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Real homes: house-swap to Sydney

For the last few months, most of my spare time has seen me dressed like this.

The reason? Well, aside from getting fed up with living in a never-finished place for nearly eight years we're doing a house-swap with a family in Sydney, Australia to visit my two brothers, who live out there. And the family's house looks like this...

Have you ever done a house-swap? I don't want our guests in London to feel short-changed, or at least not really short-changed (that is some house – I can't even begin to compete) so it's been a massive push to finally finish off all the jobs that have been lingering unfinished around the place. It's also good practice for the looming Air BnB project, which I'm hoping to kick-off in the next couple of months  – the room is finally ready and I'll post some pictures of that next week.

Typically most of the work on the house isn't even stuff that other people will notice. But I do, and it's been worth it. Over the next few weeks I'll share some of the changes that didn't just involve repainting a room white and covering up brown stains from the leaky roof, and shall also report back with more photos of our glamorous holiday home.

Spotlight on... good-looking year wall planners

Those of you with children will no doubt be old hands at sourcing stylish wall planners. 

I'm only in my second year of such communal organisation.

I remember a mum friend of mine once saying that one of her simple pleasures was copying all the dates of importance onto the new year's calendar.

It was a ritual I'd never experienced, because until not so long ago I had lived for years with lodgers, whose comings and goings were none of my business and vice versa, so my own Moleskine page per day pocket diary was all I needed. Now that boyfriend has replaced lodgers, the joint planner has a place on the back of the kitchen door (pictured above).

There are heaps of beautifully designed and interesting calendars out there – you only have to spend five minutes in an art gallery shop – but well-designed full-year wall planners are more elusive.

I'm going to go for the 2015 version of the one on my kitchen door, above, which is £15 by Lollipop Designs. I like the sludgy colours and need a portrait rather than landscape design, which there's no space for. But here's my pick of the rest of the best.

The Crispin Finn wall planner, above, is £14. Having been feted in recent years by the likes of the Creative Review and Grafik Magazine, and on sale at stylish haunts including The Peanut Vendor (whose owners' gorgeous rented flat you can tour here) it is the go-to good-looker of the bunch. And it arrives in a pleasing brown paper bag, so it makes a great gift, too (that is if you know any other disorganised types who haven't quite got around to focusing on 2015 yet).

This clever screen-printed design, by Karen Willcox, is part wall planner, part calendar. It costs £26 from Karen's Etsy shop, QuirkyLime.

It's printed on nice, solid card (so you can avoid the unattractive papery bulges once it's hung.

Below, Alison Hardcastle's green and white design is one of the bargains of the bunch.

I'm not entirely convinced by the cheery "exciting plans" banner (does that mean there's no call to enter "Pay Inland Revenue"?) but it's a lovely colour and the clean design would look very good on the wall. Good use of coat-hanger, too. And it's just £12 from Alison's website.

I love a design with a bonus feature. And this planner that includes a seasonal fruit and vegetables guide has just that. It costs £12 from Food Guide UK's Etsy shop.

Now, people either love or loathe this sort of personalised gimmick, but at the check-out at Not on the High Street (where else?) you type in the header you'd like on this sexily designed planner. Personalisation isn't my thing, so I'd simply type "calendar 2015" and dodge the issue, but each to their own.

It doesn't (luckily) come framed, or it'd be pretty useless, however it does feature glamorous gold foil detailing on a clean, white backdrop and is A3 size, so handy for compact rooms. It's £18.95 by Milly's Cottage at Not on the High Street.

Love the subtle theme in the A Year Of Passing Clouds A1 Wall Planner by Cumulo, with its gentle pastel and greyscale palette. It is made in Kent, includes all the factual bits and pieces, including UK public holidays, clock changes and full and new moons, and costs £15 from the YoPC Etsy shop, where you can also find their A4 wall calendars in the same style.

Some of the above can even still be ordered to arrive for Christmas as if you're as disorganised about your festive shopping as you are about your planning.

Real homes: my gloomy hallway

The dingy hallway has never reached its potential.

First the shiny lime green highlights, bequeathed by the previous owners got whitewashed – but with such limited light in the area, it just looked grubby, particularly one side of the space – and so efforts have since been focused on that one wall.

The new front door, with glass panels was meant to help. But still the troublesome hall wall stayed resolutely gloomy. Perhaps it needed some colour?

So it got a half-wall flash of brightening yellow – a dado rail-less spilt-screen effect, kind of thing which, to my disappointment, looked absolutely awful. So the lovely sunny yellow filled the rest of the wall... For a joyful few weeks, it seemed like it had worked (though painting the radiator to blend in was an ugly mistake). But the allure of the yellow was short-lived – being simply better than white wasn't enough. But the colour did make me happy. So last week, after saving up (to the tune of £300-odd – eek!), this giant mirror was specially cut and fitted – an idea shamelessly stolen from my neighbours' living room. And, lo, suddenly there was light, or at least a sense of space.

Only now the yellow looked even wronger... (excuse the dust, the result of some ongoing woodwork). The shade was chosen to pick up on the yellow in the painted staircase, but all of a sudden, as most of it was covered by a big piece of mirror, it looked a bit random.

