You move rapidly from one world into another when you enter Bella Huddart's house. One minute you're standing on the concrete walkway of a red-brick Seventies council block, the next you are overwhelmed by an interior of colour created by the sheer variety of its content.
One end of the living room is dominated by an old French wardrobe that houses her crockery and the other by a marble statue on a plinth. "This is my great grandmother Margaret and it took four men to carry her upstairs," says Bella.
When Bella separated from her husband after 23 years of marriage and six children, she could no longer afford to keep their Clapham home and the family — aged between 23 and eight — needed another one. "Every place I looked at was at least £550,000 and the houses were small, the size of pepper pots. It was depressing," says Bella.
Then she visited a friend who lived in a former council flat in Notting Hill. "It was an enchanting, sunny maisonette.
I felt elated and wondered why I hadn't thought of ex-council property before. Later I walked past Winkworth's on Ledbury Road and they were advertising 10,000 sq ft for just £445,000. That was it."
Within half an hour Bella had found her home. "The house was light and airy with a balcony, right in the heart of everything. It was like being in a vat of chocolate after an acid bath."
'I learned to rummage in salvage yards and junk shops and how to breathe life into old tat'
Her first move was to take out the dividing wall between the kitchen and sitting room to make one big living space. Then she took up the laminate tiles and put down an oak finish floor, and that was the extent of the big spend. "I did buy a retro cream Smeg fridge," Bella admits. "In this small space, there was nowhere to hide a big fridge so it had to be attractive...but everything else is pretty much recycled.
"I was either going to have one huge new purple sofa and a Philippe Starck coffee table or I was going to relish everything in my past and make a treasure box of collectibles, so I plumped for the latter. After all, we're living in a recession and for most of us, going out and buying new furniture is out of the question. So I learned to rummage in salvage yards and junk shops and how to breathe life into old tat."
But the territory is familiar to her. She is happy in the atmosphere of a busy market — she has a stall on Portobello Road selling jewellery and accessories from Asia and Paris. Her love of exotic and vintage textiles is demonstrated throughout her house.
Above her kitchen table is a curtain rail from which hang shimmering Thai and Bhutanese silk scarves. Her sofa is upholstered in vintage chintz and sits alongside a kelim armchair and footstool. Above her 14-year-old son's bed there is an Afghan hanging that she bought in Portobello and all the bedrooms have vintage quilted bedspreads.
The skill's in the mix
Bella's skill is combining cheap basics with vintage treasures and junk shop finds. In her bedroom, the IKEA brass bed is flanked by two painted wooden chairs from a Woodstock antique shop.
The bedside lamps are topped by her precious Mulberry lampshades that she bought 20 years ago. She bought her antique chest of drawers in Devon 15 years ago and the Moroccan rug was given to her by a friend. Her walls are decorated with rose-patterned plates she salvaged from a junk shop.
Bella has transformed a tiny storeroom off the hall into a spare room with a built-in bed, a mirror from Portobello, a Moroccan lamp from Paris and a carved screen from a Suffolk junk shop.
'Behind every immaculate house is a very dull person'
She painted the shelves that were already there mushroom and cluttered them with bits and pieces from her children's past. Old teacups, glass plates from Paris, a set of Beatrix Potter books and vintage gollies jostle for space. "It's really a little place of memories for my grown-up kids so when they come they are reminded of their childhood."
Bella says: "The key is to mix everything up." In her eight-year-old son's bedroom an old milk churn acts as a piano stool and a set of old Dickens hardbacks, bought for £2 from a recycling centre, sit between carved bookends from David Linley that were one of her son's christening presents.
For very little money, Bella has created a home of character. Her ex-council house has been turned into an esoteric treasure trove of recycled and gloriously exotic clutter.
By Bella's Smeg fridge is a painting with the inscription: "Behind every immaculate house is a very dull person". As I leave, I pass a stuffed duck and, on the wall, moose antlers hung with African hats. Recession chic is the way ahead.
Contact Bella for styling, interiors or jewellery at email@example.com or 07768 511755.
Photographs: Andreas von Einsiedel