Inside Abigail Ahern's 'Alice in Wonderland-style' London home:interiors guru adds drama with dark paint, mirrors and oversized chandeliers

Why Abigail Ahern's Dalston home is all moody hues, giant mirrors and oversize chandeliers...

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Come to the dark side! This is designer Abigail Ahern's clarion call to forsake the ubiquitous white interior and get down and murky dirty with a palette of dark green, tobacco, inky blacks and varying shades of muddy sludge.

"Once you've converted to the dark side, it's impossible to go back," says Ahern, whose range of 13 paints — she calls them "bottom-of-the-lake hues" — is her company's biggest seller.

The next best seller is the faux flowers and greenery line she developed with her florist sister Gemma, which has been a big hit with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Ottolenghi and The Vatican.

If you doubt that deep, moody colours are the way forward for London homes short on space, take a look at Ahern's Dalston residence, a four-storey Victorian house thrumming with vibrancy and atmosphere that just isn't possible to achieve with safe white and polite dove grey. Besides, she has more original ways of using space creatively.

In every room there is a vast chandelier: in the living room it's a three-tiered confection of porcelain shards; in the main bedroom it's a stunning South African artwork comprising beads of dried, rolled mud; in the olive-drab bathroom, it's a baroque wirework creation with pointy drops that is literally stunning because, she says, it hits you on the head when you get out of the bath.

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If you doubt that deep, moody colours are the way forward for London homes short on space, take a look at Ahern's Dalston residence in the gallery above... (Clive Nichols)

"I'm a big fan of playing around with scale, and supersizing," explains Ahern, who supersized the teeny interiors shop she opened in Islington's Essex Road 12 years ago into a double-fronted lifestyle store selling her own-label merchandise, which she started because she couldn't find anything she liked for her own home.

"Rooms that are perfectly proportioned read like a big yawn, whereas if you have the odd thing that distorts the whole perspective, it looks quite magical, like Alice in Wonderland. If I'd used medium-sized lights, they just wouldn't have had that ta-dah."

There is ta-dah aplenty in the house she shares with her husband Graham Scott and their dogs Maud and Mungo, but, aside from the oversized chandeliers and giant fake cowboy cacti, the theatre is largely due to Ahern's design tricks which are meant to make you feel, she says, that you've fallen down a rabbit hole.

For example, in the first-floor double reception room used as a workspace, she painted not just the walls matte black, but the cornicing, the two fireplaces and the ceiling as well. "What I always try to do is knock back everything, so your eye is brought back to what's going on in the room. When I painted the ceiling the same colour, it was game changing."

Outsize convex mirrors hang above both fireplaces, reflecting everything in Ahern's favoured Alice-in-Wonderland mode. "Mirrors are key in rooms that aren't huge, and convex mirrors are brilliant because you get the whole room back at you, in this beautiful little circle."

She had two large utility cupboards made to fit flush against one wall, then luxed them up with faux pony skin pinned to the doors: "It's all about creating a high-end look for very little money."

If you keep to a reduced and muted colour palette, believes Ahern, you need never worry about mixing different styles, because they all work together. It also allows her to indulge her love of textures, as is apparent in the main bedroom, painted a rich, rosy brown, like a cosy log cabin.

"You can never overdose on texture the way you can with colour and pattern," she says. "I like to feel cocooned and snug in my own space, and texture does that so brilliantly."

Thus a bedhead is replaced by a back wall of worn, weathered wood that was dragged from the River Stour via LASSCO, the bedspread is an ultrachunky knitted throw, and a pair of lampshades, resembling swishy hula skirts, are made from natural raffia.

A chest of drawers, patchworked with stucco panels and painted a deep charcoal, resembles an ancient, ornate sarcophagus.

At ground level, the kitchen, dining and living areas form one large, open space, tricked out in a screed floor and walls of slate grey as well as panels of old, dark London stock brick, added as a façade to provide yet another textural layer.

When she and her husband bought the house 16 years ago, Ahern had the back extended so that now a two-storey glass wall gives the living area double height, and twice the impact. "I used to live near the Great Lakes in the US and worked in an architectural practice," she says. "They built modern houses which had a great connection with the outside, so they thought about every square foot, right down to the end fence. And that's what I wanted, a real connection, and to feel that I'm in a bit of a forest."

Faux cacti and palms, both indoors and outside help lend the lie, while a long, cylindrical lampshade in chrome yellow was chosen by Ahern to tie in with the mimosa flowering just the other side of the glass in spring.

Alongside a cowboy cactus, a copy of the book Cabin Porn rests on a tribal African drum that serves as a coffee table, and sums up the relaxed, ranch-style glamour of the place.

Two chairs — flea market finds that Ahern upcycled with Tom Dixon's Bute wool in cobalt blue — add a vibrant splash to the palette of earth tones, echoing her colour philosophy of accenting a space with off-radar hues.

Says Ahern: "The more mistakes I've made, the better my design has become." Her monthly London masterclasses on breaking the rules and designing with confidence are sell-outs.

"The worst thing you can do is play safe. Just do it. People say to me that they don't want to paint the walls dark because it will be too depressing. So paint one wall and, if it doesn't work, paint it back in half a day.

"If I had never taken any design risks, I wouldn't now be living in a house I never want to leave."

Abigail Ahern's next Design Masterclass will be on April 8 at her house, cost £225; visit abigailahern.com


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