Plain English

Ros Byam Shaw’s new book, Perfect English, celebrates this practical and informal style of decoration
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You have only to look at the UK's Protestant churches, which are so defiantly plain compared with the baroque extravagances of neighbouring Catholic countries, to see our enduring connection between simplicity and virtue.

The recent fashion for more minimal, pared-down interiors has seen an increasing emphasis on the use of natural materials. Plain can also mean versatile, as this is a style that works just as well for an industrial conversion or a workman’s cottage.

With an emphasis on simplicity, this style is neither demandingly minimal nor lacking in comfort.

Stone floors: Very old houses tend to have stone flags, bricks or terracotta tiles, often laid straight onto earth in ground-floor rooms. If you are lucky enough to have these in place, you will want to keep them. Alternatives are new stone with a slight texture – very smooth limestone has a sleek, urban look that may be too minimal for country floors.

Wooden floors: Bare boards have the right feel for this look and it is well worth keeping as much of an original old floor as possible, even if boards need to be turned over and re-sanded. Finding replacement new boards to match old, wide floorboards can be a problem, but it is possible to buy reclaimed boards if you want your new wooden floor to look as if it has always belonged.

Plain walls are a key feature, and almost all are in shades of white. There has never been a greater choice of types of paint – from authentic limewash to trade emulsion – and there are enough different ‘whites’, from the brilliant to the thoroughly grubby and ancient-looking, to satisfy the most exacting tastes.

Matchboarding is the most modest form of panelling, adding character and cosiness to a plain room while keeping it simple. A less expensive way of achieving the effect without using separate planks is to route sheets of MDF with V-shaped grooves to imitate planks.

Windows: Fully lined curtains using metres of fabric are too sumptuous for this look. Leaving a window bare of curtains emphasises its architecture, but if you want privacy or need to be able to shut out light, a plain roller blind is the least intrusive addition.

Finishing touches

Modern furniture: This English style is one of the most accepting of contemporary furniture.

Old furniture: Perfectly plain, non-designer pieces from the first half of the last century are often better quality and less expensive than contemporary equivalents. Stripped of their dark, faux-antique varnish, plain oak furnishings from the 1920s and 1930s often look handsome when painted. Genuine, early English furniture from the 16th to the 18th centuries is very desirable but expensive. Later reproductions are a more affordable alternative.

Leather upholstery, as long as it is old enough to be worn, glossy and a little cracked with age, sits best in houses where natural materials predominate.

Pottery and pewter: For that sturdy, handcrafted feel, pottery is better than china. Pewter, like leather, looks good with wood and stone, and, while pewter plates are decorative rather than usable, a pewter jug or tankard makes a nice chunky vase.

Perfect English by Ros Byam Shaw
© Ryland, Peters & Small: Perfect English
Objets trouvés: ‘Found’ objects carry a strong sense of time and place, and finding ways to display or use them can be very satisfying; large scallop shells make pretty soap dishes, for example, and pieces of pottery or pebbles can be made into mosaics to decorate a garden wall or building, while a string of stones with holes through them hung at the door is said to keep away witches.

Fabrics: Plain fabrics, stripes, checks or weaves with a slightly ethnic feel are right for this pared-down look. Heavy antique linen sheets, or hemp, or old grain sacks in unbleached linen make very smart upholstery with a suitably rustic edge.

Extract from Perfect English by Ros Byam Shaw, published by Ryland Peters & Small. Photographer Chris Tubbs.

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