Pale and Interesting: a review, of sorts

Unlike us, with our four children and our six dogs, my sister and her fella’ have no kids and no canines. Instead they have The Retreat, a 1930s artisan built timber chalet that stands in the middle of its very own wild-wood in the middle of nowhere. The Retreat had stood empty for half a lifetime before they took it on and was close to falling down. It eats more of their time and their money than our many children and dogs have ever consumed of ours. But it is their baby and they are lovingly, if ever so slowly, restoring it. And, with minimal help from professional builders and plenty of input from local craftspeople, they're doing most of the work themselves.

Rat-a-tat on The Retreat's front door with the custom-made-by-a-local-blacksmith acorn-and-oak-leaf door knocker, and you will be admitted to the perennial building site within. A dust sheeted, tool scattered, electrical wire festooned space which may surprise you if you arrive after dark, but not if you have come in daylight and observed the perennial building site without, strewn with piles of reclaimed oak cladding and assorted architectural detritus. “It will be lovely when it’s finished”, we all say, and I’m sure it will be. But, for now, they live for what they dream The Retreat can become while, quite literally, camping inside the charming if chilly shed that it currently is.

Every weekday morning they set off bright and early in their shiny company cars, my sister and her man, to tackle the long commute to their respective offices in a distant city. And every weekday evening, after the long drive home again, they tend to mundane chores and their vegetable garden. But come the weekend they swop their corporate wheels for a Land Rover that has seen better days, and their tailored suits for paint spattered coveralls, and then they happily hang out in architectural salvage yards, and home improvement stores, and up ladders, and under floors. They plan to make most of their own furniture when the work on the house is finally done. “It will be lovely”, they say. I wouldn’t have the patience!

I suspect that my sister and I are from different planets. Show me a book with the word ‘Interiors’ on the cover and I shy away. She, on the other hand, is in heaven. So Atlanta Bartlett and Dave Coote’s Pale & Interestingseemed a suitable choice for her birthday present. But, before handing over this alien object, I sneaked a peek inside ...

If you ask me – I know you didn’t, but I’m just going to pretend that you did - Pale and Interesting peddles a stunningly styled and sumptuously photographed ... lie. And I'd say it's quite probable that Bartlett and Coote really are from a different, and far distant, planet. I must hope it’s the same one my sister hails from!

“Take inspiration from humble things”, the authors say, “make the most of what you’ve got”. Which is all well and good but I can only assume that their dictionary gives a somewhat different definition of humble to mine. And that they have more money and more space to 'make the most of ' than I can likely ever hope for. They seem to suppose that we all live in 'period' homes with ancient beams just waiting to be exposed, kitchens big enough to accommodate an 'island', and plenty of room for a replica shepherd’s hut at the bottom of the garden. And if Bartlett and Coote have really raised kids and wrangled dogs in similarly pale and interesting interiors then I’d hazard a guess that they've also had staff. Where are the marks left by the grubby little hands of children just in from playing out? Where are the paw prints? Where is the muddle of toys and school books and wellington boots that I associate with family life? Jeez, if I accessorised our home by throwing “a richly embellished sari over [one of the] beaten up leather armchairs” a whippet would probably eat it! And I can just imagine the outcry if I'd banned Ribena and Coca Cola, as Bartlett and Coote must surely have done.

It’s not all bad. I’m with them on the “keep it simple” and “celebrate the imperfect” approach, although chez knitsofacto the latter generally equates to making a virtue of a necessity rather than spending a fortune on "eclectic antiques". And "shades of pale" we can most definitely do, as long as they're not too pale and and we keep a wet cloth to hand at all times.

I should maybe make it clear here that although Knitso Towers is in the country it is most definitely not a country cottage with rambling roses at the door. Ours really is a humble abode; the middle house in a modern row of three three-storey homes that were built, at the planner’s insistence, to match the similarly tall and terraced Victorian and Edwardian farm worker’s houses that are a feature of this village. We have a tiny courtyard garden, just as they do, and I am forever grateful that those same county planners forbore from insisting on matching brick privies as well. Inside is 'interestingly' proportioned and poorly arranged. Some of the upstairs rooms are built into the eaves. We’re all sloping ceilings and uselessly small alcove cupboards. We don’t have a separate dining room, or an en suite bathroom just for grownups. But, back when the kids were littlies and I was a stay-at-home Mum, it was the best we could afford in a place that one pays a premium for the privilege of living in. All six of us fitted inside, just, along with the children’s budgies, goldfish and guinea pigs, and the dogs we had then. We thought we’d soon move on. We didn’t. From our bedroom windows we can see for miles across the lush meadows where the whippets love to run, all the way to the hills and the mountains beyond. At the end of the lane the River Dee rolls lazily by in summer, and rushes through in the wetter months, hurrying then to get to the not-so-very-far-away sea. The hedgerows hereabouts are all frothy white blossom in spring, and purple with a wild harvest of sloes, damsons, elderberries and blackberries come the autumn. The children are growing up and moving on now, but we’ll probably stay. We like it here.

