Karen Hahnel’s grand apartment on the St Leonards seafront has views as impressive as its interior

It’s always fascinating to visit someone’s home and see all the lovely things they have and find out where they got them from (that’s why I keep doing it in these pages…), but it adds a whole other level of interest to go back to the new abode of someone you have written about before. Will they have kept all the cool stuff, or started over?

So it was that I entered Karen Hahnel’s new apartment on the grand Marina section of St Leonards seafront eager to see where she had put the amazing ‘life-sized’ angel made from wire which was such a feature of her previous place.

And there it was, in all its glory on the wall of her new sitting room, to the left of the fireplace on the sea-view side of the room and the amazing thing is, in this setting, it seems quite small.

Because what a room it is. With three enormous floor-to-ceiling windows leading onto a narrow balcony with decorative wrought iron railings, it’s like a Paris apartment with the additional appeal of total immersion sea gazing.

A breathtaking space with four-metre ceilings and all the original cornicing of the grand Victorian house it once was, this is what Karen moved from her – also fabulous – previous flat for. And it was only six houses along. “I also moved to have a garden,” says Karen. “When you have a dog, you need somewhere for them to go out.”

Her previous place was on the ground floor and in this row of very special houses the gardens are all accessed from the first floor, making apartments on that level highly sought after. As Karen says, “You have the view and no one can see in.”

So, determined to live with those appealing features, Karen set about it, with determination. “I stalked everybody in a first floor flat in this row of 20 houses, I did a letterbox drop. After a while a board did go up and it was sold, but the buyer dropped out and the owner got in touch with me.”

And so Karen realised her dream to have a Marina apartment that was the same but crucially different from her previous one.

Contemporary dining chairs are arranged around a Saarinen Tulip dining table from the Conran Shop, providing a social dining space
ABOVE: Contemporary dining chairs are arranged around a Saarinen Tulip dining table from the Conran Shop, providing a social dining space
Karen tracked down the large armoire at French Loft in Arundel
ABOVE: Karen tracked down the large armoire at French Loft in Arundel
Karen’s arrangements of eclectic mixes of objects make for fascinating tablescapes

Another difference that immediately strikes me is that she has flipped her colour palette a neat 180 degrees. The previous flat was painted a very chic charcoal colour (Fired Earth’s Mercury) throughout, walls and ceilings. Which – rather counter-intuitively – enhanced the sense of flow between the rooms and made it seem bigger.

With this one you open the front door straight into the sitting room, which is painted all white with fine white linen curtains at the windows and white loose-covered armchairs next to the fireplace (the iconic Ghost 25 chair by Paola Navone). 

It makes the amazing space look even bigger, an effect boosted again by there being no ceiling rose or overhead light, just a vast expanse of pristine white ceiling. This came about because while all the wonderful cornicing is perfectly preserved, the original rose had gone. “There was just a cheap fake thing, not the right size,” says Karen. “So I got rid of it and decided not to have a ceiling light.”

Underneath this white space, the whole room is furnished in a monochromatic palette, with shades of grey from pale smoke through to charcoal and natural neutrals, with accents in metallics and wood. Everywhere the eye falls there is something interesting to look at, in intriguing arrangements, and nothing in the room jars the eye.

The effect is so pleasing and calming on the spirit, that I realise, as we sit at the grey marble top of the real Saarinen Tulip dining table (from the Conran Shop) that I have chillaxed to the point where I am gazing happily out of the window, my pen falling from my fingers. I apologise to Karen who laughs. ‘‘I decorate to create a mood,” she says. “I wanted it to be calm and serene.”

It most certainly is, but in the Zen state Karen’s décor has inspired in me, it occurs to me that the whole room is a marvellous play with geometric shapes.

It’s almost a cube in shape – unlike the oblong rooms we are used to – and combined with the round table and new extra long rectangular sofa Karen bought (from Graham & Green) to scale up to the new space. Even if you didn’t identify the source, it creates a rare sense of ‘rightness’.

A large bow-fronted chest of drawers was bought at an antique depot in Bexhill Road
A large bow-fronted chest of drawers was bought at an antique depot in Bexhill Road

After this Yoda insight, I bring myself back into the moment intrigued by the cluster of interesting things, sitting atop a console table on the wall next to the dining table, which is actually an old French balconette bought from a dealer in North London. “It hides the radiator while letting the heat out,” says Karen and with a piece of dark marble on top, creates the perfect space for one of her quirky ‘tablescapes’, with unrelated objects found far and wide coming together to create a nest of visual interest. 

In this case, there is a dried blowfish from a bathroom shop in Sheen, a large metal Moroccan tray from Butlers Emporium on Hastings Old Town’s George Street and a black Tizio lamp by Artemide, set off by a large-scale pencil drawing of silver teapots, which Karen commissioned from the artist (and which I remember from her previous place). “I said I would like it to be a sectional drawing of something traditionally English,” said Karen, “and when he sent me the first trial sketch I was blown away, it was exactly what I wanted.”

