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Large scale living on the River Stour

PUBLISHED: 10:57 18 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:21 20 February 2013

A classic 1960s Arco floor lamp arches elegantly over red Le Bamboli chairs from B&B Italia. The polished aluminium lamp is a design classic by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni and originally used to illuminate the dining table. It is perfectly balanced by a heavy marble base from which its steel stem can extend towards the light itself. 
The table beyond was invented by John, essentially a 19th century Regency marble top supported by a concrete drain pipe.

A classic 1960s Arco floor lamp arches elegantly over red Le Bamboli chairs from B&B Italia. The polished aluminium lamp is a design classic by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni and originally used to illuminate the dining table. It is perfectly balanced by a heavy marble base from which its steel stem can extend towards the light itself. The table beyond was invented by John, essentially a 19th century Regency marble top supported by a concrete drain pipe.

Designers Suzanne and John Fell-Clark took on a 1930s industrial complex of mammoth proportions to realise their dream of a contemporary home in Suffolk on the banks of the River Stour

Designers Suzanne and John Fell-Clark took on a 1930s industrial complex of mammoth proportions to realise their dream of a contemporary home in Suffolk on the banks of the River Stour



When Suzanne and John Fell-Clark told estate agents they were looking for an industrial barn in a field overlooking the water, they were told there was probably no such thing.
Having already made a home out of a 19th century Martello tower, which they are battling to save from the ravages of coastal erosion, they were never likely to give in that easily.
We were living in London and had the tower in Suffolk as a weekend place but it was too small to live in permanently and we didnt want to go to and fro all the time, says Swiss-born Suzanne. And we certainly didnt want a rectory or anything formal like that.
Then John spotted a postage stamp-sized photo of what looked like a chicken barn in the local paper and decided to have a look post-weekend on his way back to London.
The next thing I knew, John was on the phone urging me to go and have a look, Suzanne says. It was simply mind-blowing, both the staggering size and the wide river views. There was no question that we had to do something about it.
Sadly, others had the same idea and the former dairy farm went out to tender. In the agonising month that followed, the couple consoled themselves with the notion that the barns would eventually prove too ugly for most people to aspire to living in them.
Conversely, we think they are very beautiful because of their immaculate 1930s proportions, says Suzanne. They had everything we wanted including planning permission to convert them to a residence.
Suzanne, who combines her formidable interior design skills with her career as a professional psychotherapist, reckons the only thing that frightened them when they finally secured the buildings was the sheer size of the complex. But we got used to that by just focusing on one thing at a time.
As an architectural designer with many prestigious house projects to his name, John knew from the start what he wanted to achieve.
The whole thing revolved round an architectural concept rather than lots of details, he explains. We wanted to retain evidence of the industrial property, therefore any conversion would mean slotting our living spaces into the large volume without losing the integrity of the original use.
Essentially they ended up with two cow barns with massive two-foot thick walls almost as sturdy as those of their Martello tower, together with outbuildings. One barn was sold on before conversion, while the commodious carthorses quarters on the other side were transformed into a stylish home for their daughter and her family.
The Fell-Clarks own barn space is now a vast, double-height living area with dramatic views over the River Stour, the former dairy behind it transformed into Johns roomy office, a utility space and a loo, all leading off a large hallway. On the first floor, where the cow feed would have been stored, is Suzannes studio, a guest bedroom and bathroom, while at the very top, Johns museum, has replaced pulleys and water tanks.
The conundrum of where to put the main bedroom was solved in a master stroke by John who designed a hut to sit in the rafters of the main barn with a glazed front offering the same spectacular river views and an ensuite bathroom behind it. A large landing links the structure seamlessly to the other first floor rooms.
We decided to keep the palette of materials as small as possible so that we didnt have too many different things going on, says John. We used steel, concrete, pine boards for the ceiling and teak for the work surfaces and upstairs floor which we reclaimed from duckboards that we found in a part of the building.
An occasional room divider of shuttered concrete has been installed to give a degree of separation for the kitchen at the centre of the barn and for a small sitting area opposite the staircase.
You have to fasten the shuttering boards together very securely before pouring the concrete in, John explains. The exciting bit comes 48 hours later when you remove the boards because you are never quite sure what the concrete will look like. He has succeeded in making a pattern that echoes the white-washed ceiling timbers with the added irony that they also faintly resemble a sea wall battered by the elements.
Daunting as it may seem to create dedicated living areas out of such a large space, Suzanne simply explains that having done a lot of conversions you have a basic framework into which you fit things. A similarly relaxed attitude was applied to her choice of furniture.
The concept was that if you have more or less a white box then the eye is drawn to the items you put into that box rather than the eye being drawn to the structure itself, she says. So it lends itself to quite colourful items to put into the box.
The iconic 20th century furniture they both love would at first seem to have been deliberately chosen for the barn, yet Suzanne jokes that their brown Le Bambole sofa by Mario Bellini was actually bought back in 1972 at the Milan Furniture Fair and has been everywhere with them like an old dog. The red chairs are a modern version. Such a good design we have used it again, says John.
The design for the black leather swivel Karuselli (carousel) chairs is said to have been created when the Finnish designer Yrj Kukkapuro famously fell asleep in a surprisingly comfortable mound of snow after a vodka-fuelled night out. The chair was launched in 1963.
For two talented people each with strong ideas, one wonders how the Fell-Clarks manage to arrive at their decisions and yes, it can get heated, Suzanne admits. But it is very much an executive decision that comes out at the end.

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