A forest of house plants plus rooflights and glass sliding doors cleverly merge the outside with the inside in this Georgian townhouse
The greening of Julia Thompson’s townhouse began long before the current trend for houseplants in all their frondy, glossy, Instagrammed glory. “Plants bring a house to life, so I’ve always been slightly obsessed with them,” she says.
As any seasoned interiors stylist or photographer will tell you, plants are a go-to way to add colour and texture to a space, handily filling an empty corner or a gap on a shelf. But, for Thompson, plants are just one of a range of elements that make up her personal style, which mixes contemporary art and surfaces with pieces from the 1970s and beyond.
Thompson is an interior designer at Frank Interiors, but her rework of her south London home, which she shares with her husband Paul Thompson, a sound recordist, and their son Frank, 11, has been a slow burner. “We moved here with a new baby, so we wanted to enjoy life as a family rather than start knocking down walls and getting the builders in,” she says. “That gave us time to think about how we could improve the flow of the house – and to save up to do it properly.”
Three years ago, they were able to add a double-height extension at the back, levelling and building over what had been a draughty 1980s conservatory. Thompson says this totally changed the feel of their tall Georgian home, creating a wider, more expansive space on the lower ground floor, which now has a family room, kitchen and dining area. Large openings with rooflights bring more light into the darker corners and sliding glass doors lead into the garden.
The old conservatory had been the antithesis of that much coveted “inside-outside” feel. “It was damp, cold and over the years it had become a dumping ground for bikes, garden chairs – all that stuff,” Thompson says. “In effect, it meant we used the garden less, because you had to wade your way through piles of junk to get to the doors,” she remembers.
Now, the dining area opens directly on to the outside seating area and garden, which was redesigned by Barbara Samitier as a sequence of serene spaces, planted with lush foliage and linked by paths. “We now go outside all the time: to have coffee, sit out with friends or have dinner in the summer. It functions like an extra room,” Thompson says.
The outdoor design succeeds because Samitier took her cues from the look indoors, houseplants and all. “She ‘got’ my love of lush, wavy plants and unusual finds, and created a garden that feels very similar – relaxed but also dotted with hidden treasures,” she says.
Thompson is skilled at mixing vintage items with contemporary designs and high street buys. On the new side, an industrial shelf is from Cox & Cox; a side table is Graham & Green and lighting is by Jasper Morrison for Flos. But they are kept in check with older pieces. “When I see a room furnished entirely with stuff that’s come off a factory production line, it makes my heart sink a little,” says Thompson. “To me, it feels cold. Vintage things have more soul – and I’ve always been a rummager.”
The Midcentury Modern Show is a favourite place to browse, but most of her bargain hunting is done at junk shops and fairs in the UK and abroad. A pair of 1970s swivel chairs was haggled for in a French market, and amber glass bottles were bought on trips to Amsterdam, swaddled in tights, socks and towels for the journey home.
Full-size vintage film and exhibition posters also feature. “I love the way that they sum up the mood of a previous era, even down to the fonts,” she says. A more modern photograph of the model and actor Omahyra Mota hangs in the bedroom. “It was the first piece of art Paul and I bought together,” says Thompson. “Not a picture that every woman would fancy over her bed, but I still love it.”
For Thompson, mixing old and new in the rooms of her home sparks her creativity. “When you bring home a chunky West German vase or a 1970s bamboo side table, you have to create a new context for it, so it looks different to how it did first time around,” she says.
Thompson’s trailing and tall plants are all part of setting the scene. “But mostly, my plants are here because they make me feel good,” she says. “I have a potter about every day in the garden to see what’s growing and at the weekend I methodically water all the plants inside. They are good for the soul.”
Horticulturalist Fran Bailey names her hero houseplants
- Easiest plants for a dark corner Try sansevieria, also known as snake plant. It’s a rough, tough plant and very easy. My favourite is Asplenium fern – perfect to add a dash of vibrant green to a dark place. Asplenium fern, forest.london
- Best for bright light
Choose desert and southern Mediterranean plants, such as cacti and succulents. Euphorbias – cowboy cactus – grows quickly; Crassula ovata, jade plant, is a pretty sun lover that grows like a mini tree. Jade plant, hortology.co.uk
- What’s popular
Instagram stars include the delicate senecio or string of pearls, and the cute pilea or Chinese money plant – so popular now that growers struggle to keep up. We’re seeing a move away from succulents and towards leafy plants, such as calatheas and ferns.
- Tips for grouping plants
Plants thrive in a group as they create a microenvironment. Smallsucculents and cacti look great in similar pots; vary height and leaf shape.Fran Bailey is the author of The Healing Power of Plants