In a bid to escape city life, writer Sandra Bilsen, her Dutch husband Bart and their two sons left London behind to put down roots in the English countryside. The property they bought in Hampshire was a run-down house built in the 1930s, but its location - set in park-like gardens complete with its own lake - was the deciding factor. ‘When we moved into the original house, we ripped out the carpets and gave it a lick of paint, while we debated whether to renovate, or challenge ourselves further and rebuild from scratch,’ says Sandra. After two years, during which time they really got a feel for the site - where the sunlight fell, for instance - they made the decision to demolish the existing property and build a brand new home.
Although the couple toyed with the idea of a contemporary exterior, they were not convinced that a modern design would integrate into the surroundings. ‘When we were choosing an architect, we were presented with a number of drawings, but most of them looked more like a characterless box than a country home,’ says Sandra. For inspiration, she decided to visit the Royal Institute of British Architects, where she came across the glossy house bible Timeless Architecture and Interiors in the bookshop: flicking through its pages, she found an impressive period house in a Flemish-style design, and the idea was born.
With the help of architects sympathetic to the couple’s plans, the Bilsens designed the structure of the new house exactly as they envisaged. While Sandra created mood boards and sourced items, Bart - an entrepreneur and a creative at heart - made the more complex design decisions. ‘He could visualise the space easily and has a meticulous eye for detail,’ she says.
Reclaimed materials, such as slate tiles salvaged from the roof of a Dutch school, aged bricks and old-style Belgian ironmongery were employed to give the new build an authentic feel, as were the arrow-slot windows and old-white and anthracite colour scheme, characteristic of Dutch and Belgian period houses.
Inside, classic Flemish style has also been incorporated into the framework. Natural stone flooring, along with beautiful hand-crafted pale oak, enrich the main space downstairs, which has been designed on an axis, while rough-edged limestone tiles feature extensively in the library, bedrooms, bathrooms and on the steps, paths and kitchen terrace outside.
Lighting was integral to the overall aesthetic, so the couple hired lighting designer Luke White. ‘He advised us on how to layer lighting to impact each space,’ says Sandra. This means that a variety of lighting solutions, from uplighters to extravagant feature pieces such as the striking Jurgen Bey for Moooi chandelier, have been chosen to introduce modern glamour to the decor.
Sandra, who has a background in fashion magazines and is author of Catwalk: Inside the World of the Supermodels, made the most of her love of colour, design and texture to create the stylish interior schemes. ‘I wanted a sophisticated feel rather than a decor that screamed out one specific trend,’ she says. By fusing contemporary design with an industrial vibe, then adding traditional elements and vintage finds to the mix, a timeless, comfortable look has been achieved. Design pieces - including Vitra’s Vegetal chairs and the Arco floor light by Flos - together with industrial furniture create impact, yet still harmonise with classic features such as the original French Louis XIII fireplace.
Colour - particularly blue - was integral to her vision. ‘It’s an immersive colour and the lighter hues act as a neutral base,’ she explains. Deep shades used in the kitchen cabinetry and soft furnishings and upholstery downstairs set the tone and complement the paler walls, while even the grey-toned encaustic tiles in the dining room have pops of this chosen colour. She then introduced greenery and succulents to the interior to create atmosphere and soften the newness of the space.
Decorative pieces and artefacts collected on the Bilsens travels weave personality into the interior. Sandra has an eye for collating objects and enjoys nothing more than rummaging in thrift stores and markets for unique items or pieces she can upcycle. She also regularly refreshes rooms by changing displays or introducing new finds.
It’s this attention to detail that ensure the Bilsens’ family home, while comfortable and easy on the eye, stays fresh and inspirational, with new elements to constantly notice and appreciate. It’s a modern Flemish masterpiece, in every sense of the word.
The owners Sandra Bilsen lives here with her Dutch husband Bart, their two sons Ollie, 14, and Tom, 17, and their two golden retrievers, Boots and Muppet.
The house The new-build property was completed in 2013, and stands on the site of a 1930s house. On the ground floor, there is a kitchen, dining room, living room, study/library, cloakroom and den. Upstairs, there are four en suite bedrooms, including the master suite.
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Photography Sandra Van Aalst/GAP Interiors