Zen and the art of living

Taking on an enormous property project can turn the most even tempered and calm individual into a stressed-out screaming banshee.

Thea Mallett's home in Leeds. Pictures: Jonathan Gawthorpe

It’s why Thea Mallett decided to practise the art of “zen house restoration”. It is loosely based on the Robert M. Pirsig book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with a nod to the dictionary definition “enlightenment by means of meditation and direct, intuitive insight”. It is helping her through the inevitable ups and downs.

“My husband is an engineer by training and wanted to schedule everything but I wanted it to evolve naturally and it’s worked. The house tells you what needs doing next and so I have relaxed and gone with it,” says Thea, who is also using writing therapy in the form of a brilliant blog, www.penraevon.co.uk.

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She uses it to chronicle her restoration journey, which started with a desire to trade up from a terrace home in Chapel Allerton, Leeds.

Thea Mallett's home in Leeds. Pictures: Jonathan Gawthorpe

She and her husband, Paul, house hunted for four years and finally decided to push the boundaries of their search area to up-and-coming Chapeltown, which threw up a detached Victorian property in Potter Newton that had been used as offices by the NHS.

It was in a sad state but many of the original Arts and Crafts features were still there, many buried beneath carpet, cupboards and false walls.

“As soon as I walked in and saw the drawing room I said ‘we are buying this’. It has windows on three sides, an amazing inglenook fireplace and decorative ceilings,” says Thea.

She and Paul bought the house a year ago, saving it from being turned into flats, and began by making it warm and dry; repairing the roof, changing the radiators and installing a wood burning stove.

Thea Mallett's home in Leeds. Pictures: Jonathan Gawthorpe

One of the most inspired moves was to change the paintwork on the windows and door frames outside from white to black and to enclose the garden with traditional railings. The exterior now echoes the original grandeur.

While the windows were original with leaded and stained glass, they were fragile and fronted by security bars. Restoring them with the help of specialist Gerry Lovett was a major expense but well worth it. He also encapsulated the originals between two pieces of clear glass to create double glazing. The windows are now one of the property’s most sensational features. Gerry also created some coloured glass for the back bedroom windows to hide the “ugly” view of nearby offices.

Sourcing heritage materials and finding traditional craftspeople to work on the period building has been a challenge, but one that Thea has relished, though she is still in need of someone who can lime plaster.

Researching the property’s history and unearthing old photographs helped her gain a greater understanding of its needs. The five-bedroom house was built in 1882 by the Newton Park Estate for young members of the wealthy Lupton dynasty.

Thea Mallett's home in Leeds. Pictures: Jonathan Gawthorpe

“I loved researching the history as the house had three different names over the years. We liked the second, Penraevon, and we opted for that. I wanted to do everything properly even though the building isn’t listed. So we have restored the cornicing, recreated the vestibule and put skirtings and dado rails back, among other things,” says Thea, who was thrilled to find heritage paint made by Leeds-based Hicks and Weatherburn.

“I love the rich, matt colours which are inspired by the Yorkshire landscape and the company is based on the Penraevon industrial estate, which is an uncanny coincidence. I’ve also got fabrics from Abraham Moon in Guiseley and I collect Burmantofts pottery. There is a definite Leeds theme going on.”

The walls are decorated with a collection of contemporary art and the furniture is a mix of antique and retro finds along with some new pieces.

Mid-century designs have worked especially well. The seventies pendant light that Thea found on eBay and collected from an architect-designed house in Beverley is perfect for the stairwell

Thea Mallett's home in Leeds. Pictures: Jonathan Gawthorpe

“We didn’t want everything to be Victorian and Edwardian because it would’ve looked too fuddy-duddy. I was really pleased with the light. It was £60 and we added new fabric cabling to it.”

The 1960s table in the garden room, which is a temporary dining room, is teamed with a variety of vintage carver chairs chosen for comfort.

New buys include the Tom Dixon lighting in the drawing room and Thea also created a clever copy to hang in the enormous fireplace.

“I made it out of a metal Ikea bowl. I just drilled a hole in it and attached a light fitting and cord,” she says.

A former marketing consultant, she is also a gifted potter and is hoping to pursue her passion for ceramics when the house is complete. In the meantime she is grafting, cleaning, prepping and managing.

“It is a full-time job and it’s worked well because I am here on site to answer question and check everything. Tradespeople can come when they are free. I am completely flexible in a way you can’t be if you are working and that has saved a lot of time.”

A year on and she is two-thirds of the way through the restoration and is about to strip out the old kitchen. The units are an unwanted legacy from the old office days when staff used them as lockers.

“I am not sure when we will be done,” 
she says. “It’s that zen thing again. It will be finished when it’s finished.”