A throughly modern stylish Suffolk home

PUBLISHED: 12:28 11 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:08 20 February 2013

The master bedroom, decked out in relaxing shades of blue and aqua.

Photograph by TONY HALL

The master bedroom, decked out in relaxing shades of blue and aqua. Photograph by TONY HALL

A typical 1960s house offers little in the way of period features or attractive detail. But with a little vision and careful planning, it can be made into a gorgeous and highly desirable home

A typical 1960s house offers little in the way of period features or attractive detail. But with a little vision and careful planning, it can be made into a gorgeous and highly desirable home, like this one in Orford, cleverly converted by interior designer Melissa Billen and her husband David

Words and pictures by TONY HALL

In the picturesque Suffolk riverside village of Orford near Woodbridge, buildings span the centuries. In the middle ages it was a thriving sea port from where Eleanor of Aquitaine set off to ransom her son Richard Coeur de Lion. The castle was commissioned by Henry the second, dating from the 12th century and one finds in this small community of 600 people, buildings as fine as any in rural England, spanning nearly every century since, right up to the present day.
Interior designer Melissa Billen and her husband David Pannell arrived in Orford five years ago with their son Sacha and bought a 1960s house in the village. David had worked heading up a team of researchers for an investment bank in the city of London, whilst Melissa worked in designing interiors for such companies as Wilsden Design Associates and David Baker Architects amongst others. I originally wanted to be an architect, recalls Melissa, but was badly informed that one needed physics as a requirement. Instead I decided to do a one year foundation course at the well known Hornsey School of Art, specialising in 3-d design, which I so enjoyed that I stayed on to do a four year interior design course, leading to a BA Hons in the subject.
My family have long been associated with Suffolk dating from the times as a little girl we used to holiday in Aldeburgh, adds Melissa. Later mother moved to Sudbourne, where incidentally I got married at the church, my cousin Natasha has run the Orford Supply Stores for seven years, and although David and I lived in Dulwich, London, we had a holiday home, a two up, two down turn of the century cottage at nearby Shottisham on the Bawdsey peninsula, so our association with this part of Suffolk has extended over many years.
The catalyst for our permanent move to Orford, says David, taking up the story, was my being made redundant late in 2004 and I took the opportunity of starting a new career up here, commissioning health care for groups of general practitioners. I was ahead of the now general trend and I service doctors in Stowmarket, Hadleigh, the Shotley Peninsula, Aldeburgh, and across most of East Suffolk. Initially I came up with Sacha and lived in our holiday home and Melissa joined us as soon as her contracts in London permitted. With her family connections with Orford, naturally here was one of our top choices.
Fortunately, through family we knew the owners of this house were about to sell. It was built by those owners for themselves in 1962, on the site of the original farriers, which shows on a 1930s map in the snug of the Jolly Sailor pub here in the village.
Although the house had strangely proportioned small rooms, hardly any of which faced the river, other than the one above the kitchen sink, sayss Melissa, we were totally blown away by the potentially fantastic, to-die-for views.
Also, a building of that age is a lot easier to update and reconfigure in comparison to a period property which might be listed and have planning problems. That said, however, because of having just that next door, an 18th century farmhouse, it was very important, particularly in this designated area of outstanding natural beauty to keep the integrity of the street scene intact.
Initially we lived in the house as it was for three years, whilst discussing in detail and costing our plans for conversion and extension to what was to be our 21st century home. Certainly our wish was to energise and take full advantage of these unique views of the river. We wanted to open up the rooms, all very small, into open plan living spaces which flowed together, and draw the eye to the natural splendour of the stunning surroundings the boats, marshes, lighthouse, sea beyond, the wildlife and the wonderful skies.
David because he is an excellent cook, far better than me, also wanted a proper kitchen with centre island, where people could gather and look at the view, in a sizeable living space.
The result, after years of evaluating the problems, finding the money and going through the mental torture of living in a building site, is fabulous! With extreme skill, Melissa, with both her architectural and design training, has fulfilled all the criteria.
Although the original building has been expanded, really it is tweaking of the finest kind. With total sympathy for its surroundings, the footprint has not really been enlarged very much except to encroach a little into the garden area. From the outside street scene, the only clues to the change of this 21st century Tardis-like property is the wooden cladding to the west elevation and the inclusion of two satin chrome and glass portholes to the new porch, which replaced a UPVC one.
