate existing architectural features

Murray's main rule when working with a new build is to make these part of your design decisions - they're not something to ignore or hide.

'The first step is to understand the space, then you can be sympathetic to it,' she says. 'Look at the architectural plans to see how you can maximise it. With a bird's-eye view of the layout, you should be able to identify how the rooms have been designed. For example, the location of door openings, the spacing of light fittings, and where the windows are positioned. Consider these things when choosing furniture to create a sense of harmony.

'Don't try and cram a piece of furniture along a wall that's too short. Think about where the plug sockets are and if these areas could work for creating zones of cosy lighting. Try not to block a window with a bed or a sofa. Essentially, everything has been designed in a certain way for a reason, so emphasise this by choosing furniture and decor carefully.'

Murray says a good place to start is with the windows. 'If there's a large window with a view, then you could make this the focus of the room,' she says. 'You can do this by placing two armchairs underneath it, facing outwards. Arrange the sofas so they're focused on the window, rather than a television. I'd also recommend dressing the windows simply with sheer materials instead of heavy curtains, then the outside view can flow into the space.'

Pick a statement art piece

Modern buildings have different proportions to those from the Victorian or Edwardian eras. Ceilings might be lower and walls longer, so artwork is essential to filling and grounding the space to stop it looking empty.

'If a room is featureless and you're struggling to create warmth, start with art,' says Murray. 'Choose a big, beautiful canvas that you really love - then that becomes your feature.'

Use sculptural plants

In the Houses, our design teams use plants to invigorate lounge spaces with life and colour. This effect can be scaled up, though, if you want to make an impact.

'Modern homes tend to have a lot of hard edges,' says Murray. 'An easy way to soften these and create a feature is with a large, sculptural plant. It will bring life to the room, which automatically warms everything up a little.'

A Kentia Palm or Peace Lily are both great options for this, or any plant with large voluminous leaves to act as a focal point.

Create a wow moment with lighting

A common design decision in newer buildings is a scattering of spotlights in the ceiling. Even if you like a clean aesthetic, it's hard to build warmth, character and cosiness with this style of lighting. Instead, Murray recommends thinking big to create a 'wow moment'.

'Spotlights create an effect that's like a blanket wash of cold light. It's not atmospheric, especially in the evenings, and so I'd add in floor and table lamps to get a glowy feeling at night,' she explains. 'We want to be cultivating a warm, yellow and white light, not cold, blue light. My go-to arrangement is to keep the walls clean and then use showstopping pendant lights - that can really add character.'

Source vintage furniture

A sense of eclecticism can help bring character to a space, and a great way to achieve this is by mixing vintage furniture with new pieces.

'You could keep the overall feel quite modern and simple, then just buy two beautiful vintage armchairs and a vintage rug. These layers will create personality,' explains Murray.

'If your home was built in an era such as the 1970s or 1980s, opting for a few choice pieces of retro furniture over vintage might be a better fit. But it's up to you to look at the style of the building and find what works best.'

Read more about our Interior Design Service here.