It was clear from an early age that Alex Watson-Usher had a compulsion to restyle, redecorate and get stuck into DIY. Her parents got used to hearing the rumble of furniture being shifted as she sought to give her bedroom a fresh look, though she admits she went too far when, at the age of 10, she stripped the wallpaper from the downstairs loo because she didn’t like it.
“That was much to my parents’ horror,” says a smiling Alex, who has since used her design talents to turn a dated house in north Leeds into a stylish, contemporary home. More impressive is that it has all been done on a tight budget, which required ingenuity and hard graft.
Her “luxe for less” ideas have been a hit on Instagram, which she joined during lockdown. “I’m quite sociable and found lockdown hard so I joined Instagram and I love it. The homes and interiors community on there is so upbeat and supportive,” says Alex, whose “Insta” followers enjoy her helpful posts on everything from how to do DIY panelling to creating a Crittall-style door.
While her house looks the picture of perfection now, it wasn’t always that way. When she and her husband, Jason, got the keys to their detached home four years ago it was an ugly 1970s property with a dormer on the front and was in need of complete modernisation.
“It was the total opposite of the Victorian house we lived in before. It had no features inside and it was unattractive from the outside but the location is perfect and it has a big garden. It was the sensible option,” she says.
With a one-year-old child and a baby on the way, the Watson-Ushers moved in and started on the gargantuan task of ripping out the old, ready for replumbing, rewiring, reconfiguring and decorating. “We did a lot of the work ourselves because we had spent most of our money on buying the house. Luckily, Jason is really handy and we will both have a go at anything,” adds Alex.
“The first thing we did was create a utility in what was the garage and we managed to squeeze a sofa in there too. That’s where we lived while we were doing the rest of the house. The midwife who came round to see me when I’d had the baby was horrified.”
She and Jason carried on with their mammoth renovation project regardless. Along with having the house replumbed and rewired, they converted the store room above the garage into a bathroom. The kitchen units are from Ikea and the couple fitted them by themselves to save money.
The transformation of the glazed, white uPVC framed sliding doors onto the garden into fashionable Crittall-style versions is also impressive. “I painted the white uPVC with black Rust-Oleum paint and then used black electrical tape on the glass to create the Crittall effect,” says Alex. Other such successes include the acoustic panelling behind the TV.
While they could’ve bought it off the shelf for £1,200, the couple made their own for £60 with thin strips of pine from B&Q, which they stained with Annie Sloan wax. Colour is important to Alex, so none of the rooms are neutral and there are plenty of framed prints. Her favourite places to shop for pictures include Juniqe, Desenio and from independent artists and makers she finds on Instagram.
Another major feature of most rooms is the wood panelling that the couple made from MDF sheets and strips, which are attached to the walls with “No Nails” glue and tacks. It is painted in Farrow & Ball colours, including Sulking Room Pink, which stars in the main bedroom.
“The house was featureless and the panelling adds interest and has made a huge difference, though we do joke that it might be the ‘woodchip’ of tomorrow. We have laughed about how angry that the children of today might be when they start buying our 2020s houses and the walls in every home are covered with glued-on strips of painted MDF.
"They might also say: ‘Did your mum go through that weird phase of having 45 plants in the kitchen?’” says Alex, whose plants are 95 per cent real with just a few faux ones in the bathroom where there is no natural light. “I often give plants as gifts and the first question people ask is ‘what do I do with it?’ Luckily I have found a great app called plant.id, which tells you what the plant is and how to look after it.”
Furniture and accessories come from a variety of stores including Habitat, M&S, Next, John Lewis and Homesense. “Homesense is my favourite,” she says. “I like the way they constantly restock and they don’t have hundreds of the same thing and there’s always something different there.”
Supermarkets’ home ranges are also on her hit list and yielded the bar cart, £30, from Asda, which she trimmed with fairy lights for added sparkle.
“It’s amazing what you can do on a budget,” says Alex. “For us it was need’s must but the DIY gives you a sense of pride. I’d urge anyone to give it a go.”
You can find Alex on Instagram at @alexandralouisewu
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