Raven Smith’s notes from the brink of a home renovation

As he embarks on the exasperating project of revamping his house, Raven reveals what he’s discovered so far…

Illustration of Raven Smith’s home renovation
Paola Gallini

After three years of casual saving – and by that I mean still going on long-distance holidays – I find myself on the brink of a maiden house renovation, leaving me with sweaty palms and skirting-board anxiety. Rather than rolling fields of opportunity, I’m aware of how much there is to get wrong. As the builders Dita Von Teese-strip the house back, here is what I’ve learned so far...

We’ll never be ready

A bit like having children, you never have enough money or time for a renovation, but there’s a distant fantasy point you’re walking towards where everything is settled. We didn’t touch the floors in our former flat, nor the sitting room. We didn’t touch the garden apart from to sweep it just before people came over. We have little renovation experience – does changing the handles on the Ikea cupboards count? So this project is like trying to land a fully booked commercial flight after the pilot is taken down with food poisoning. A wing and a prayer will get us where we need to be. I want the interiors to feel natural and seeped in rich layers of history, without tipping into pastiche like a Dickensian BBC drama. A tricky balance.

You have to design the space in theory

Renovation means a lot of miming. Marcel Marceau-ing your way through an imaginary version of your life to sense-check your design decisions. Catch me in the invisible kitchen, frying imaginary eggs and making sure the imaginary fridge is near enough to the hob – it’s like a horrific amateur dramatics exercise. My husband and I have full-blown rows over lighting and we re-enact washing up and ‘leaving for the airport at 4am in the bleak midwinter’. In our heads, wall lights and cute little lamps battle it out like colosseum gladiators.

Illustration of Raven Smith home renovation
Paolo Gallina

Renovation isn’t curation

As a renter, I’ve always felt comfortable making a space my own. With the right furniture and the odd Byredo candle, a ‘home sweet home’ is made. In our last flat, I went with a 1970s hors d’oeuvres colour scheme with an avocado kitchen, shrimp pink bedroom and white bready walls in the bathroom. When making design decisions, walls, on the whole, are a cinch, but upgrading from a one-bedroom flat to a full house is somewhat daunting. Floorings and internal doors and fully-tiled bathrooms have a permanence beyond a fad wall colour that’s easily painted over. Renovating a two-storey Victorian terraced house has a different energy.

Money talks

As with the rest of life, most things get better as you throw more cash at them. The best taps are expensive. There are no two ways about it. As is the bespoke sink unit you’ve never seen anywhere apart from your own imagination. The pendulum between what you can do within your budget and what you actually want swings back and forth. As one of the builders remarked: ‘What you want is a Ferrari for the price of a Volkswagen’.

The most expensive stuff is invisible

We’re being forced to restore and re-source the invisible-but-vital parts of our house that we barely notice day to day – the plaster on the walls, the insulation in the ceiling, the kitchen sink, the toilet. We’ve decided to keep as much as possible, recycling internal doors and floorboards and naive dreams of a hotel-style bathroom. It all feels fantastically make-do-and-mend. But my eyes aren’t the only thing I’m designing for. I want luxury beneath my feet in the bathroom. I want to feel the quality of the tiles, not just look at them.

You have to move out

This means living out of a bag in a completely unromantic way, unlike Grace Kelly pulling the negligée from a bag in Rear Window. In the box room, which has been kindly volunteered to you by a friend of a friend, you keep tripping over your spouse. You curse. You start to wear your underwear inside out without blinking an eyelid. Renovation is the antithesis of hygiene.

Illustration of Raven Smith home renovation
Paolo Gallina

Research is tough

Appropriate adjectives tend to evade you when you’re in a hurry.
I find myself sloppily searching ‘beautiful’ and ‘traditional’ and other lazy keywords into Google searches for the perfect tile. I got a repetitive strain injury in my finger from typing the four letters of ‘t i l e’ into Pinterest over the last month or so. The irony being I don’t want a house that looks like it’s been researched using Pinterest. I don’t want an off-the-shelf house. I want the eclectic mix only obtained from hours of indepth research and snooping online. I want nooks. I want crannies.

Old versus new

The overwhelming pressure to fill the delicate shell of a house with new stuff, like pouring new jelly into an old mould, is full of poetic relief. I keep being drawn back into my past, excavating memories of personal history to weld into the new space. Each decision is an aesthetic diary entry – our iron patio doors, for example, are rendered in the same aged-bronze green as the railings in my Brighton hometown. Even the things we’re buying new have invisible heritage.

This feature appeared in ELLE Decoration January 2020.

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