Carskiey House on the Mull of Kintyre (page 86)
The creative force behind the rise of Farrow & Ball has mixed the old and the new to breathe fresh life into a venerable Scottish country house
You might assume that Tom Helme, the man who made Farrow & Ball a household name, would have painted his house in tones of Cornforth White and Rectory Red. But when he embarked on the restoration of his Scottish estate, transporting industrial volumes of paint up north proved too daunting a prospect and he ended up mixing the wall colours himself.
Fortunately, in a former life he had worked as the advisor on interior decoration for the National Trust, where he was frequently called on to recreate the original colours for period buildings. ‘I used to spend my winters pouring white paint into large dustbins and stirring in pigments to achieve the right effect,’ he says. ‘Back then, you had to do it yourself, otherwise it was a choice between duck-egg blue and magnolia.’
It was when he was looking for an impossible-to-mix shade of crimson that he first encountered Farrow & Ball, then a tiny Dorset company with resolutely old-fashioned working methods. Helme, along with his business partner Martin Ephson, bought the operation in 1992 and relaunched the colour chart, based on what he had mixed for the National Trust. ‘Initially I just thought it would be a nice service for people with historic houses,’ he says. ‘But it quickly became incredibly popular.’
When the pair sold the company in 2007, Helme was still only in his early fifties and, after taking a couple of years off, felt that it was time to launch something new. And so, Fermoie was born, producing hand-drawn fabrics made entirely in Britain. The cottons and linens come in a curated rainbow palette, mostly plains or small-scale repeats, and have found their way into countless homes. Their popularity lies in their versatility – they work as curtains and upholstery, and make excellent lampshades.
Although these deceptively simple materials exude effortless charm, they proved difficult to get right.
‘It was slightly mad,’ Helme admits. ‘We thought it would be easy because we had introduced wallpapers at Farrow & Ball, but textile printing is very different – there are far more variables.’ They ended up establishing a small factory, and seeking out workers who were skilled enough to adopt techniques that were all but extinct in this country. In the same year that Fermoie was launched, Helme and his partner Lisa took on yet another daunting challenge, when they purchased Carskiey, a 7,500-acre sporting estate on the Mull of Kintyre, complete with a huge Edwardian pile.
‘What drew me to the house was that it hadn’t been altered,’ says Helme, whose well-honed eye appreciated the property’s structural integrity – the roof was intact, thanks to the sturdy copper nails, while the stone floors and teak window frames were original. Carskiey was sold along with its contents, which provided a useful starting point for their scheme to bring it firmly into the 21st century.
‘Without Lisa, I would probably have decorated it more traditionally, so it’s been great having her input,’ he says. ‘The contemporary decoration seems to work well – perhaps because the house is Edwardian. It might have been harder if it had been an older property.’
Modern rugs in pinks and yellows, freshly painted walls and plenty of Fermoie fabrics transformed the atmosphere of the house. The result is a harmonious balance of old and new that’s restrained and uncluttered. Although the Helmes live here for a large part of the year, Carskiey is available for holiday rentals, along with the similarly decorated Shore Cottage.
Helme’s advice to those embarking on their own redecoration project? ‘Before you start looking at charts and samples, have everything painted white,’ he advises. ‘Otherwise the existing scheme will affect your judgment. And always decide on antique fabrics first, then new ones, and last of all the paint. That’s the easiest bit to get right.’ To those of us who have spent innumerable hours agonising over the kaleidoscope of colours on the Farrow & Ball chart, Helme’s clarity of vision seems truly extraordinary. For details of letting Carskiey House, visit www.carskiey.com. Fermoie (www.fermoie.com).
from top: the main staircase at carskiey house. fabrics by fermoie. a fashion shoot at the house from our sister publication, harper’s bazaar. right: fermoie fabrics on furnishings
top left, above, right and below: fermoie fabrics