Step inside though and the transformation has to be seen to be believed, as the photographs show. Now with the addition of that new porch, with the portholes the entrance hall is surprisingly large. To the right a downstairs cloakroom, and past the cantilevered/glass staircase the eye is, as intended, taken straight through the dining area to the balcony/decking and the view!
Floor to ceiling windows and doors in all the downstairs rooms really emphasise the light, space and views.
To the right entering the dining area is Davids pleasure a stylish white kitchen, with centre island all with Corian tops and again that special view. On the kitchen worktop is Melissas favourite item a red antique chemists jar, bought at Yoxford Antiques. To the left of the hall is the TV/family room. Melissa has designed all the bespoke seating and storage units throughout. Beyond is the garden room. Though the different living areas flow naturally into one another, all can be sectioned off with concealed sliding doors to create individual areas.
It works so well, explains Melissa, as often if we are on our own, someone can be watching television, another listening to music, another reading a book, yet very quickly we can all come together again.
We love entertaining and our dining table can now sit ten safely with room to move around, impossible in the cramped conditions originally. We have also installed a Bose state of the art sound system which runs throughout the house, all hidden in the cupboard the TV stands on.
Its very much a party house, so we have also invested in lots of different lighting effects, some that change colour, others that are LED uplighters both around the skirting and others on the outside decking and garden.
We concentrated on enlarging the ground floor, as thats where we needed the space. Upstairs we have three bedrooms and a study plus family bathroom. The only main addition on this floor was a large balcony to the main bedrooms to again take advantage of the location and to enjoy Sunday breakfasts al fresco.
My original intention was to have white walls throughout, to compliment the timber floors, but when we came to switch on all the special effect lighting, I decided for added impact to paint just one wall in each area a strong rainbow colour. Taking large pieces of card I tried out each colour suggestion in different light conditions before settling on the final decision. They have made a good design statement, without being overpowering.
Since her arrival in Suffolk, Melissas already successful business has powered ahead at great speed. On the commercial front, recent major projects have included a complete revamp of the Brudenell Hotel at Aldeburgh and its bedrooms and likewise all the bedrooms at the Swan Hotel in Southwold for Adnams.
On the private client front, design contracts for large houses in London and Cambridge, together with two new-builds in Suffolk and a revamp of The Maybush public house at Waldringfield are keeping Melissa and her team very busy.
She now employs five people at her design business, which is based in a commercial unit in Potkins Lane Orford and has a very professional approach to both her staff and clients.
With my team, says Melissa, we are just that a team, working together in sometimes very fast track circumstances. With clients, both commercial and residential are treated the same. We have a long conversation with them initially, find out the brief, what they want and why. I certainly am not touchy feely. The practice is a one stop shop offering, design, procurement, installation, everything, the whole package.
So what does she do for relaxation? Work and when time permits shopping! laughs Melissa. I have only had one weeks holiday in the last year which this time was walking in the Slovenian Alps. We dont do beach holidays. Other previous times away have included again walking around the hills of Ronda, southern Spain, plus adventure and white water rafting vacations.
Here in Orford, continues Melissa, I love walking along the river wall either to the Butley River one way, or the other way back tracking around the village. When I am feeling energetic, its a run along the Gedgrave Road down to the ferry or through the forest. I also love reading mostly novels, and seeing happy films, such as Breakfast at Tiffanys. However I equally like Mafioso and gangster type movies.
Whilst I, really enjoy gardening, adds David. I have been fortunate to get quite a big allotment from the Town Trust, where I try hard to grow as much as possible to make us self sufficient, although I get into trouble with Melissa bringing muddy boots and vegetables into the kitchen.
This year I have also changed boats from a speed boat to a Wanderer sailing boat and have become a member of the sailing club. Great fun.
Another quick story I must tell you, says David with a twinkle in his eye, is when we went to choose our new golden labrador dog, Flo, we took a piece of our flooring to decide on the dogs colour out of a litter of ten! No only joking.
So what of future plans? Well I hope to grow my business more, concludes Melissa. With regard to this house I am already getting itchy feet and within a couple of years would like to find a new project, probably in or around Woodbridge where Sacha is now at school. Certainly we would not stray very far, as the whole family just loves this corner of Suffolk.

Contact Melissa Billen at MBD Interiors,
Unit 5, Potkins Lane, Orford, Suffolk. IP12 2SS Tel: 01394 450837, email:
Melissa@mbdinteriors.com or visit the website at mbdinteriors.com

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