Do I like Bartlett and Coote’s book? No, not really. Agreed, the colour palette is totally me. And ditto the abundance of flower filled jugs and jam jars, and all that lovely, lovely linen, and the painted pebble-grey wood panelling. But, although admittedly a very pretty book, it is also a profoundly annoying one. Faced with statements like “this opulent yet low-key dwelling” I’m too busy complaining about the oxymoron – surely nothing can be both ostentatious and restrained - to appreciate the authors' passion for “chalky pastels” and “distressed patinas”. The important question, though, is ‘Will my sister like this book’? And yes, I think she will, because after careful consideration I’ve concluded that, unlike me, she probably is from planet Bartlett and Coote. Happy Birthday Sis!

All photographs in this post are of Atlanta Bartlett and Dave Coote’s Pale and Interesting: decorating with whites, pastels and neutrals for a warm and welcoming home, 2011, published by Ryland Peters and Small, ISBN 978-1-84975-112-4
  1. As I read the title of the post I thought it was referring to someone's complexion - now I'm disappointed. Really, that "distressed patina" is the worst decorating cliche of the late 20th century. The book looks like every home furnishings catalog I've seen for the past twenty years here in the US. And yes, it's pretentious and dishonest: what's so simple about keeping white walls and furniture clean?
    But enough of my ranting. At least your sister and b-in-law are enjoying the process, right?
    -- stashdragon

  2. I can't tell you how much i enjoyed your post. Something about the honest way you write or the way things resonate with me, I don't know. I expect your sister will enjoy the book, even though I know nothing about her. You have a gift for words and I hope you'll keep writing.

  3. I LOVED this.....your gentle prose and interesting way of writing had me hooked and interested from the start ~ you certainly have a way with words Annie, and I could read them all day!
    SO many points that you made in this post made me smile, and think "that's just how I feel".......birds of a feather we must be in many ways!
    Carry on writing and thanks for a great Saturday morning read, it was better than the papers!
    Karen @ Lavender and Lovage

  4. I couldn't agree more Annie. I am sometimes seduced by books like this. They always leave me feeling cheesed off and discontented with my lot. You are right, they never show interiors of modern houses with plastic windows and laminated floors. They are always expensive too, give me a cookery book any day.

  5. Must admit I had thought about buying/borrowing this book! so good to hear your thoughts ... we live happily in perennial disorder, surely this is normal?!
    hello from Snowy to your doggies

  6. "Be bold with battleship grey.." Enuff said.

  7. Well, it is a beautiful book although, yes, many of these interiors/books do sell a very glossy lie ;) I am perhaps a dual citizen of your knitting planet and your sister's decorating planet ;) I love the process of creating a home and a cozy environment. When I was a kid, I had neighbors who would let me go in and decorate their house as I saw fit, haha. Perhaps its like an extension of painting to me.
    I admit, though, like you I get frustrated with these books and articles about these beautiful old houses with naturally interesting personality and design. I live in a builder's model, builder's grade tiny little house in a modern neighborhood and have spent the last 6 or so years trying to turn it into a quirky old timey cottage. I am grateful for the modern amenities it gives me though. Dont think I'd last a week with no AC, especially this summer!~

  8. What wonderful blog, loved reading it.

  9. I love the pictures, and part of me yearns to live in an uncluttered white space, but the reality is that I have 3 dogs, 3 children, a very messy husband, and loads of stuff that I don't want to throw away - not to mention the fabric and yarn lounging about on the sideboards! Maybe one day . . .

    Pomona x

  10. Brilliant post Annie! Both amusing and honest!
    Even if they are from a different planet, you have to admit that is a gorgeous throw in the first photo. :)
    Vivienne x
    Re WIP'S or W'sIP, you're probably right, I never really thought about it before!

