Real Homes: The Flemish Exchange

I’ve known Laura for a few years now, through the wonders of blogging and t’interweb but only got to meet her at the Pen-Do last year. I was then heartily disappointed to find she was moving away, and a little bit jealous that she was making such a leap of faith. Laura wasn’t moving to another road, or town or city, but to another country; Brussels. Now you see, I always had a sneaking suspicion that Laura was uber cool, which is clearly why I wanted to be her friend (aside from her great Northern sense of humour,) but all my worst suspicions were confirmed when I saw her new home, pulled together from scratch and realised I had actual life envy. The only decent thing I could do was beg her to share it here and I’m thrilled that she agreed.

Thank you so much Laura!

When Rebecca asked if I’d write a piece about moving to Brussels in August and starting decorating from scratch, I was delighted. Basically, I’ve been spending the last couple of months moving ornaments about, hanging pictures and then posting the results on instagram, so it was nice somebody noticed – other than my husband, who’s been driven mad by my incessant wittering about the best place to position our recently-unpacked possessions 😉

And when I say it was a blank canvas, it really was. When you rent an apartment in Brussels, you rent the shell. The previous occupants were under strict instructions to remove the curtains, the blinds – even the lightbulbs. Seriously. Apparently in Germany they go a step further and take out the kitchen when they move – I kid thee not!

I’ll be honest, though – moving into this place was more than a little daunting. In the UK, I lived in a back-to-back terrace in Leeds. It was homely and we’d put a lot of work into it. The thought of starting all over again galled me a little. And the thought of 15 foot ceilings was, quite frankly, terrifying.

Before we moved out here, we had the mother of all clear-outs. We had car boot sales, dropped off disgusting amounts of stuff at the charity shop, numerous ebay sessions and more than one trip to the tip. It was a long and arduous process. However, it was so worth it. If you’re thinking of moving, you must do it – you’ll hate yourself if you don’t. I had a question I asked myself whenever I found myself hovering over something – ‘Do you LOVE it? Actually LOVE it?’ Yes – it was wrapped lovingly in bubblewrap by Transworld’s finest packers. No – au revoir.

I’d define my taste as 1930s/40s modernist. I like plain backgrounds with pops of colour. I love walnut. Glass-fronted bookcases make me very, very happy. My passion for Anglepoise lamps and velour is a bit indecent. My husband is more cheerful and countrified in his preferences, and so we influence/restrain each other.

My most adored piece of furniture is my glass-fronted bookcase (we have two – the tall one is my favourite). My mum and dad gave it to me when I bought my first home. It was given to them as a present by a family friend and I’d worshipped it from childhood. I’ll own it forever, and I’ve bought other bits of furniture to fit around it. The computer desk was a bargain from Leeds’ Retro Boutique – a great shop that’s always jammed with little surprises from years gone by. The little set of drawers in the hallway was purchased in a shop called Le Petit Coin in Brussels (I also bought the coloured atom coathooks there) and was a bit more expensive but the wood was a perfect match for our other bits and pieces so I just couldn’t resist. The vintage radio is the genuine article – a 1952 fully-working reconditioned GEC beauty – and was a wedding present from some very lovely friends. One of the Russian dolls was a wedding gift – my brother bought the other one back from a study trip (to Russia, unsurprisingly).

I love framed prints, but now that we live in era where anyone with a Mac and a monthly subscription to Photoshop can knock up something decent-looking and sell it for a fortune on etsy, I find myself getting choosier about what I’ll put on my walls. The prints on our living room wall were collected over time – clockwise from top right is a Guinness advert I found in an old Country Life magazine in a second-hand bookshop and bought for mere pence; the man diving was bought in the Side Gallery in Newcastle and I just love the cheekiness of it; the centre print is one by North West artist Alan Stones which I bought for my husband when we got engaged; the next is a selection of pages from a children’s book entitled ‘How to Swim‘ – I adore the illustrations – and finally the last three pictures are a trio of my favourite Irish writers. Apart from the Alan Stones pictures, none of them were particularly expensive.

I would totally recommend having a look in second-hand book shops and charity shops for vintage magazines and children’s books with quirky pictures – shop around for a decent picture framer and you’ll have something beautiful that’s completely unique (did you know that the Keep Calm and Carry On prints originated in a second-hand book shop in Alnwick before they became popular and took over the WORLD? It’s true! It really is worth the effort getting them framed professionally – I bought frames in Ikea and tried myself but just couldn’t achieve the same look. Mind you, I’m not very practical…

I’ll admit, moving abroad made me a little sentimental about the good old UK, and so when I went to see the 100 years of British Design exhibition at the Victoria and Albert in the Spring, I bought the Manchester motorway junction and Go To Work On An Egg prints. We used to go on dates in Manchester quite a bit when we first got together so this print always makes me smile. My husband works with farmers promoting home-grown and farmed produce, so the Egg print is his favourite. Museums and galleries are another great source of interesting prints. Try local ones for something with personal significance – as an (Irish) Geordie/daughter of an ex-miner I couldn’t resist the Building of the Tyne Bridge and the Miners’ Strike from Easington prints from the Side Gallery.

After purchasing a generic brown leather DFS sofa for my front room in Leeds years ago, I decided to invest in some new furniture for Brussels. For the front room I went for a grey sofa from Barker and Stonehouse – it’s the most comfortable thing I’ve ever sat on, and I think my beautiful blue Donna Wilson blanket and yellow Habitat cushion brightens it up a little – and a blue velour winged chair with multi-coloured buttons (also from Barker and Stonehouse). I’ve gone from being obsessed with green to being obsessed with blue – even my John Lewis bird-print oilcloth is blue (I love oilcloths – you can buy them by the metre and spill an entire bottle of wine on them without doing any real damage – what’s not to like?) Belgium is a bit rubbish for mainstream/highstreet furniture shops, but the small antique-y places are good and they do have a Habitat (JOY).

So, if I had any advice from starting decorating from scratch it’d be have a huge clear-out, make sure you love everything, don’t be afraid to mix old and new, make the effort to hunt out unique pictures and don’t be scared of blank walls. I’ll be happily finding pictures for mine for the next two years, I reckon.

*If you’ve gone all fan-girl like me, you can hear more from the lovely Laura on her blog Parliament of Owls or follow her on Twitter @MissMacDonner

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