Interior designer Ben Stokes’ family cottage, painted in deep, rich shades and accessorised with natural woods and sumptuous textiles, is a wonderful example of the bold transformation of a small space  

There’s no introduction to this three storey cottage. No hallway to lead you through – we are entering from the street straight into the front room here, plunged from the morning into a velvety twilight. Most of us would paint a small interior in pale colours, to increase the feeling of light and space and make the area seem larger. This is a centre terrace too, and all the more reason to lighten up the colour scheme you might think. Ben Stokes, founder and owner of Kagu Interiors in Tenterden, would beg to differ. The walls in here are dark, but not oppressive, bold and strong, but in no way overwhelming. “Our flat was light and airy and painted in pale colours,” Ben says, “but I wanted to try something a little bit different here.”

The previous owner had lived in the house for fifteen years and although there was no structural work to be done, it was all looking tired and dated – pale and uninteresting, if you like – and in need of a total update. A daunting task for many, a breeze for Ben, who, apart from being able to design stunning interiors, can furnish them with bespoke items from the Kagu shop. Once baby Margot was on the way, there was a deadline for finishing too.

Starting from scratch two years ago the couple managed to complete everything but the bathroom before daughter Margot was born. “We did the lounge and the upstairs bedroom first,” says Ben, adding, “from our Instagram it gave the impression that the whole house was finished, but walk into the kitchen and there was just a microwave.”

You might expect the kitchen to be the place that is lightest in colour, but here it is the darkest room in the house. There’s not an actor in sight in this kitchen drama – the room speaks for itself. The panelled walls are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Studio Green, a perfect contrast to the exposed brick on the opposite wall and the pop of orange from an Anthony Burrill print. Luckily already in place when they moved in, the panelling brings depth and texture – a sort of chiaroscuro, to an otherwise flat space. “I really like the effect, the light and dark of it,” says Ben.

Light and dark – this time horizontal, is embodied by dark wooden blinds on the kitchen window, which let a surprising amount of light into the room. Dark wood is also picked out in the beams of the ceiling and the lintel above the fireplace alcove where a smart Smeg range cooker has been installed.

The layout of the kitchen is similar to that of the previous owner, “except that they had an enormous table in here that nearly filled the room,” says Ben. Tired old kitchen units have been updated with new cupboards from Howdens, because “most units are much the same,” he says, but – and here’s a neat trick – painted in the same colour as the walls and smartened up with door handles from Buster + Punch. Ben made the counter top from polished cast concrete. Treated this way, standard kitchen units can be transformed into something bespoke.

A squashy velvet sofa offers an inviting place to sink into

The focal point in the room is the kitchen table – a one-off piece made by Kagu from a fabulously huge slab of wood. A giant nest of ostrich eggs, “yes, they are real,” Ben smiles, are piled up and gleaming in the centre of the table.

Ben has cleverly balanced the darkness of the walls with a pale ceiling and floor, which subtly lighten up the room without diminishing the drama on the walls. The floor tiles look like ancient limestone flags, but are made by a flooring company in the Netherlands called Castle Stones, where they hand make special replica stone tiles. They look just like the real thing, but are a lot lighter in weight and easier to handle. Kagu is the UK’s agent for Castle Stones.

Hanging over the kitchen table is a handcrafted ‘mud lamp’ and on the wall (and all around the house) there are iconic prints by Anthony Burrill, all from the Kagu shop.

The front room has been divided into an entrance area and sitting room.
A huge mirror on the ‘hall’ table helps frame one section, whilst the fireplace and alcoves provide the focus for the ‘sitting’ part of the room

Above, spun out across the beams there are hanging lamps from Buster + Punch. It’s clear when you look around that Ben has thought carefully about lighting throughout the house and that a key part of the overall design is down to the lighting. This is the reason that (admittedly helped by the property’s large windows) the rooms don’t feel oppressive or gloomy. “Lighting is important in interior projects,” he says, explaining that it works in three stages – top, which is the overhead, blanketing light – middle the wall lights, which also bring in some elegance – and then bottom, which is the table or floor lamps. When all three layers are employed, a range of effects is created – features can be highlighted, shadows deepen within the grooves in panelling and cool, dark colours become warmer and softer when gently and subtly lit.