Along the wall from this is the very large armoire I remember from Karen’s bedroom in her previous home – which I was very impressed to learn comes apart to form a kind of French provincial flat-pack, making it very easy to transport to its new spot here, where it is still used as her wardrobe, although it’s a bit of a walk to it from her adjoining bedroom.

But that is the special nature of this apartment. While it has the most wonderfully generous proportions, it is still a one-bedder and requires some ingenuity with storage in this way. “It’s like a studio flat on a giant scale,” says Karen.

In the same spirit, I wonder how she accesses the large storage baskets on the top of the armoire and she shows me a very clever flat, telescopic ladder (a Screwfix special) which she cunningly stores behind a full-length mirror that leans against the wall in the bedroom.

A normal size in any other dwelling, coming through from the huge sitting room the bedroom feels quite cosy and I’m happy to see the huge print of a woman from an Old Master painting, which nearly filled the wall in the bedroom in her last apartment, in place opposite the bed. 

It’s beautifully set off by a magnificent 1970s Murano glass chandelier that Karen sourced from 20th Century Filth, a favourite St Leonards-based seller on The Hoarde website.

By an oval marble top table – bought from a neighbour downstairs – that makes an elegant dressing table, I spot another old friend from the last flat, a lovely wire floor lamp with a bird from Designer’s Guild.

Folding doors conceal the bedroom from the main living space
Folding doors conceal the bedroom from the main living space
Folding doors conceal the bedroom from the main living space

In that bedroom it served as a bedside lamp and Karen has done the same thing here with two floor-standing standard lamps from IKEA, one on either side of the bed. It’s a very clever solution. As she says, “It saves them taking up space on the bedside tables.”

The other stand-out piece in here is a large bow-fronted chest of drawers bought at an antique depot in Bexhill Road, with another of Karen’s stuff clusters on it.

Here they are all large-scale, with a big white ceramic cactus sculpture, two ecclesiastic candlesticks, a hefty piece of coral and a judge’s wig on a stand. She really is a master curator of objects.

From the bedroom we look back into the siting room through the two doors, which fold back to create a large space from which she can look through the sitting room and right out to sea from her bed.

Indeed so close is the sea, she says, “When the waves are really loud, I shut the shutters and the doors, to stop it keeping me awake.” By the shutters, she means the original full-length wooden ones still in perfect working order on the three sitting room windows. These will be shown off to their full effect when Karen’s next renovation is complete: she’s having the original sash windows restored, so the view will no longer be broken up by the doors put in by a previous owner and plans to lose the curtains to show them off better.

Coming out of the bedroom we head immediately left down a corridor, which Karen has cleverly finished with a wallpaper of an oversized print of a pressed metal ceiling, which she sourced from Merci in Paris.

The corridor is quite narrow and the large scale of the print makes it seem bigger. A row of pictures and interesting things is arranged along the floor on the opposite side. Karen says it’s just because she hadn’t decided where to hang what, but it looks like one of her arrangements and adds another element to the space, the long narrow shape of which she has emphasised with a striped goat-hair runner.

A desilvered mirror provides a textured backdrop to a collection of art books and curios in one corner of the bedroom
A desilvered mirror provides a textured backdrop to a collection of art books and curios in one corner of the bedroom

At the end is the wet-room bathroom, already nicely done when she moved in, with dark-grouted white subway tiles and a large walk-in shower, then it’s right and left into the long kitchen.

Karen has kept the cupboards that were in place, freshening them with a new old-metal-style worktop (IKEA) and having the units sprayed in Farrow & Ball’s All Black – the previous mint green is very much not in the Karen colour chart. She added two long open shelves which act as both utility storage and an aesthetic feature – silver tea pots, ice cream bowls, glasses, pots and vases – new geometic tiles (Porcelain Superstore) on the floor and three black wall lights from The Birdy Collection by Norwegian designer Birger Dahl, which was originally designed in 1952. Mix in an arrangement of quirky pictures in vintage frames – picked up for twenty euros each at Lille brocante – on a black wall at the end and it becomes a properly Karen-ed space. At the end of it is a small extension which she uses as an office space and a spare room. “When I finish a project,” Karen says, “I move house, to get a new project. I’ve got an idea I’d like to move into the middle of nowhere. It would be so lovely to have loads of friends to stay and make as much noise as you want…”

Wherever it might be, I hope I get to see it, to see how these now familiar pieces find their new homes along with their big-thinking owner. 

Watch this space…

Address Book:

20th Century Filth at The Hoarde thehoarde.com
Merci merci-merci.com/en

An Old Master painting has been enlarged to dramatic effect
An Old Master painting has been enlarged to dramatic effect
A large bow-fronted chest of drawers was bought at an antique depot in Bexhill Road
A large bow-fronted chest of drawers was bought at an antique depot in Bexhill Road.
Karen’s approach to creative displays extends to the artwork arranged down one side of the corridor – propped against the wall, three or four pieces deep, from smallest to tallest
Karen’s approach to creative displays extends to the artwork arranged down one side of the corridor – propped against the wall, three or four pieces deep, from smallest to tallest

  • words:
  • pictures: David Merewether
  • styling: Holly Levett

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