Blank slate to dream home: Avoiding interiors overwhelm

with Isabelle

This week we talk with Isabelle who shares her experience working with an interior designer to renovate her London flat.  

We discuss the importance of creating a warm and inviting home, the vision for the space, and how her interior designer helped bring it all together.




Amy: Welcome to Stories from Site, the renovation podcast that digs a little deeper. I’m Amy Dohnalek and together with my co-host Jane Middlehurst we peek behind the curtains of those insta-worthy interiors to bring you the real processes people went through to make their dream homes a reality.

Amy: This week we talk with Isabelle who shares her experience working with an interior designer to renovate her London flat. We discuss the importance of creating a warm and inviting home, the vision for the space and how her interior designer helped bring it all together.

Amy: Welcome to Stories from Site Isabelle. We’re really pleased to have you. Would you like to tell us a bit about your renovation?

Isabelle: Yeah, sure. So this was my first ever home and renovations. There were a lot of firsts on this project. And it was, it was amazing and frustrating and scary. But I’m really lucky I found Topology to work with because they were great at managing all the things that, were intimidating or daunting

Isabelle: So overall, I think it went really well and I’m delighted with how things turned out. Such a great spot.

Amy: I’ve seen the photos. The interiors are stunning. Do you want to explain for our listeners what you did?

Isabelle: Sure. So I got possession of the flat at the end of January. I naively thought that I could just line up a bunch of, you know, contractors and workers to come in. And actually there were a couple of things I needed to do with building management first.

Isabelle: that delayed the project by about six weeks, which was a bit tough. So, other than that once we sort of hit the ground running, it went a lot better. We pretty much changed every room except the bathroom.

Isabelle: three bedrooms and the living room and kitchen.

Amy: Wow. Amazing. can you tell us a bit about how you found topology were you looking for that extra support? Can you explain a bit about your journey into it?

Isabelle: Yeah, sure. So I actually found topology on Google. So I’ve been living in London for almost four years. the first year I was living in a really cute little old mansion block in Little Venice. I loved it. The building was built in the 1890s. beautiful red brick on the outside.

Isabelle: I had this gorgeous living room that was a bit of an awkward shape. So I just thought I’d hire an e design service because it was a rental. I didn’t want to You know, invest too much and a found topology in a Google search. And I got to work with Athena and she did such an amazing job.

Isabelle: And I thought, yeah, you know what, when I’m ready to buy a place, I definitely need to remember them. So a couple of years later, I reached out to them and, fortunately they had the time to take me on. So that’s how it all worked out.

Amy: When you started the project, what was your aim for working with topology and the result you wanted?

Isabelle: Yeah, that’s a great question. I, I actually, that flat I was telling you about in Little Venice I was there for about nine months and thought, great, this will be my home in London for a few years. And actually, nine months in the landlord decided to move back and take possession of the place.

Isabelle: So, I was left Thinking, do I get another rental, or do I try to find a real home? I was in temporary housing for a couple of months, just floating around Airbnbs and Saunders and just trying to figure stuff out. So by the time I actually found a place, which took over a year, because as you know, the market hasn’t exactly been easy.

Isabelle: So that took over a year. I was desperate to find just something that felt like home. So the goal was like, make it feel homey and let’s do it as quickly as possible because I just, for, for my mental sanity, I needed to feel like I could just land somewhere. And I know how long these things go and it took me a while to make my rental feel like home.

Isabelle: It’s been almost three years of this feeling temporary, and I just needed to feel more stable. So I tasked Topology with two things, I guess. One was being able to translate my emotional needs into decorative needs, and then also to be able to do it fast, and they really delivered on both things.

Isabelle: I think we finally were able to start work, end of February, and I had people visiting the first weekend of May. So it was not a long timeline at all. They worked miracles to make it happen for me. And I’m so grateful. So yeah, it was tight, but we made it work.

Jane: So how in depth was the work? did you replace flooring? Was there tiling to do, or is it more the kind of finishes?

Isabelle: So we redid all the flooring in the flat it was a, it was a very, dark, sort of somber wood, and we decided to change it to, a lighter, oak color and then the other thing that was quite big was we had to replace the whole heating system, so the really cool thing about this apartment is that they had Skirting board heating, which I’d never seen before.

