Interior designer Ben Stokes’ redesign of an old stables has resulted in a perfectly formed and popular airbnb rental with lashings of individuality
When we arrive at The Stables there’s a baby outside, lying happily in her pram. No crying she makes, but this is as far as the nativity scene can go. We are here to meet baby Margot’s father, Benjamin Stokes, interior designer and owner of Kagu Interiors in Tenterden, and this is no humble straw-filled stable, at least, not any more.
Tucked behind a row of elegant period town houses, this modest and diminutive building was once part of a larger stable that housed the horses for the residents’ carriages – the equivalent of a garage with access at the back of a house. Most of the original stables have now gone, but this last remnant, changed out of all recognition over the years – and previously rented out as a one bedroom apartment – “to a person who must have smoked like a chimney,” laughs Ben, describing how hard it was to get the nicotine and tar stains from the walls.
There were no structural changes to be made, but the old dated interior needed to be stripped back to bare bones and started again from scratch. Blank canvasses are daunting for some of us, but for Ben they are an opportunity to use his interior design skills, allowing him to showcase some of the bespoke handmade furniture he designs and other unique finds sourced for the shop at Kagu Interiors in Tenterden High Street.
We enter through a glass door in a panelled glass wall and walk into a light-filled mini atrium. You would think this might be a waste of valuable space in such a small apartment, but the atrium makes the place – enhancing the rest of the interior and, along with the French doors in the living area – flooding it with daylight. The window frames throughout are painted a striking and sophisticated dark tone – Farrow & Ball Studio Green. This colour is used to unify and underpin the colour scheme both inside and out, ensuring a streamlined and cohesive appearance to the building as a whole.
Another striking feature of this refurbishment is the floor – which, if I didn’t know better, looks as if it was part of the original stable floor, weathered and lime-washed into a thing of beauty. But this floor is actually a reproduction – a high quality, handmade copy of an original floor from an ancient building somewhere. The tiles are light and actually really thin – around 5 or 6mm thick, so can be laid almost anywhere. Ben says that when he starts a new project he usually begins with the flooring. “Start off with a good base,” he explains, “as it sets the tone for the rest of the project.” Wise words from the sole agent of Castle Stones, the Netherlands flooring company that hand make these special replica stone tiles. Similar composite brick tiles, this time from Mandarin Stone, have been used to good effect on the shower walls in the bathroom.
Ben chose soft, but hardwearing, sisal for the bedroom floor and opted for wooden floorboards stained an ebony colour for the living room. The floorboards came from Orlestone Oak in Shadoxhurst. Supporting local businesses when he can is an important factor when it comes to choosing services and materials. In the case of The Stables, budget was also a big part of the decision making process. It was important to get the right look without compromising on quality, but within a budget, because ultimately a holiday home needs to return a profit.
Demonstrable ways of achieving the desired effect, without having to splash out, abound here at The Stables. “To keep costs down the kitchen was from Wickes,” explains Ben, “but the marble top was sourced elsewhere. Using places like Wickes and Howdens is cost effective. You can then source the handles and other details from different places and make the units look bespoke that way. To be honest, a cupboard carcass is much the same wherever you get it from.”
Ben is not averse to shopping at budget friendly high street stores either, providing the items meet the brief. “The curtains in both the atrium and living room are from Ikea,” he says, “but they work well and have helped to keep the project to budget.” It’s a question of knowing how and when to use such things, and this is a skill he has gradually learned as his interior design experience has grown.
“All the doors are made from reclaimed Mississippi oak floorboards.” This gives them their rich warm colour and contrasts beautifully with the central section of the door frames, painted in a smokey blue
Starting his career in property development in London, Ben quickly realised that it was the interiors side of things that interested him the most. “When I came back (to Tenterden) I realised that the more I did, the more I wanted to get into interiors. I started the shop five years ago and now here we are,” he says. Business, despite recent events, is going from strength to strength. Using the shop as a base, he spends most of his time out and about, sourcing and designing – and really enjoys designing bespoke furniture for projects. He points to the coffee table in the living room. “That was a butcher’s block that we found a base for and then screwed a glass top on to.” It has made a perfect low table and with its worn, curving surface visible under the glass top it becomes a sculptural piece.
They made the hall table and the vanity unit in the bathroom too – repurposing an old cupboard and plumbing a basin into the top. “Upcycling is a great way to achieve a bespoke look that’s also cost effective.” He points at a wooden door. “All the doors are made from reclaimed Mississippi oak floorboards.” This gives them their rich warm colour and contrasts beautifully with the central section of the door frames, which have been painted in the same unifying smoky blue as the window frames.
The simply furnished bedroom is set off by a panelled back wall, painted a striking green, which contrasts well with the taupe of the headboard of the bed, another handmade piece designed by Ben. Green is used as a fresh pop of colour throughout the apartment, livening up the otherwise restrained beige bathroom and luxurious walk-in shower.
Ben travels extensively, sourcing materials and objects for projects and for the shop from Europe and Scandinavia and has forged strong links in Germany. “I wanted to be able to sell things that can’t be sourced in England,” he says. “I need to be able to get things that are a bit unique and unusual.”
He’s found it a challenge to negotiate some of the recent hurdles in the marketplace, many associated with Brexit. “Importing is a nightmare at the moment,” he admits. “Things that I ordered six months ago and had forgotten abut have only just appeared. There are huge delays, lots of paperwork and red tape.” It is worth putting up with these irritations though, and ensures that Kagu can maintain its reputation for supplying unusual and unique interior solutions.
Ben is also trying to push the business online, and weighs up the balance between old and new – the things he can’t source easily, or in sufficient quantity go in the shop, or are used as part of a project, but those items in relatively easy supply, like the large basket in the hall – which makes an ideal container for a large plant – are in stock online and at the shop. ‘I’m in the shop one day a week.’ Says Ben, ‘Most of the time I’m out and about, working on projects, designing furniture, looking for architectural finds in places like Ardingly, or sourcing things for the shop.’
The interior of The Stables has been dressed with an eclectic mix of bespoke and off the shelf items. Ben points out some of the furnishings that are also available in the Kagu shop, including the dusky pink Soho sofa in the sitting area. Striking verdigris copper lamps that hang in the hall to such effect that they become artworks in themselves. These mix happily with high street purchases and interesting finds from all over the place. The chairs in the dining area were sourced from a shop that specialises in old church furniture, while the shelf on the wall above started life as a potter’s board – being used to move pottery into drying rooms and kilns. An old fire bucket has even been turned into a stylishly retro plant pot.
Kagu interiors does also venture outside a little. There is a fabulous rusty red Onora planter just outside the building – home to a huge clump of agapanthus and making a statement of its own when these aren’t in flower.
A miniature sliver of patio can be found adjacent to The Stables, accessed either from the front of the apartment or through the French doors of the living room. This outdoor space could easily have been overlooked, but Ben has cleverly made it seem bigger than it is by using pale stone chippings on the ground. Helped by the horizontal fence, he has turned the space into a bijou seating and dining area complete with bistro table and chairs, surrounded by scented plants.
The transformation of this building from humble stable, through forlorn rental into a stylish holiday retreat is near to being a small miracle and shows off, to great effect, both Ben’s considerable design skills and some of the fabulous items on offer at Kagu Interiors.
Find out more about Ben’s interior design projects and Kagu Interiors at kagu-interiors.co.uk
Book a stay at The Stables through airbnb at airbnb.co.uk/rooms/50561349
Castle Stones castle-stones.com/en
Orlestone Oak orlestoneoak.co.uk
- words: Jo Arnell
- pictures: David Merewether
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