Live well with the straightforward recipe for a beautiful country home

Ten years ago, while driving in the Australian countryside, my husband and I chanced upon this house on an autumn afternoon. We weren’t really looking for a country place but didn’t hesitate for a moment. Like most things, as soon as we set eyes on it, we knew. A few weeks later, we owned it. It was as though the house found us.

It is located in a small, picturesque village about 140 kilometers from Sydney, in the NSW Southern Highlands. We bought it as the ultimate escape from our busy city lives, set amid fruit trees, hedges and lawns that give on to endless horizons.

The district is reassuringly family friendly; it’s where my family has holidayed for generations, owned rural properties and attended boarding schools. We lived in Sydney, but my mother and father had a 200-hectare property in the area. I loathed visiting – I wanted to stay in the city.

The clematis in bloom is a lovely backdrop for an alfresco table setting.Credit:Abbie Melle

The house, barn and stables were built by skilled local hands about 13 years ago, using architectural pieces salvaged from around the world. The main house feels old because it has serious quantities of reclaimed French oak parquetry flooring, soaring salvaged windows and stone fireplaces, plus old timber doors. All have a history and patina that is great to look at and live with.

I didn’t spend a fortune decorating. I did what I always do and went with the house instead of changing it. A lot of things, including the paint colours, wallpaper and curtains, I wouldn’t have chosen, but I’m a great believer in using what you’ve got.

I build rooms around collections, not fabric swatches. If you buy things you love and throw them together well, a room will work. Then I went shopping for a couple of key pieces.

I opted for timeless staples that can be mixed and matched. A couple of pretty chairs and tables, a good mirror, elegant new table lamps and an antique tapestry. They are all high-quality, fade-free classics that we can take through life and will last the distance. I am a big believer that glamorous accessories can give a fresh look and will cost a lot less than a complete overhaul.

Use your books like works of art. Stacking them on a table not only looks decorative and interesting but leaves them easily accessible.Credit:Abbie Melle

Next, I had new slip covers whipped up in plain, tough, off-white canvas to lighten up old sofas, armchairs and cushions. It was like putting them in summer frocks. They dramatically altered the rooms, bringing harmony to discordant pieces of furniture and making everything relaxed and elegant – at a fraction of the cost of reupholstering them. Plus, we can pop the slip covers into the washing machine.

The house is all about celebrating the art of living and knowing the chicest thing of all is to be true to yourself.

Other key pieces are an Ottoman covered in a Fortuny damask and antiques bought with some of my first pay checks: a 19th-century French mirror, an Irish Gainsborough reading chair, a Georgian Pembroke table.

I had built up a good collection as a young married woman, so I had staples I could move from house to house. Accessories range from more traditional paintings to African shields, foliage and vegetables.

I brought a touch of glam to bedrooms and bathrooms with big, new, fluffy white cotton towels and crisp hotel sheets.

Melissa Penfold enjoys entertaining here.  “The house loves a party and loves people,” she says.

Melissa Penfold enjoys entertaining here. “The house loves
a party and loves people,” she says. Credit:Abbie Melle

Simple pleasures bring joy to daily life. I dug out old wicker baskets and vases to display fruit and leaves. Each week, I grab big bunches of pretty leaves from the garden, sticking to one or two types like magnolia, laurel or bay for maximum impact. I put inexpensive bunches of kale in jugs, frilly lettuces in teapots, onions in bowls, cauliflower in urns. Florist arrangements might be great, but I prefer mine to be spontaneous, natural and authentic.

I’ve usually got no time to arrange, so I go for quantity: 30 apples or potatoes in a basket packs 10 times the punch. I fill trays with big, knobby lemons with their leaves attached from a tree in the garden.

Life in this house is uncomplicated and undemanding – the vibe most people seek from a holiday. We enjoy beautiful surroundings, simple pleasures and good food. Fresh coffee, bowls of fruit, loaves of bread, a glass of wine, slabs of cheese. The interior feels like a still-life painting; all the elements are in harmony.

This house is about celebrating the art of living and knowing that the chicest thing of all is to be true to yourself. The rooms are elegant, warm and welcoming, but also humble. I prefer rooms that are relaxed to the point of almost being “undecorated”.

One of the greatest compliments I can get is when visitors feel as relaxed in our surroundings as my family and I do. It isn’t completely accidental: the pleasure derives from the combination of comfort, simplicity and practicality. It’s something anyone can achieve.

Books are central to all my houses. I use them like works of art, stacked up high on tables, and change them regularly. They are decorative, interesting, and great company.

Once you've got the walls and floors right, layer with staples and accessories in a ratio of about two to one.  Choose the best you can afford.

Once you’ve got the walls and floors right, layer with staples and accessories in a ratio of about two to one. Choose the best you can afford.Credit:Abbie Melle

My homes are always a mix of things from different times and places, from grand to simple. I choose natural fabrics over synthetics, authentic furniture over reproductions, something battered and weathered with a history that has style simply because it is real.

In line with my mantra of “keep it simple” I went for beiges, khakis, butterscotches, soft greens, and blues sharpened with black – a foolproof palette – and then I layered in my beloved collections. There are a lot of wicker trays, potted cyclamen, glass hurricane lamps and cabbage-ware plates – all classic pieces to cherish.

For me, the recipe for a beautiful country home is straightforward; the ingredients include a lot of mirrors, a few really good pieces of furniture, whopping beds with crisp white linens, and generous bunches of foliage.
The house and barn are seasonally covered in clematis, roses, wisteria and Boston ivy. The terrace that opens off the living room faces a wall covered in lattice-patterned star jasmine. We eat out there eight months of the year. It’s so peaceful.

It is first and foremost a family home, but it is also a workplace, so it’s a center of creative energy. It’s where we entertain, too; the house loves a party and loves people. And it’s the happiest house. It’s just easy to live well here, and at the end of the day, living well is what it’s all about.

edited extract from Living Well by Design (Vendome Press) by Melissa Penfold.

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