Plants also help to bring a room to life, “especially architectural plants – don’t be afraid to go big,” says Ben. “A large-leafed plant always makes a statement and can become a great focal point.” I’m wondering whether it’s a little dark for some houseplants, but Ben assures me that if they start looking a little unhappy, he gives them a holiday in the garden.

The hall and landing are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Old White, and this brings a lightness to the heart of the house – and practicality, as the stairs are narrow and steep, going up two storeys, with a tiny landing. Even this small space manages to make room for a focal-point pot and some pictures.

Through the open door of the bathroom your eye is immediately drawn to the elegant bath in the corner – deep, dark and coppery within, verdigris on the outside – the sort of bath a mermaid might choose. Suspended from the ceiling is a sculptural octagon light, each tentacled arm holding a small globe that can be individually positioned. A stone basin perches on a slice of burr oak, looking rustic and effortlessly chic.

The focus is on comfort in the master bedroom. The dark colour – Farrow & Ball’s Bancha – works especially well in here, and the careful choice of accent lighting brings glamour, depth and a restful ambience. The windows have both blinds and curtains to help with sound as well as light blocking.

Margot’s room on the top floor is a total joy, wallpapered with a design by illustrator Katie Scott from Swedish firm Ferm Living, who also made the giant pineapple rug. It feels soft and calm in here, with accent details in warm beige and on the rosy side of neutral. Much of the furniture has been up-cycled, so the room has a timeless and characterful feel.

A stone basin perches on a slice of burr oak  Right: Soft pinks and pale ochres combine in the decor of a guest bedroom

Ben’s office is on the top floor too, organised to double up as a spare bedroom. He has had fun in here, playing with blocks of colour and geometric shapes and textures. The look is enhanced by the fringed lampshade, velvet curtains and headboard in pale salmon and a tactile and curvaceous terrazzo mushroom-shaped table – all combining to bring a vintage 1970’s vibe, but with a modern twist.

Texture is an important – and often overlooked aspect of interior design. We tend to focus on the visual, but creating a liveable, comfortable home is as much about touch as it is about how things look. Ben has an ingenious – and increasingly fearless, eye for design and is now able to put his skills into practice more and more as the interiors side of Kagu expands.

“The business has flipped,” he explains. “It was a shop directing people towards interiors, but now it’s the other way round – the shop has moved further down the high street, selling a more exclusive range that you can’t buy from anywhere else.”

Back downstairs we are in the front room where Ben has managed to make an entrance area and a cosy sitting room – no easy feat to achieve both in one small space. The huge mirror on the ‘hall’ table helps frame this section and the fireplace and alcoves provide the focus for the ‘sitting’ part of the room. A sumptuous royal blue sofa (from Kagu) completes the look.

This is a period house with original features and it can be difficult to blend these with a bold and contemporary style – far easier to play it safe and lean towards classic or neutral themes, especially in a smaller property. Ben has shown that with the right treatment the use of darker hues, rich textures and bespoke modern furniture and artwork, this style can work successfully – not just to make dramatic design statements, but also a warm and comfortable family home.

Dan Hillier’s Frontiers diptych hangs above the upholstered master bed. The walls are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Bancha, and careful attention has been paid to the lighting to create a restful ambience
On the top floor, daughter Margot’s room is wallpapered with a design by illustrator Katie Scott from Swedish firm Ferm Living

Address Book:

Find out more about Ben’s interior design services and his shop, Kagu in Tenterden, by visiting kagu-interiors.co.uk

Graphic artist Anthony Burrill anthonyburrill.com

Door handles by Buster + Punch busterandpunch.com

Floor tiles by Castle Stones castle-stones.com/en

Wallpaper and interior accessories from Ferm Living fermliving.com

words: Maggie Alderson

pictures: David Merewether

styling: Holly Levett

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