And so today, since I have a day off, I am abandoning the idea of paint as a brightener and embracing the hall'a natural gloom and the dark side. OK, well I'm embracing dark paint...

Grey, specifically. I figure if the wall and the floor co-ordinate, the sense of space thing will only be stronger. Will it work? Can I ditch my #interiorstwat colour faddiness and shake off thoughts about dark grey walls being so 2011? And what colour will the radiator be?

In a few hours I'll know. Wish me luck...

Spotlight on... Lubna Chowdhary, ceramic tile genius

If you love colour and don't know Lubna Chowdhary's geometric ceramic work, you should...

The artist's gloriously hued tiles have been on my interiors horizon for ages, and when I saw her work up close a couple of years ago at London Design Festival I was even more dazzled.

Above: Chowdhary in her studio at work, left, and some of her colourful geometric designs

Chowdhary describes her work as "architectural ceramics", and she regularly designs pieces specially for large-scale non-residential projects, as well as creating stand-alone artworks. As such, buying a piece of Chowdhary's work is quite an investment... But – ta-da! – if south London is accessible to you (or a kindly friend), take note as this weekend she's throwing a very special studio sale (scroll to end for details). By way of celebration, I asked her a few questions about her work, her inspiration and her home.

Tile design is a pretty niche area – what drew you to tiles? 
I studied ceramics at the RCA and initially created sculptural work [that] referenced architecture and the built environment. After some time I realised I wanted to move outside the gallery environment with my work and I transferred my skills from sculptural ceramics to tile or architectural ceramics. 

I treat tile as I would a canvas or  paper and work on it with rich colour, line or texture and sometimes create relief forms. I describe my work as architectural ceramics as I've worked on so many varied projects, some of which don't involve tile but draw on my design and creative skills in other ways.

Above: a kitchen fill of D-Tiles

Tiles are having quite a moment right now – there were lots at this year's London Design Festival. Any other tiles you particularly like?
My work is hand crafted and bespoke, it's known particularly for the richness of glaze and intense colour qualities. These are the qualities I prefer in tile; the unpredictability and the serendipity associated with glaze to mechanically applied transfers. There are a lot of industrially produced tiles around at the moment because I think tile manufacturers are now really in tune with the relationships of tile to contemporary design, interiors and architecture.

If asked to pick an industrially made  tile, I like the functionality of D-Tile but also love the graph paper-like quality of  just a plain white tile with grey grout. 

What's been a favourite commission in terms of its unusual use of tiles?
I love all the work I'm commissioned to do and always learn so much each time. In terms of residential commissions though, I think Retrouvius is good to mention. It was such a delight to work with them as I just love Retrouvius's use of materials and colour for this project (see below).

Above: Retrouvius redesigned this whole house, a listed building, and Chowdhary created the tiles pictured left for the lavish loo.

It was a small commission for which I did some glaze  colour matching with the wallpaper colours. and then made some bespoke tiles to match the Emery & Cie tiles. I love the asymmetric insertion of the tiles.

What are your current favourite colour combinations?
Tumeric and prawn [as seen in these painted windows, in a photo taken by Chowdhary in Kerala, south India].

Grey-green and scarlet [as seen in this Zinnia, also snapped by Lubna].

And beetroot and turquoise [also one of Chowdhary's own images].

How tile-y is your house? 
My house has tiles in the hearths of three fireplaces [one is pictured above], a fully tiled shower enclosure and a small sink splashback. 
We have a large circular tile which we use as a centre piece on our dining table and some small circular tiles which we use as coasters and also some of my hotplates with ceramic inserts, which I use every day [below]. I also have a couple of framed tile panels [above, and below in situ].

Find out more at and don't miss the studio sale this weekend if you're anywhere near south London (one of her tiles would make a very lovely Christmas present for the design and colour lover in your life). The sale will include individual tiles (prices start at just a fiver!) as well as her stunning tile panels and limited edition walnut wood hotplates with glazed ceramic inserts, both at 30% off.

When: 10am – 6pm on Saturday 6 and Sunday 7 December 2014
Where: 162 Sunnyhill Road, London SW16 2UN (a 10-minute walk from Streatham or Streatham Hill stations, or a short bus ride from Brixton tube)

A bit of a Christmas gift guide

This year I've once again put together the Christmas interiors gift guide for the Independent. 

In case you missed it, and are looking for some inspiration...

You can see more of the wondrous Oxfam blankets here, and read more about Louise Wilkinson and StoryTiles here. To find the online version of the guide, with click-through shopping links, here it is on the Independent's website (and there are a few bonus products there that didn't make the photoshoot above). On top of those, here are the pieces I wanted to include but didn't have the space to...