Isabelle: But it’s great because there’s no like radiators or anything. So it’s just a lot sleeker. And so the skirting board heating needed to be replaced. that was major doing the floor and skirting boards needed to be done at the same time. And The most structural thing we did was the The hallway when you walk in is quite narrow I asked them if they could steal a little bit from the office to create a front hall closet because living in London, you need about 5, 000 different coats to accommodate all the weather systems. So that was the goal was like, I need a good front hall closet. I miss that about living in Canada. We usually have like mud rooms and things and I hadn’t had that for a few years. I thought, okay, I need a place To hang all my coats and boots.

Amy: It’s very underrated cloakrooms, but I just think they are fundamental to how, you know, making your morning more enjoyable I think that’s a great piece of advice for people.

Isabelle: It was a real pain, but so worth it. I’m so happy. Every time I open it, I just get this little like spark of joy.

Amy: I can relate to that as we used to live in a flat when we had, you know, a buggy, scooter, you know, you’re just like always climbing over like bikes So this flat we’re in now has a big hallway and I just think big hallways are wonderful. You spend actually a remarkable amount of time in your hall um, you know, saying hi and bye and, you know yeah, so I agree.

Amy: I wondered if we could talk about budgets, because it sounds like you knew what you wanted to achieve aesthetically. you also knew that you wanted it fast. So did you feel like you would have to compromise on budget?

Amy: Yeah, we had to make some compromises, I think, in, in two ways. Like, one, you know, we did the renovations at a time where, like, just the cost of everything had gone up significantly. The original sort of verbal estimate that they gave me, because I had no idea, right?

Isabelle: This is my first time. I’m just like, you know, tell me how much it’s going to cost. I underestimated how much it would cost with all of the cost of goods kind of soaring. But what I did find topology did really well. And one of the things that I loved about their process, and this was specifically around the furnishings and like the sort of pieces after is they have like an online shopping portal where they go and they upload all of these images and links for you and they say great for this room, you have, you know, all these different options if you want a vanity in your bedroom.

Isabelle: here’s a vanity at this price point, which one do you like I had some control to be able to say, Okay, well, you know, I’ll cut corners here on this particular piece, or we’ll try to reuse a piece that I already have.

Isabelle: So I think they were really good at allowing me to cut where I needed and then also beingreally resourceful. There were some areas where we got quotes and thought that feels really high. what can we do to bring it down? So they were, they were good at that.

Jane: like a really

Jane: good process.

Isabelle: Yeah, it was a great process. I mean, I thinkfor me, the biggest value add was they had all the connections and contacts. If I had to find my own painters and floor installers and doing all the joinery, I would still be living in a construction zone right now.

Isabelle: And thanks to them, they just had everything lined up and ready to go and they have the expertise. There was an issue with the couch. It’s white. And I feel like that’s so adult to have a white couch, like, you know, before having kids or whatever.

Isabelle: I’m like, this is my last opportunity. I just want to have a beautiful white creamy couch. So it, they had it delivered. And unfortunately, when it came off the truck they had sort of punctured the side of the couch. So it was just a bit of a delivery issue. And the delivery guys were just ready to turn back around and bring it to the warehouse and, it was going to take four to six weeks.

Isabelle: And I think Athena and Chloe. You know, worked their magic. I don’t know what they did or what they said, but they got that couch in the flats that I actually had something to sit on. And fortunately, you couldn’t really see the holes like it was against a wall or you couldn’t see them unless you turned around and looked at them.

Isabelle: So The furniture company ended up sending somebody at a later date to just do the upholstery on site, which was so much better and way more functional. So, you know, I would have been in a puddle of tears and they were able to just take it all on board and, and figure out a solution. So, you know, it’s, it’s quite an emotional experience when you’re trying to build a home.

Isabelle: And I think topology is very respectful of that. And they’re also able to give you the sort of support you need to like pull you out of it and be like, okay, you know, we need to just look at this clearly. And, and that was so, so helpful.

Amy: I think you’re right just going back to your point about the different kind of workmen, like finding each person and managing when they can come to site, and managing the interactions between the trades that is really difficult and time consuming.

Amy: And I think a lot of renovators find that the most time consuming part because if you’re going to do one project with this tradesman and they’re working for an architect who’s, got them to do all their projects, they’re going to prioritize that project over yours because it’s just a one off kind of thing.

