Textile designer Molly Mahon and her husband Rollo have created a family home and thriving business in a cottage in the Ashdown Forest.
Textile designer Molly Mahon’s woodsman’s cottage is tucked along a wooded lane on the edge of the Ashdown Forest. For many of us it would be a dream to live here, but while the location is idyllic, Molly explains, their lovely cottage was far from dreamy when they relocated here from London eight years ago.
The first house they found had fallen through, so they decided to rent while they waited for another property they loved enough to appear.
‘When we first looked at this one, we thought no,’ says Molly. ‘There were no windows in the kitchen and the downstairs was divided into lots of gloomy little rooms. But time went on and we still hadn’t found anything. This house was in such a good location and it was a project, which was what we wanted, so we came back to it.’
The family lived in the cottage for a year to get the feel of it, but some things they were sure of from the start: ‘We knocked a hole in the kitchen immediately just to bring the light in, changed the bathroom and then we did our plan.’
The main aim of which was to bring more light inside – and also to lower the floors. Both Molly and husband Rollo are tall and needed some headroom. The stairs were also a problem: ‘You had to walk all the way through the house to get to the staircase and the children hated being upstairs as it was divided by a heavy door.’
‘We lowered and levelled the floors from the kitchen onwards, and covered the passageway in to make the boot room and laundry, which also houses our big fridge.’
The main part of the house is now accessed by a clever little sliding glass door that opens directly into the living area. ‘There was also no way out into the garden from the kitchen, so we put in the French doors and we painted the black beams white to bring the light in.’
It’s hard to imagine that this was once an uninviting space. Now the whole of the downstairs feels spaciously cosy and bright and even on the gloomy morning of our visit, seems lit with internal sunshine, helped along by a rich ochre cloth over the table in the middle of the room.
While the work was going on the family had to move out, but they didn’t move far – in fact they took up residence in their double garage, using the front half as a kitchen, the back as storage and, because Rollo was running a camping company, they slept in two big tents in the garden.
‘It was quite an adventure to live under canvas,’ Molly laughs. ‘Great fun really and it meant that we were right there during the building project, which is quite important.’
Completely remodelling your home is chaotic enough, but as is the way with many a grand design, third child Orlando arrived in the middle of it all – at the same time as Molly’s business had begun to take off.
As with many successful start-ups, it had all began as a hobby while they were living in London. ‘I was always in a shop called Tobias and the Angel in Barnes and I just loved the block printed fabrics in there.’
Although Molly wasn’t encouraged to study art at school – ‘it wasn’t educational enough,’ she laughs – her mother is the artist Celia Lewis so she grew up in a creative environment, able to experiment artistically at home. As an adult she still needed that outlet.
‘I was always trying out little workshops at various places, but never seemed to get that satisfied feeling,’ she says. Then Angel Hughes, who owns the Tobias and the Angel shop, suggested that she tried fabric printing. ‘So I signed up for a workshop and then saw that it was being held down here.’
Molly says of that first block printing workshop: ‘I thought I’d arrived in heaven. It was thrilling.’ It turned out that she was also very good at it and she ended up helping Angel for two years, learning about paint, materials and the process of block printing.
‘I just never got bored of it. Lifting the block and seeing if it was any good or not was always exciting.’
After a while Molly started to print her own designs and when a friend asked her to print some wallpaper for her shepherd’s huts, the business began to take off.
‘I couldn’t have asked for a better starting point to turn a hobby into a business. People enjoyed the colours and it started to sell. It got quite busy once I could use the garage as a workroom.’
Molly remembers how once they’d moved back into the house, they had to shift all the furniture aside in the living room to lay out the fabric. It was clear she needed more space and somewhere that people could visit in order to see her work.
They had just found the ideal space in a nearby unit when what could have been a terrible set back arrived. Molly was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a very difficult time, but friends and family rallied round and helped to keep everything running.
