Goodbye dolly, hello chic

The owner of this elegant Ilkley house began her design career in miniature before graduating to full-size interiors. Sharon Dale reports.

Emma Birch at her home in Ilkley

Choosing furniture and deciding on décor began early for Emma Birch, who traces her fascination with interiors back to childhood.

“My mother and brother built a dolls’ house and as a treat we used to go to London and buy furniture for it. I loved it and I’m sure that’s where it all started,” she says.

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A degree in 3D and exhibition design, followed by freelance work for museums, boosted her abilities. It also gave her a fresh perspective that fuelled a second successful career in interior design, although she also thanks Margaret Thatcher for helping to launch her business. “I haven’t got a lot of good things to say about her but she did help me out.

“I took advantage of her Enterprise Allowance scheme in the 1980s, which gave you £60 a week while you got your business off the ground.” She’s been busy ever since, working for everyone from big name clients and developers to architects and Barker and Stonehouse.

All her experience has been poured into her own home in Ilkley, which she bought 20 years ago. Every room oozes glamour and her friend who comes to stay calls it “the boutique hotel”, although it began as a mammoth renovation project. “It was a shambles. There was no heating upstairs and everything needed doing, but it had a huge amount of potential,” says Emma.

She began by converting the ground floor of the four storey, semi-detached Victorian house into a separate flat for her mother, using part of the old coal cellar to create a bathroom.

The apartment took just six weeks. Next, she reconfigured and redecorated the space on the three upper floors, creating four bedrooms and two bathrooms helped by builder Steve Bailey.

He helped her employ tricks of the trade, which include the built-in wardrobes that fall short of the ceiling, creating a feeling of space and the huge Velux in the roof, which floods the stairs with natural light.

“It’s what you do before the pretty things that really counts,” she says.

Lighting has always played a big part in her schemes and she enjoys being able to create different atmospheres with dimmers and lamps. Her favourite light fittings and lamps come from Richard Taylor and Porta Romana. Mirrors, too, are plentiful and give an illusion of more even more light and space.

No expense has been spared on fabric from Andrew Martin, Jane Churchill and Designers Guild or on a dining table she designed herself using an oak top from Oxenhope furniture makers Daedalian and a nickel base from Julian Chichester in London.

Her original art includes paintings of Saltaire by Steve Simpson. She also splashed out on a George Smith chair for the sitting room and on restoring some of the original features, like the staircase that had been damaged and then boxed in.

“A lot of the character had gone in the mid 50s and 60s,” says Emma. “The fireplace was still in but I made it more beautiful, adding some columns I found lying around upstairs. The staircase was a big job. The newels alone were £300 each.”

Amongst all this are budget buys and clever homemade items. She learned the art of thrift when she was a single mum and mature student with three part-time jobs – ironing, cleaning and working in a freezer shop.

“It was all good experience. I learned how to decorate and I made curtains, the whole caboodle and clients appreciate that you have those skills. Doing properties up on a budget makes you more creative.”

Parts of her kitchen are 20 years old. She revamped the dated original units by changing the doors, the worktop and the handles. So far, she’s re-painted them three times. She’s also had the dining chairs, bought years ago from Habitat, re-upholstered.

The bath was a bargain but the loo and sink are Duravit and she also spent on creating an internal wall to create a discreet walk-in shower to avoid having an “ugly” plastic or glass cubicle in the corner of the room. A corner chair in the sitting room was £20 from a market and has been revamped with new fabric and trim and the bedside tables are from Ikea and have been topped with glass, while the chandelier is from a market in Paris.

The fabulous floral arrangement featuring dried cow parsley is something she created herself, picking the plant from the roadside, drying it and decorating with little gilt accessories

She is a keen gardener, who has spent years creating a beautiful outdoor space. It is a picture of perfection, although when she arrived it was overgrown with weeds and scarred by a lean-to concrete garage.

Candles are another addiction and she’s not fussy about where they are from. She has everything from a large Jo Malone lime, basil and mandarin candle to some of Ikea’s finest. “Someone who visited asked if I was religious,” she laughs. “I love candles, they add atmosphere. It all comes down to light again.”

Emma’s Useful Contacts

Emma Birch, Design and Interiors 01942 600920.

Daedalian Furniture, Oxenhope

Carpets, Wrights Flooring 01535 636810.

Julian Chichester furniture

Builder Steve Bailey, Earby 07785 776969.

Fabric, from Walton’s Mill Shop, Boroughbridge,

Upholstery by George Smith, Milnsbridge, Huddersfield, tel: 01484 462606.

Decorator, Facelift, Skipton, tel: 01756 770011.

Artist Steve Simpson, Saltaire,

Lights from Richard Taylor, , and Porta Romana,