Mini Roberts radio, £139, John Lewis (find more lovely looking radios at various prices, here); cast iron terrier book-ends, £29, Rockett St George

Dip-it utensil set,  £26, Quince Living; mini candle, £10, Anthropologie (choose the Orchid Aloha scent, I have this at home and people always say how nice it smells); Andreas Martin-Löf clamp lamp, £92, Andreas Martin-Löf

Pop-up ginger tom (also available: a pug, a daschund and a silver tabby cat), £8, Southbank Shops; Central Time tray by Mark McGinnis, £35, SCP

Eden mini mossed pots, £4 each, Rowan & Wren; Art Deco bone china mugs, £20, We Love Kaoru

Marmaris baskets, set of three, £55, Urbanara; Jane Foster cat mug, £10, Hunkydory Home (from the illustrator's new-ish debut ceramics and glassware range)

Happy shopping!

Spotlight on... Kinska ceramics at the Crafty Fox Christmas markets

Kinska was a fashion designer, until she found clay...

And I discovered this ceramicist's witty and wonderfully odd work while co-curating the Crafty Fox Christmas markets, along with Emy Gray, preposterously stylish owner of Brixi in Brixton Market, and online retail legend, Supermarket Sarah (see some of of the gems we picked out at the Crafty Fox blog).
Last week, I was interviewed about what it was like to be a guest curator for Crafty Fox's blog, where I also picked out some more of the stalls I'm especially looking forward to seeing at the trio of events, which take place in London's Dalston, Peckham and Brixton. Can't make it to the smoke? You can shop some of the clever crafters online – check em out at

Above: my pick of some of the lovely things you will find – including Kinska, at no.3 – at the Crafty Fox Christmas markets this year, taking place in Dalston (29th & 30th November); Brixton (6th & 7th December); Peckham (13th & 14th). For maps and more details, go to

Meanwhile, enjoy more of Kinska's excellently odd ceramics, which start at around £19 for a hand-made mug via Etsy, though at the markets she will have a special selection of designs for sale at various prices.

'Ennui Party II' 

'Blue Fort' ceramic planter

'Egypt' vase, £70

3-D face mug, £26

'Hand-built wonky cup', £19

See more of Kinska at Pinterest and buy pieces at her Etsy shop or at the Brixton Christmas Crafty Fox market, and see what else Emy, Sarah and I have put together for you.

From the archives: Introducing... artist Stephen Wright

This story was originally posted in the summer of 2013. For those of you who missed it, enjoy...

I met the most unusual artist I've met in a long time last week. I love Stephen Wright's work – gorgeous, and often off-beat mosaics and bright, odd prints with a big Mexican vibe.

I'd seen the latter for sale in a shop near me (Brixi in south London's Brixton Market in case you're in this part of the world). But even though Stephen told me that he'd lived in Mexico in a former life, it wasn't that that made him unusual.

The unusualness is all down to his extremely unconventional living arrangement. But we'll come back to that, because it's totally brilliant and brilliantly bonkers. Meanwhile, here's (a part of) his beautiful, colourful home. The artwork over the sofa, above, is one of Stephen's own.

I love the upturned holey metal thing as a side-table. I forgot to ask him what it was (there was so much other stuff to talk about, as you'll see). Anyone know what it is?

The view from the sitting room into the colourful kitchen, one of Wright's artworks visible hanging over the table.

I like that one of the shelf floors has gone in this. Loaf sell a slightly larger version of this nice wall rack in their 2013 bathroom range, and Rockett St George do a zinc one.

The kitchen. Check out the hand-made wooden table; uneven, differently painted pieces of wood inside in a metal frame, topped with a piece of glass. The colours are great. Very sunny.

The table is handmade by Stephen out of wood collected from his family home in Cheshire and from down at Herne Bay.

Good proof that you should always build your bags into the colour scheme.

The colours are a bit clashy, which Wright says he likes and which taps into his Mexican influence. I like the way the cupboard is painted quite roughly too – it gives it the feel of the exterior of a building in a scorching south American street, rather than an antique wooden cupboard.

A window above a kitchen sink to look out of is a luxury I would always try to incorporate into any washing up space. Here there was none, so Stephen built an internal one, overlooking the landing. Nice metal horses.

Bathroom wall storage; a man after my own heart.

The view from the all-white, rustic en-suite into the bright bedroom.

The bedspread was made in Uzbekistan and bought in Brick Lane.

Good lampshades. And I like that they don't contain clear glass old-school bulbs (or bare filament bulbs to give them their proper name), just no-frills modern ones. The traditional ones are beautiful, but these just make the whole thing much more DIY and accessible.

Who lives in a house like this? Artist, Stephen Wright in his studio kitchenette downstairs. But just when you thought the tour was over, this is what the rest of the downstairs looks like. Brace yourselves...

Stephen's house is also his own living museum. The hallway, above, gives onto the technicolour living and dining rooms – or, rather, the former living and dining rooms.

Every surface is covered with Stephen's unique style of mosaic.

Archways cut into the walls emphasise the 3-D effect (the records and rather unimpressed doll's heads in the back of this shot are actually on a wall in another room).

The front gate at Stephen's "House of Dreams".

You can buy Stephen's new book, featuring far better images than I was able to take of his amazing collection. It's for sale on his website (see above) and from Brixi. If you're in France, it's also available from the Halle St Pierre Outsider Art Gallery.

Want to see more images and read the story of why and how Stephen did this to his house? It's fascinating, sad and happy all at once. It's all here at Below the River, the other website I edit.