There aren’t many people who would road test a floor tile; but the devil, for Sarah Skinner, is in the detail. “Details do consume me,” confesses Sarah, who used an arsenal of red wine, tomato ketchup and grease to pre-test a sample of her kitchen floor. “But I test things because I know I have to clean them!”
Clean or not (and the place looks spotless), Sarah is an expert when it comes to astute detail – ingenious hidden storage, inspired landscaping, the way space flows – and that’s what makes this home in the heart of Clearwater Bay such a special and remarkably peaceful oasis.
Garden of delights
Hidden behind a high stone wall in a scruffy car park, it’s easy to believe you’ve stepped into a glorious Mediterranean sanctum as you enter the 3,500-square-foot garden that surrounds the house. Sarah – who trained as a commercial interior designer – landscaped it herself: “I wanted levels to break up the garden, as it was originally just one large expanse of grass,” she explains.
Using low stone walls and greenery, she has transformed a potentially tricky half-moon plot of land into a gorgeous outdoor living room, with defined areas for cooking and eating, lounging in the covetable Jacuzzi, or relaxing around the imposing outdoor fireplace. “We wanted a focal point for the garden, and I love fireplaces – fires are the thing I miss most about England!” she laughs. “It comes into its own at Halloween, when the kids use it to toast marshmallows and s’mores.” (That’s graham crackers with marshmallows and chocolate, for the uninitiated!)
Dracaena succulents and ixora evergreen shrubs sit in shallow beds alongside palm trees, princess flowers and frangipani – the Skinners wanted low maintenance plants that looked good all-year round. “When we started looking to buy, I wanted a house with a large garden, because I knew I could do something interesting with it,” explains Sarah. “Because village houses are generally smaller, it was important for us to extend the living space out into the garden. We use it twelve months a year.”
If you can drag yourself away from the garden oasis, the rest of the house has the same air of tranquil harmony; largely attributable to the way Sarah has opened up the space and ensured the rooms flow seamlessly into each other. “You can cram these properties full of small rooms, and a lot of village houses have four or five bedrooms,” she explains. “Instead, we’ve reduced the bedrooms to three, and made much more of the communal areas. I didn’t want corridors off staircases, or any part of the house to feel enclosed. I wanted to open it up, and get as much light in as possible”.
Sarah employed architects Jepsen Design to project manage the builders and structural engineer, but she worked out herself how the space should flow within the structure. “I designed the house from the inside out, whereas architects would generally work from the outside in,” she says. “Most designers would install windows up to the ceiling but because I wanted lots of storage, I’ve put slot windows between overhead cupboards and desks”.
As a result, the windows throughout are a variety of unusual shapes and sizes, and are often grouped in pairs or threes. One of the walls in the children’s bathroom is entirely frosted glass, for example, and the light in the downstairs cloakroom is filtered through three long window bars. “They’re grouped together to break up the space, otherwise it would just be a box,” explains Sarah. The result is a house that is filled with light, but looks pleasingly geometric from the outside.
Sarah’s talent for spatial design is evident on the top floor, where there is more hidden storage in the walk-in wardrobe and ensuite bathroom than most houses boast in their entirety! Mirrors slide back to reveal concealed compartments, and doors swing open to reveal entire walls of shelving. It’s easy to imagine whiling away several hours in the peaceful plantation-shuttered bathroom, either under the huge rain shower, or wallowing in the comfortable bath. It’s a copy of a Philippe Starck design – Sarah believes in mixing and matching designer originals with copies, depending on function: “The taps are original brands such as Axor, and I imported all my appliances, fixtures and fittings from the UK, because they are cheaper than buying them here – with the additional VAT refund when you export. For certain things I buy originals – my office chairs, for example – but for me in the end, it’s all about what looks right. I wanted a Le Corbusier bench for the end of my bed, but they didn’t make it in exactly the right dimensions, so I commissioned one to be made by Artura instead”.
The master bedroom is a soothingly calm space, with a sisal rug and fabulously modern eco-fire imported from Australia, from Design Link. The white Corbusier-style bench sits at the end of a comfortable bed with a pale, high headboard that was custom-made by Aberdeen-based Wing Sun Sofas, and the windows are screened with heavy, silk-effect curtains. They’re actually a synthetic mix; “I would never go and buy silk curtains if I know I can get something that looks like silk,” says budget-conscious Sarah. There are standard lamps on the Red Cabinet bedside tables, but Sarah has kept the overhead lighting minimal. “People tend to over-light in Hong Kong, so I have pared it right back in terms of spotlights,” she says.
The master bedroom flows seamlessly into a pleasant office area, where Sarah has lined the wall between overhead storage cupboards and the desk with some striking silk-effect fabric she found at Curtain City in Wan Chai. Painted oak bookshelves run along the corridor into the study to elongate the space, but the room can be shut off from the stairwell and master bedroom with a recessed sliding glass door, another perfect example of Sarah’s attention to detail.
“Rather than having a recessed door, most people might have had it proud of the ceiling, and others might not even care! I am a stickler for having things right, and exactly lined up,” she laughs. Glass extends two storeys down the stairwell, and Sarah has added a sleek stainless steel handrail, which she designed herself.
Downstairs in the family hangout space, Sarah has created a clever storage solution that allows the Xbox, Wii and DVD player to be hidden away when not in use. Pull a door open, and everything is immediately on hand: “There’s even one remote you can use to switch between the three players: it’s gaming heaven!” she says. The sofa – custom made by Wing Sun – sits beneath a striking photograph of a New York metro carriage Sarah bought at the Affordable Art Fair.
The children’s rooms are a mix of furniture Sarah has commissioned – Raymond Chiu of Nan Xing Construction created the chest of drawers in both daughter Gabriella’s room and son Toby’s – and pieces like the Eileen Grey side tables and Eames Eiffel chair she picked up from the homeware district in Shenzhen. For Sarah, though, it’s all about being discerning – she sourced all her Sunbrella-covered garden furniture from local Sai Kung store Wicka Designs, because she felt it was more affordable and better quality than the garden furniture on offer in Shenzhen.
The open-plan kitchen is a focal point of the spacious downstairs area: an Effeti Kitchen design with a huge Carrara marble worktop. “I priced a marble top in Lockhart Road, and then in Italy, and there wasn’t much difference,” she says. It works both as prep and cooking area, and as a comfortable breakfast bar. She’s adamant, however, that investing in a European kitchen is worth its weight in gold: “In terms of mechanisms, it just works, and it will last for years.” To the right of the worktop is a utility room with wine fridge, sink, and yet more storage. The walls are covered with gorgeous white and silver mosaic tiles, while piles of perfectly stacked, perfectly ordered crockery and serving bowls sit on the open shelves.
In the living room, various berry-coloured, spotted, striped and patterned cushions tone perfectly with the two pieces of artwork on the walls; a photograph of Buddhist monks from Picture This in the Prince’s Building, and a botanical print by UK artist Sophie Corynden. A large dark grey sofa – copied from a design Sarah saw several years ago in Lane Crawford to her dimensions – overlooks a floating sill on which the TV stands.
“Primarily, I wanted to hide the wires, but the sill gives the impression of more space, and because the floor tiles run that way, that also helps,” she explains. Of course – the famous kitchen floor tiles: “This tile is amazing; in fact I would probably put it through the entire house if I had my chance again!” says Sarah. The tile looks and feels like wood, but is actually ceramic, and most importantly, is completely resistant to ketchup, red wine, grease, coffee and anything else you could possibly think to throw at it. With Sarah’s seal of approval, it’s most definitely a tile worth investing in!
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