‘Rollo had been going up and down to London with his business, but he put that to one side in order to help. During the treatment and the chemo the one saving grace to me was thinking about my business.’
Supporting Molly, Rollo started to take on a lot more.
‘He’s great at organising and he made it into a business. He’s still here – he never went back.’
Working with their small team, the structural changes are more or less finished in the house. The ground floor is now all one space, but manages to retain its cottagey feel. The ceilings are tall enough for Molly and Rollo to be comfortable, but still low enough to keep things cosy, light now floods in though the French windows and Molly’s colourful designs sing out from every corner.
The kitchen has been ingeniously – and incredibly economically – designed and built, using timber frames as units and scaffolding planks for the worktops. ‘The whole thing cost about £300 in the end,’ smiles Molly. It has a rustic country look, with some shelves open to display the contents – lovely bowls, plates and serving dishes – while others are curtained off with Molly’s printed fabrics.
The lamp hanging over the kitchen table is in the ‘Pattee’ design that was inspired by fretwork and Persian gardens, which Molly had seen at the Amber Fort in Jaipur, India, where most of her production now takes place – although, until recently she took most of her inspiration from Africa.
‘I did Anthropology at university and African art was always there as an inspiration. I was writing my dissertation and simultaneously looking at the colours and the patterns all around me there. I hadn’t really thought about India.’
By chance Rollo’s brother James was doing horse safaris in Jaipur and offered to do some research for her.
‘James would Facetime me from all these wonderful places, but in the end I needed to go and explore for myself. I went out there for a week and he was able to chaperone me.’
Molly remembers walking into one of the workshops to find a homespun cacophony of colour that was almost overwhelming.
‘The printing, dying and sewing was all going on together in one space and I was blown away by it. Everything seemed to be possible over there and I came back so inspired. I must have been to India six times since. I have amazing relationships in one specific area just outside Jaipur where we work in collaboration with artisans. I go there by myself now.’
Other influences spring from many sources. She has painted the living area’s large woodsman’s fireplace in true Bloomsbury fashion, keeping it as a feature and making it less oppressive than the original.
‘I wanted it to be joyful, not the heavy grey stone that it was. I don’t believe in these rules about why you can’t do things.’
Draped over a sofa I notice a half-finished tapestry that Molly has been working on, the design based on one she saw at Charleston that had been done by Vanessa Bell.
‘I was sure they didn’t use this particular shade of pink, then was amazed to find out that she used almost exactly the same shade,’ she says, adding, ‘pink is my favourite colour.’
Most of the soft furnishings in the room have been designed and made by Molly. The blue fabric, Luna, recently won ‘Best Neat Print’ in the Homes & Gardens magazine fabrics awards.
She carefully closes the drawers that house a collection of shells that belonged to Rollo’s grandmother. On a wall in the kitchen, hangs another family collection, this one of butterflies, gathered by Molly’s mother from the local area and pinned in a frame for the family to use as a reference.
The cupboards at the end of the living room have been hand decorated by Molly, each door with a different flower. The red piano was given to them by a friend when daughter Lani, 9, wanted to learn the piano. ‘I wasn’t sure if we had room, but when the piano arrived and I saw it was red I was delighted,’ she laughs.
Upstairs, Molly explains how they reconfigured the staircase and bedrooms, moving a wall to make a corridor in the process.
‘Then the builders found a void at the end here and we worked out that we could put a shower room into it, so this is the guest room when people come to stay.’
Above the bed in there are two precious block-printed fabric samples made by Barron and Larcher, pioneers in textile design from the first half of the twentieth century, who have been a big influence on Molly’s work.
Hanging over the dressing table is a painting by Molly’s friend Lottie Cole, who has done a series of paintings of the interior in Charleston House, home to the Bloomsbury Set.
‘Lottie does the most amazing paintings,’ says Molly. ‘I am very lucky. All the artworks in the room are done by friends, or by my mother.’
Oddly, when they bought the house, the family bathroom was in the main bedroom.