Amy: So I think often people find it hard to get the tradesman to site even. It shouldn’t really work like that, but it does And I think having someone manage on site is just always helpful.

Isabelle: It sounds like from a practical sense that it was just really helpful to have somebody to get the process sorted and, and logistically help you with everything. I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about, Maybe more of the aesthetic side.

Jane: Did you have a clear vision for what you wanted the spaces to look like? Or was there any surprises that, came in the design process?

Isabelle: No, I think I had a pretty clear vision when I started. I think the wonderful thing about the space that I ended up choosing is that it was such a beautiful blank slate. You know, it was really clean and simple and everything was painted white, so it’s quite easy to imagine, you know, what it could be.

Isabelle: There were certain things I knew I wanted. The space had tall ceilings, so I wanted to put in paneling just to give it a bit of that like character because I did, you know, want some of that like old school London character with the paneling and fireplace and things like that.

Isabelle: And they had this big blank wall at the foot of the living room where I went on Pinterest and found a style that I liked. And then, you know, topology just made it better. I definitely went a little bit crazy on Pinterest like you can sort of subcategorize them and I just like I really like went down an intense rabbit hole through the process, but I would highly recommend it because there are a lot of great ideas on there.

Isabelle: So yeah, I wanted the joinery to accompany the fireplace, the paneling, and then also There’s just a little bit of room to create an extension off the kitchen to add a wine fridge and a bar I do a lot of entertaining and you know, fridge space is limited when you drink wine.

Isabelle: So it’s nice to have the wine fridge. That was like a definite deal breaker was finding a place for a wine fridge so they did that too. And the other thing they really helped with was the office design of building joinery that felt cohesive and functional, but also, aesthetically pleasing.

Isabelle: So yeah, they did all that stuff. I had these visions and ideas, and they really were able to bring it together concretely especially with the colors. I love the colors in the flat and I love that they went with something other than just a boring white, you know, they picked these really beautiful colors that felt cozy and neutral and calming but anything from boring and that’s what I loved.

Amy: I have to say the arches in your alcove next to the fireplace are just so lovely. And I think you’re right, the fact that they’re kind of a really earthy cream. They’re just such a beautiful color and it looks very calm and Yeah, I, I was a little bit envious, I have to say,

Isabelle: actually, um, I had a plumber come by and he was doing some work in the guest bathroom and he saw the living room and he’s like, where are we doing our place? Like, do you mind if I take a picture of those? I was like, yeah, sure. This is so flattering.

Jane: I guess what’s nice is that it is really individual. And I thinkit’s hard, like you said, you had a nice blank clean space to work with, but how to add character to that and, and how to make it feel like it’s individual.

Jane: You know, that’s quite a feat when you don’t have anything really to work with. And I think the shelving and the curves it all looks very considered, but like it’s been there forever as well. Like those features are part of the house. And I think that’s what makes something feel homely,

Jane: If you feel like it’s always been there.

Isabelle: Oh, thank you. Yeah, that was, that was definitely important. I wanted it to feel like. I want people, you know, like I said, I love to entertain. I wanted people to come in and feel, feel at home and feel at ease, just wanting to stay and hang out. And you know, I think for me too, I was in quite a rush to just finally feel like I had my two feet on the ground in London.

Isabelle: You know, it’s a really hard feeling when you kind of don’t really have a official place to call home. And so I think topology was really good at using what I already had in possession and mixing it with new pieces. for what you see on either side of the fireplace, they did a lot of vintage sourcing.

Isabelle: So some of those items are sort of old new, and I love that, I wanted it to feel lived in and warm, and I think that the antique items and some of the items I already had and a couple new, it just made for like a really nice inviting balance.

Isabelle: Yeah.

Amy: Can we talk about your kitchen? Because I love your kitchen. what’s the color of it? And where’s it from?

Isabelle: So the color, it’s like a teal. I think you’d have to ask Athena and Chloe what the color is exactly, but that was actually my favorite bit because the cabinets before were like this really shiny gray, which did not suit at all. And when they, pitch the color, It’s not necessarily something I would have chose, but when I saw it on the design board, I was like, hell yes, like this is so cool.

