Cushions and curtains can't solve the world's problems, but, in a way, after 25 years working with interiors in one way or another, that's exactly what Michelle Ogundehin is saying. The former ELLE Decoration Editor-in-Chief and Instagram queen of colourscapes invited us into her seaside home - an unexpectedly quirky cottage - to share her happiness manifesto.
Home should restore and rejuvenate you, but so often it doesn’t. When you get home, what is the first thing you see when you open your front door? Is it that the door jams on a load of post and then you see a heap of shoes and a tangle of coats? That will affect your mood. How might it be if you came home and saw something that just made you think ‘I’m home, I’m safe now’. That’s so powerful, so important and so easy to fix. It starts with believing that you deserve to be happy. That’s where the emotional, the environmental and the physical are all connected. This link between what surrounds us and our wellbeing is at the heart of my philosophy on making homes that support, rather than undermine, our health and happiness; a philosophy I’m trying to encapsulate in a book at the moment!
My house looks like something that you’d find on the front of a chocolate box but inside it’s a bit of a Tardis. It’s nearly 200 years old and it has the cutesy little portico at the front, the hanging baskets, but inside it’s all about underfloor heating, Corian surfaces, 21st-century mod cons – apart from the very pretty but completely irritating windows that are draughty nightmares. The front is listed, so I can’t change them, but I wouldn’t want to – although every year it is a case of re-sanding, repainting, adjusting all the locks because everything’s expanded slightly, so sometimes I can’t even open them.
Home should be a profoundly sensory space, with surfaces to thrill your fingertips and tempt your toes. First get the ‘envelope’ right – you need everything in the right place –and then you layer over the colour. I’d always say paint your whole house white to start with so you can actually see what you’ve got. Then a lot of people try to start a scheme inspired by a single possession. That’s like buying a pair of earrings and then attempting to find a dress to match, not impossible but a lot harder than if you simply started with a preferred colour. The key is to develop a palette which allows one room to flow into the next. The materials and colours that I’ve got downstairs all continue upstairs, there are some additions and subtractions but it’s all in the same mood and that’s what holds it together and gives you a sense of calm, I hope.
I’ve always been like this, right from a child, always moving my things around – there was a sense of if I could just move this here and push that there, it will feel better. I don’t come from a background of parents who were always going to flea markets and there’s no exotic lineage or a family pile. My mother could draw beautifully and my father was an engineer, so there’s an inherited creative gene, but it’s more that on some level I just knew that when things are balanced and harmonious around me, I feel calm.
1. Less stuff, more space
'Often people don't need more space, they need less stuff. There's a lot of questions people need to ask themselves about home: is it an external show space because you want to show the world that you've achieved, or is it just home? It's about making the space that you have work for you and when you come at it from that point of view, anyone can make their home a better place to live in that makes them happier, therefore they can be their best self. It doesn't need to cost a lot of money and you certainly don't need to have a huge amount of space but you probably do need to junk a load of your stuff!'
2. Tell your story
'It's not about going totally minimalist, it's about telling your story. It's things like: which is your favourite colour, what clothes make you feel most comfortable, what colours soothe you, who are you? It's knowing thyself, and then you create a home that supports that. The things that you choose to display, they are your biography. Home tells a story of you. It's why for me downstairs is a more public space because that's where people come in, where upstairs is a profoundly personal space. That's more family, it's where we sleep. I think that division is important, we must have sanctuary spaces that are private.'
3. Be consistent
'Anything goes, as long as you do it consistently. If you like leopard skin, go for it! But don't do leopard skin in one room, a Turkish harem in another room and something else upstairs. There are some very general guidelines: spend the most you can afford on flooring because you could sit on a box on a great floor and it will look magnificent, you could sit on the best chair in the world on a shitty floor and it will always look shitty. Clean your windows - I did mine yesterday and it was like "Wow, you can actually see outside!" There are some definite things about placement, flow and decluttering, but beyond that you have to do what pleases you, otherwise you're living in someone else's house.'
4. Screen-free zone
'The only thing with working at home is that none of this stuff must go in the bedroom. No phone, no iPad, no desks - which is challenging for anyone who's got a studio apartment, but there are ways around that. You can use your dining table, use your kitchen worktop, but none of this stuff must go in the bedroom, because I think one of the key things about caring for oneself is sleep. We can scientifically prove the bad effect of not getting enough sleep and yet we seem to have got ourselves into this corner as a society where you've got to work 24/7, always on. It's ridiculous.'
Pinterest and Instagram have opened up a wealth of possibilities but we’re at the point where people see so much that they’re a bit rabbit in the headlights and think ‘I don’t know what to do.’ If you can get dressed in the morning, you can put together an interiors scheme. You already know what you like, you just need to go through magazines and listen to your gut. You start to pull together the threads of your taste and then it’s just about having the conviction to do it. It doesn’t help anyone to be snobby about design. It’s just smart shopping – if you find a nice pot that costs a fiver and you love it, it’s a hurrah moment. There’s no doubt that in some categories there is a huge difference between the top-end Italian one and the one from the shop around the corner, but it’s always all about the mix.