‘It was all one big room,’ Molly explains. ‘You couldn’t get into the bathroom without going through the bedroom, so we had to put up a wall and turn it into a “Jack and Jill” bathroom with two doors.’
The walls here are splendid with Molly’s blue ‘Coral’ bathroom wallpaper. ‘We recently re-did the wallpaper in here,’ says Molly. ‘The walls were plain white in between times and we really didn’t like the look. It just seemed so empty.’
The quilts on the beds in all the bedrooms are all handmade – block printed and hand stitched in Jaipur – and the walls are decorated in ‘Lani’ paper. Molly also designed and made most of the lamps in the bedrooms.
Heading back downstairs there is an example of how effortlessly she is able to bring touches of magic to the cottage’s interior. The walls were originally plain blue, until on a whim one rainy Sunday, she and the children just painted starry fireworks onto the blue paint.
‘It needed jazzing up,’ she says. ‘We’ll probably change it again soon.’
We head out of the kitchen door across the lawn to the garden workshop where Molly spends much of her time, drawing her designs.
‘This is where I feel most happy,’ she says, as I gaze in awe at the small heaps of intricately carved printing blocks and examples from all stages of her printing career that lie all around us. She shows me some of her original wallpaper, simply printed with emulsion paint onto lining paper.
Molly’s love of her work is inspiring. She explains how this has spurred her to teach courses of her own at several places around the country, including her beloved Charleston.
‘I was spending more and more time running a business and less time making. I felt sad about the loss of the actual printing and wanted the connection with the basic art again. It’s wonderful to see people’s enjoyment. The last hour is always spent in silence. It’s like meditation, or therapy – and sharing the knowledge is inspiring for me too.’
This is a house and a business built on the love of colour and design, infused with warmth and joy, elements of which are expressed in charming combinations all through the spacious interior.
Between them, and with considerable courage and determination, Molly and Rollo have turned both their cottage and their business into a dream come true.
Molly’s fabrics on cushions in the sitting room
The lampshade over the kitchen table is in Molly’s design Pattee. The worktops were made from scaffolding planks
Most of the soft furnishings in the room have been designed and made by Molly
Molly’s painted flowers on the cupboard doors
The sofa in the sitting room is covered in Molly’s award-winning Luna fabric
Molly painted the fireplace in Bloomsbury style
The painting on the left is by her friend Emma Black
Molly and the children painted the stars on to the blue paint on the staircase walls. The wallpaper is Molly’s Lani design
Daughter Lani’s bedroom. The fabric in the canopy is one of Molly’s hand-block printed cottons, Stars
The wallpaper is Spot and Star
Youngest child, Orlando’s bedroom. The wallpaper is Fern. The quilt is also by Molly Mahon
Molly’s Coral wallpaper in the bathroom
Rollo and Molly’s bedroom. All the fabrics and the quilt are by Molly Mahon
Molly’s colourful designs sing out from every corner
In the master bedroom, all the fabrics – quilt, headboard, lampshades, valance, bedding, cushions, chair – and the wallpaper are all from Molly Mahon
Hanging over the dressing table is a painting by Molly’s friend Lottie Cole
Over the bed in the guest bedroom on the far left and far right are two block-printed fabric samples by Barron and Larcher, early 20th century pioneers in fabric design who have been a big influence on Molly’s work
Molly’s garden studio in what was the garage
The children have their own wall of paintings in the studio
Lino cuts and printing blocks on an Indian chest
Playing with blocks at her print table
You may also like
Stella Hayes initially fell in love with the property's glorious garden. She has gone on to create a beautiful home.
I’m sure we’ve all thought about buying a house by the sea – perhaps after an idyllic holiday, or a bracing walk, even just a drive along the coast. On the morning we visit James Rourke’s house, as the sullen...
When Sally Harrington opens the huge front door of her Kentish weatherboard home I assume that the 1950s bungalow that once stood here was demolished to make way for the new house. “No,” she says, “it’s still in here somewhere,...