Isabelle: And we just spray painted the cabinet. So we actually sent away the fronts of the cabinets to be spray painted in their warehouse, but they also came by and, spray painted all the rest of the pieces on site. And it was such a cost effective way to bring new life into the kitchen as opposed to like ripping out all of the cupboards.

Isabelle: Yeah, so we just spray painted and then replaced the handles and it was like just brand new.

Amy: Wow. Oh, I love that because it is such a shame when people kind of move in and, you know, everything gets ripped out So the fact that you can reuse it is amazing.

Isabelle: Yeah, that was another, cost cutting measure, It was like, how can we get creative? And again, they had these great ideas of like, well, we can spray paint it.

Isabelle: They’ll save you this much. And I was like, yep, that sounds great. So significant savings there.

Isabelle: I will just add One more thing about the kitchen before I forget. So we spray painted the cabinets. The countertop was original and it went across on the counter and then up the backsplash. And so what they ended up doing was they just sort of. Replaced that boring backsplash with this KitKat tile, and I’ve had so many compliments on it, and I am obsessed with it, and it literally made that space between the counter and cabinet look so much taller, like it was Oh, just made all the difference.

Isabelle: And, you know, again, could save on the countertops, just adding a bit of tile. It wasn’t very expensive to add that piece. And it just really, completed the kitchen so perfectly.

Jane: That’s such a clever thing to do.

Amy: What was your favorite purchase, I guess you were, Were you populating all your furniture from scratch?

Isabelle: My favorite purchase? That’s a tough one. the couch was major. It’s such a comfy couch. I’ve had many happy naps on that couch, and it’s lovely. But The favorite purchase of the whole flat actually was my bed. it’s a wooden bed frame with a cushion on top.

Isabelle: And I find it’s such a beautiful and unique piece. And it doesn’t feel too heavy and it doesn’t feel like it takes over the room. But it’s also just really comfortable and practical. And brings in that, like, level of warmth that I didn’t quite know could be there. I sort of had in my head this, like, upholstered headboard.

Isabelle: But when they showed me that, I was like, that feels a lot more right. So I think the bed and the couch are my favorite purchases. And I just love everything they did with the accessories. They were so good. Like I love my tchotchkes, they had such a great eye for it.

Isabelle: when it was all put together, I was like, I never would have thought to do this. And it all just looks so perfect.


Amy: I think sometimes people think, Oh gosh, that’s going to be expensive, but actually this is such an affordable way to get really amazing services.

Amy: And also just hearing you speak and looking at the photos, the value added is just incredible.

Isabelle: It honestly, I think in terms of not just the value when you finish the project and what it looks like, but I think the support throughout the process is incredible. Especially if it’s your first time doing it. It’s so overwhelming.

Isabelle: There are so many things that you don’t even think you’re going to need to consider They’re just really seasoned at it. Even when I was in the rental and doing like the e design package, if your budget isn’t at a full service package, I think even doing the e design, they’re so clever at giving you tips and tricks.

Isabelle: I think it’s worth the investment of having that guidance. There’s a reason why, you know, people do this professionally. It is not easy. It’s really great to have the help. Yeah.



Jane: I think for a lot of people, especially if you’re doing kind of bigger works like structural works or extensions, there isn’t much budget left to make a place feel homely when you’ve finished it, and that can, like you said, that could take years to You know, trial and error and, you know, maybe buying the wrong things you’re not sure what the right decisions are.

Jane: And I really just love the concept of That person is just helping you fast forward that process so that you can feel homely and secure and, have this lovely environment to be in. I’ve never really thought about using an interior designer to get to that place sooner, which I think is a really nice concept.

Isabelle: yeah, they were, they were, they were great. And I think they do a really good job of sort of customizing. I think when you find a good designer, it shouldn’t be cookie cutter. It should be a mix of you and them. And I think this is what this project was so perfectly. And I love it. All the, all the folks that have come to visit me since I’ve been like, Oh, this flat is like, so you, and that’s such a lovely compliment.

Jane: They did a good job. Thank you so much.

Our closing thoughts:

Being a first-time homeowner and renovator can feel intimidating and overwhelming, especially when renovating abroad!

However, finding the right interior design company can help manage renovations effectively, provide valuable guidance on cost-saving measures, and bring a personal vision to life.


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