Sian Astley is an interior designer, property renovator, self-builder, landlord and DIYer. You may recognise her from the telly, most recently on BBC1’s Getting The Builders In. Sian also collaborates with other businesses offering “how to” videos and advice. On her blog, Sian talks about her life immersed in property and design, and her labour of love for renovation.
What is your design/signature style?
After more than 20 years redesigning and renovating homes for myself and clients, I’d say my personal style is mainly organic. Using lots of natural timber is a must, but I keep the look luxe and crisp with monochrome schemes, bold pattern and lashings of colour. Most interior designers need to understand and translate their client’s style into a fabulous scheme, with some guidance on new materials, innovative surfaces, updating tricks and stylish brands. I try not to impose my style on other people’s spaces when they ask me to help them create the scheme of their dreams. I was looking at some old photos this week of houses I’d redesigned 20 years ago – bare brick, lots of greenery, crisp white and tonnes of timber. Nothing’s changed! There’s a lot of talk about trends at the moment. My feeling is that we should embrace and be inspired by them, but always be mindful that we’re being sold to by brands constantly churning out new products that we don’t really need. Have the confidence in your own style but enjoy the new and the innovative. And always, always mix in some classics to ground a scheme and give it longevity and elegance.
Does your home reflect your professional style?
It will soon! Those following us online at our nicknamed Moregeous Mansions have seen a long and hard renovation journey as we’ve knocked down half the house and rebuilt, then carefully restored and renovated the original Edwardian villa section. We’re coming to the end, and my style is starting to emerge. There are wallpapered ceilings, eclectically tiled walls and fireplaces, warm woods, maximalist pattern, plus lots of design surprises. Couple that with sensitively copied timber details, restored cornice and a genuine mix of old and new, and that’s pretty much the Moregeous style. It’s all starting to come together now after a bit of a slog, and hopefully people will like what we’ve created. My home will be used for showcasing our work, plus holding food, interior and collaborative pop ups and events. During the process, I’ve still been transforming other people’s houses and doing telly makeovers, so now I just can’t wait for mine to be done.
Tell us about a project that you have worked on that has been your greatest achievement?
That’s an awful question to ask a designer / lady builder, who’s had 20 years of property babies! Oh gosh, well apart from my house described above, which has very nearly finished us off before we finish it off, I’ll choose two. The first was renovating four projects at different ends of the UK in under six weeks for a TV show a couple of years ago. All the houses were back to brick shells – three large kitchen diners, three bathrooms, two home offices, two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room and a staircase, which all ended up with spectacular finishes. We used lots of interesting materials and finishes, plus local artisans and suppliers. Nailing all those different looks from initial design, through spec, build, install and finish was completely crazy with such a small team, but we managed it, just. If there’s a Makeover Queen badge, I’ll take it for that series.
My second choice is one of the last Edwardian Baths in the country, for which I ran a campaign to save from closure five years ago. I organised volunteers to redesign and redecorate the gym, created and installed the first cafe space there, designed and worked on transforming the original Ladies slipper bath room into an amazing holistic & events space and built a slated garden area with pergola and seating for members and visitors to enjoy the garden. Fitting that voluntary work into my full time job and home renovation was nigh on impossible at times but I’m so very proud that Mr. M and I did it, and achieved what we did for the building and for our community.
Describe your creative process for us. What steps do you take when you’re working through a project?
Designing for me is very organic and I enjoy the freedom to ebb and flow with ideas during the process. This is especially useful during renovation or restoration projects as one needs to react to old houses – they tend to throw up surprises half way through a job or tell you they need things doing in a way not originally envisaged. Yes, I do believe houses tell us what they want!
I like to be in a space and feel it, get to know it, before I start designing or changing it around, even if it’s just a shell. There’s nothing quite like walking through a room, a home or a space to get a sense of what would work and what wouldn’t. Not possible on new build projects, of course, but that’s where experience comes in. Or CGI. Getting the space down on paper is part of the process for me too, I like to hold plans in my hand, and doodle, and experiment. I guess because I wasn’t professionally trained as an interior designer, and I don’t have those tech skills, that’s just the way I do things.
Research online (some might say this is fun, surely, not work), visiting trade shows and getting out to showrooms to touch, see and feel is critical to me. I adore seeing new products and materials coming through to market, and then using them in schemes. There’s something brilliant about showing a client something bold which they hadn’t ever considered and pushing their boundaries a little. Or a lot.
How excited are you about the rise of decorative tiles and their growing popularity within interior design projects?
As a designer, the innovations in tile manufacture and design over the last ten years has been hugely exciting. Couple that with the rise in the willingness of homeowners to express their personalities in their home decor and it’s a recipe for interesting projects and fabulous schemes. Social media sites like Pinterest and Instagram have given people confidence as specifying tiling can be so, so difficult when all people have is an individual tile. Now clients can more easily see new ways to design with tiles, and new ways to use them, so they don’t ‘fear’ decorative tiles in the same way they used to. I’ve just tiled my full dining room chimney breast in a textured metro and used clay grey Lilypad encaustics spilling out into a herringbone timber floor. Tiling rocks!
Also, decorative tiles are now so cool. No longer do they equal an embossed apple on a country cottage kitchen. And thank goodness for that. I love that we – at long last – are celebrating heritage patterns and the resultant twists on original patterns which are creeping in. Just as with homewares and wallpapers, companies are now collaborating with designers to bring out stunning new ranges. New geometrics, funky florals, killer encaustics… there are so many great tiles to choose from!
How important has social media been in showcasing your projects and interacting with clients?
The new wave of social media sites is critical to a designer who wants to showcase their style and get their work out there if the client is happy for them to do so. It’s fun to share your work and in the past, sole interior designers have led an isolated existence – well, no more! Online communities are vibrant, and chatter filled places to sway ideas. Social media is pretty much free advertising for an interior designer, which can’t be bad really can it?
Pinterest and Instagram are fabulous for showing off your best work and attracting new clients but are also brilliant for focusing a client’s attention on what they like and getting a good handle on what they desire. There is a down side however, and that is the sheer volume of choice out there. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to make a decision and stick to it, because our nano-second brains leap from image to image, attracted to all the exciting stuff without maybe taking time to work out why we like it and whether we could live with it. Most interior designers would probably agree that the best clients (i.e. the ones who don’t keep changing their minds) are probably the ones not on Instagram.