Top 10 design dilemmas – solved

An interior design project presents a maze of head-scratching conundrums, from choices between plain and patterned fabrics to whether you really need a club fender. Arabella Youens tackles the 10 most challenging dilemmas.

Do I need downlighters?

All too often, builders and electricians are overly generous when specifying downlighters, but this is all about profit and, in practice, there’s no need to turn your kitchen ceiling into something that resembles a landing strip at Heathrow. All that’s required are a few directional task lights focused on work surfaces. The rest of the lighting can be made up of layers introduced by over-island pendants and table lamps operated on a three-amp circuit so that they can be controlled by a wall switch.

With the advent of warm-white LEDs, there’s no place for fluorescent tubes anywhere in a house – LEDs are far more efficient and give off a much higher quality of light without any flickering.

Country Life verdict: A necessary evil, best used in moderation

Do I need a four-poster bed?

period bedroom design ideas

No longer just the domain of fairy-tale palaces and country-house hotels, four-poster beds should always be considered wherever possible. They introduce an element of drama, comfort and, when swathed with curtains, a cosseting sanctuary – particularly helpful if the bedroom is vast.

Four-posters shouldn’t be ruled out for small bedrooms, but if there isn’t sufficient height, an oversized or winged headboard is an adequate substitute. Four-poster designs range from those with slim, contemporary frames and lightweight hanging to those with a more classic, baronial flavour. For fabric fans, they also offer an opportunity to indulge this passion with everything from stripes to dramatic damasks.

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Country Life verdict: No longer the preserve of dukes and country-house hotels

Do I need a club fender?

Acres Farm

Of course! This Cinderella of drawing-room furniture has a pivotal role to play. Club fenders originated in the clubs of St James’s and were a staple in gun and billiard rooms before they graduated to drawing rooms. Associated in the popular imagination with postprandial cigars and brandy, they are, however, surprisingly versatile and sit just as comfortably around a cottage fireplace as they do in a Brideshead-style pile.

Not only do they look elegant, they provide valuable extra seating without taking up too much room. On a cold winter’s night, perching by a club fender is perhaps Britain’s answer to the Danish concept of hygge.

Country Life verdict: A resounding yes

Classic sofa versus L-shaped sofa

L-shaped sofas are regarded suspiciously by purists as a harbinger of the end of civilisation, but are a godsend in smaller rooms, where they can be tucked into a corner and comfortably accommodate a family of five (plus a dog or two). The best approach is to confine them to family rooms, party rooms and party barns. A hangover from the 1970s, these quasi-beds make for extremely comfortable Netflix viewing, but lack Howard- or Chesterfield-style elegance.
In more formal rooms, the addition of an upholstered footstool or ottoman will provide the same foot-resting effect without compromising on style.

Country Life verdict: Only in the privacy of your own telly room

Curtains or blinds?

Colefax & Fowler

Blinds have the benefit of being smart and neat, but curtains offer better insulation and sound absorption – critical if you’re opting for a wooden floor. In both instances, the secret is to opt for simplicity: ruched blinds, last seen in the 1980s, are making a discreet comeback, but it’s safer to steer clear of anything trimmed and tasselled that will attract dust (and snide remarks).

Fixed-shape box pelmets, goblet headings and sharp pencil pleats are a sophisticated option. Alternatively, keep things fuss-free and opt for a gathered heading hung from a simple brass pole, à la Robert Kime.

Country Life verdict: Horses for courses

Big kitchen or separate dining room?

For the past 30 years or so, country houses have been frantically reconfigured to make way for what the Americans call the ‘90% room’; multifunctional, open-plan spaces that replace the monofunctional kitchens of yore. When it comes to entertaining, the logic was simple: whoever was in charge of cooking no longer felt excluded from the fun and could also put on a MasterChef-style performance of their culinary skills.

However, in recent, years, there have been increasing doubts about banishing the dining room altogether – there’s something infinitely more romantic about the drama of a well-dressed table lit by candlelight than eating supper looking at an ever-growing mountain of dirty dishes piling up in the sink.

Country Life verdict: Opt for both whenever possible

Carpets or wooden floors?

Alternative Flooring/Margo Selby

The answer, on the Continent, is clear cut: wood. In most European countries, there’s almost an unwavering distrust of the English, not just due to Brexit, but also because of our love of wall-to-wall carpet. How, they ask, can carpet possibly be kept clean? It is true that when it comes to hygiene, carpet doesn’t match up to hardwood floors, but there are some import-
ant plus sides.

Our European neighbours may spend winters on wooden floors, but carpets are, undeniably, warmer underfoot. It also has the advantage of deadening sound – a boon in a house occupied by a noisy teenager, where it can help absorb some of the not-so-dulcet tones of Wolf Alice.

Country Life verdict: Wood downstairs – softened by rugs and kilims – and carpet upstairs (but never in the bathroom)

Plain or patterned fabrics?

Ben Pentreath

Over-the-top 1980s schemes dampened the appetite for complex combinations of multiple patterns on walls and curtains – and things can go horribly wrong in the wrong hands. The 21st-century approach is to inject splashes of pattern through smaller items that are set against a backdrop that is predominantly plain. Not only is it easier on the eye, but it also reduces the possibility of expensive mistakes.

Country Life verdict: A little pattern goes a long way

Should I go minimal?

Although it was more of an urban affectation that never penetrated rural bastions, there’s an agreement among the design fraternity that Minimalism is dead. The chilly, pared-back look was unleashed in the 1990s by design visionaries such as John Pawson and Ian Schrager on an adoring public that obediently ditched its possessions in skips and at car-boot sales, but it never worked well with dogs, mud and muted British light.

Two decades later, the pendulum has swung back in favour of the country-house look, in which colour and pattern reign again, updated for the 21st century, with suzani cushions, ikat lampshades and the occasional token nod to Modernism. Better still, the earthy colour palette never really reveals grubby marks.

Country Life verdict: Only in laboratories and abbatoirs

Dark versus light colours


One of the greatest myths of DIY interior design is that painting a naturally dark room in a light colour makes it seem both lighter and larger when, in fact, the opposite is often true.

That said, it can take courage to use a dark colour (the wrong shade has the capacity to turn a drawing room into a gastro pub). However, a north-facing room is never going to be light, whatever shade you choose, so dark colours tend to be a more preferable option. Not only are moody hues such as Farrow & Ball’s Off-Black, Paint & Paper Library’s Hunter Dunn or Edward Bulmer’s Sang de Boeuf much cosier and more womb-like, but they make for a great backdrop for good-looking art and furniture.

Country Life verdict: Go as dark as you dare