  11. I was getting sucked into Pale and Interesting - yes, it's a standard format; yes, the picures are the sort of images you'd find in other books, and that's how it works, on me anyway - but then I got to the text criticism. AGH!

    My text editor's soul / bullshit monitor reached out and saved me from being sucked in, and now I'm going to go and contemplate my collection of clashing colours and dust buggies. I'm beyond help... probably just as well!

  12. really enjoyed your post......have spent an enjoyable hour catching up on your write beautifully...pleased to meet you

  13. Hi Annie..I had to laugh as you built my hopes up about the dream that is offered in this book and then whipped me into shape by deflating it with honesty and humour..thank you..a great post!

  14. very very Beautiful post!

  15. Great post, Annie. An eminent stylist who has published similar books once used our old allotment shed for a photo shoot. On our return we found the shed eerily neat. The final prints showed charming little check tea towels hanging on the doors, orange boxes painted duck egg blue, and not a piece of crud in sight. I must confess though there have been times when I have wondered whether she might come round again and do a bit of pure style magic while I'm out.

    (PS Cannot find weather book at the moment but will let you have title as soon as I do)

  16. Great post! I loved reading it and was nodding along the entire way.
    I am so much more attracted to the real nitty gritty.
    But I adore that first throw too.

  17. I have the same love/hate relationship with interiors books. The pictures, I enjoy (like you, I love that calm palette) but they could never ever be part of my reality. And I cannot ever read the words, so trite they are. Unlike yours, which I could happily read for hours.

  18. Love this post. I dread to think what B&C would make of the interiors here. Pale and interesting they ain't!

  19. I'm blushing here, so many kind comments about my writing, thank you all :) And so many like minds, it's a wonder these books ever sell ;)

    Karen, Elsy, Stashdragon and TJ ... pleased to meet you too :D And Karen, you're the first to suggest that knitsofacto is a better read than the weekend papers... what a lovely thing to say :D

    Sue and Heather ... those of us who live in ordinary houses can dream of quirky cottages or whitewashed château while enjoying cosy homes with all mod cons that we can still make our own ... we have the best of both worlds don't you think?

    Barbara ... living happily in perennial disorder sounds normal to me :) Oh, and the whippet boys and Wilbur the dachshund send woofs and wags right back to Snowy :D

    Pomona ... aren't all husband messy? I honestly don't think Ted would be compatible with an uncluttered white space, he's one of the messiest men I know! It would be nice though, wouldn't it ;D

    Welsh Kate, Ali, and Liz (or are you Elizabeth today? ;) )... so comforting to know I'm not the only one who would be frowned on by B&C ;D

    Vivienne and Kate ... that throw is just gorgeous isn't it ... it says it's 'vintage crochet' in the book and I'm even more determined to learn to crochet now as I want one just like it :D

    Colleen ... wouldn't that be wonderful, to come home to discover that your house has been beautifully restyled in your absence ... although I'd probably have to go away for a good week for that to work here! I have to ask, where did the pictures of your shed feature? I might have seen them. No worries about the book, it's just that old books fascinate me.

    Francesca ... she loved it! She just phoned me to say thank you :D

    Oh dear, have I missed anyone? This system of waiting to respond until the next post goes up can become a bit of an undertaking when there are so many lovely comments. Thank you again, everyone x

  20. It's amazing how these interiors books can change one from a person who loves colour in my home, to wanting a pale and interesting home. What a beautiful book! Wouldn't it be wonderful if you were allowed to photograph the retreat, and show us! Vanessa xxx

  21. The romantic in me dreams of a whimsical, white little retreat. The practical pig squeals 'cleaning!' x

  22. I am chuckling away...very funny. I have never found pale interesting anyway but might try lining my shelves with newspapers as we have rather a lot of them - newspapers that is. And I am only joking! Nice book for a bit of eye candy with a cuppa though. Did your sister like it?

  23. I adore this post. It's all so true and you say it so, so well! You're posts are a pleasure to read.

    S x

  24. I feel so good having read your post! Thank goodness someone is able to tell the truth about real life/cats/dogs/children/husbands/no money/etc. I don't even think about using the things I crochet. I'd be insane to watch the dog eat someting I spent months to create. I just give my stuff away-to people like your sister!

  25. Wish I had the pattern for that lovely crocheted grey throw at the top of the post!


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