An eye for detail: and why you shouldn’t to leave it all to chance

with Jess

This week we talk with Jess whose renovation of her one bedroom garden flat became a springboard for her creative studio King Celia Studio.

Having found that she either didn’t have the budget for, or couldn’t find the interior fittings she wanted, Jess set about making them herself. The result is a playful and considered space.

We talk with her about the process of creating a bold but balanced look and how she worked directly with her contractor to realise the detail she required.



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.

After 10 years as architects renovating homes, Jane and I set up HomeNotes to teach people how to take on their own renovation journeys. We’ve met so many inspiring people on the way, and now we want to share their incredible stories.

This week we talked with Jess, whose renovation of her one bedroom garden flat became a springboard for her creative studio, King Celia Studio.

Having found that she either didn’t have the budget for or couldn’t find the interior fittings she wanted, Jess said about making them herself. The result is a playful and considered space.

We talk with her about the process of creating a bold but balanced look and how she worked directly with her contractor to realize the details she required.

So welcome to the podcast, Jess. And I guess this is really special because we’ve worked with you before and we’re gonna be talking about that project and Jane was also saying that you are about to do a new renovation. So I feel like it’s quite an interesting point to be talking to you Because it’s like, let’s look back and then think about what you’re gonna be kind of taking into the next one.

What was the project that we did with you and do you wanna

explain a bit about the journey?

Jess: Yeah, so we bought our Victorian ground floor flat in 2013. And we really liked it straight away, but we’ve missed out on it, I think, to cash buyers and stuff. And eventually it came back on and we got it. but It had really nice proportions, but it was so damp.

But like the, the bathroom was the worst. There was practically mold wallpaper in the bathroom and we had a macerator that like broke all the time and it was really quite gross. But we lived in it for quite a while and we were always planning on turning it into a two bed at some point.

So then in 2017 we actually did the extension. The main objective, was to create another bedroom and make it as light as possible. Those were our two things, but we did quite a bit of diy, we did quite a lot of work on it before we even did the extension, so we kind of built up to it really slowly and spent a long time planning it.

What I really love about the project is how vibrant, colorful, and just joyful it is. I feel like the interior is incredible and, but it’s a lot of your work. I mean, you, you designed and made the tiles, you did the wall hangings, there’s like beautiful sculptures and garden sculptures and I mean, what you inputted actually physically there, there’s a lot.

Amy: And I just wondered if you could kind of, expand a bit on whether you, that was always the plan or whether you were kind of like looking for stuff and then thought, actually, I’m just gonna make those myself because I can’t find what is in my head. Or like how did it come about?

Jess: Well that was definitely a big part of it. So for instance, with the tiles, those were the first things that I made myself. I worked as a designer, but I’d done a master’s in fine art. And I’ve always made stuff and I’ve done quite a quite a bit of ceramics, but I’d I hadn’t made tiles before.

I’m a bit of a tile addict. I love tiles, but I still just couldn’t find what I wanted for the kitchen. And I guess it’s because I kind of had an idea in my head. And in the end I was like, you know what? I’m gonna design them and make them myself.

So I rented a space in a ceramic studio, specifically so that I could make the tiles totally underestimating the amount of work that it, and the amount of time that it would take. It took me so long cause I was squeezing it in on top of full-time work and stuff.

I ended up being pregnant while I was doing it. So the tiles were one of the last things to go in.

That’s one of the things that I’m. I’m gonna miss the most about leaving this place when we do leave, because I can’t take the tiles with us.

Amy: Yeah. I’d be tempted to like chip them all off.

Jess: I, well, I would if I thought that they would survive, but there’s no way they just Yeah. But it’s okay cause there’ll be more projects, I’m sure.

So the tiles were the first thing that I made myself specifically for our project. I was always gonna design the kind of interior decoration, but I hadn’t planned to what extent.

So I was used to specifying for either for photo shoots, or for, room sets or um, showroom displays borrowing or specifying you know, beautiful furniture or pieces for that.

But there, that was, you know, someone else’s budget. But here with our own place. So it’s like, okay, well I don’t have a budget for that stuff. And I also, I usually kind of knew what I wanted anyway, whether, whatever look I was trying to achieve, so I was like, right, I’m gonna just, I’ll make everything.

At some point after that, during the pandemic I took redundancy package, and that kind of, instead of looking for a job because I had that slight buffer, I’d decided to set up my own studio, which I’d kind of thought about in the back of my mind a couple of times over the years, but not very seriously.

Um, But it felt a bit like a now or never moment. So although I have a big portfolio, my portfolio isn’t in my own style. So, so doing our own place, this gave me a chance to really develop my own vibe, I guess, which is I’m glad, like, I like how you described it as joyful and that that’s like my favorite approach to create a space that makes you feel really good and is quite playful and fun, but also calm.

So also feels, still feels quite balanced.

Amy: And in terms of our involvement, did you always know that you wanted to work with an architect or were you thinking more to go straight to a builder?

Jess: We, we always thought we would work with an architect because I’m an interior designer, so I, and I’ve worked with architects t hrough work and I guess I really appreciate the value of what they do and we wanted to get the bones of the space right. So we, I think we were always planning on doing that cuz it was a big project.

It was a side and rear return and we completely changed the configuration of the space.

I always look back at your project and think considering the size of the project, it was pretty technically taxing. I always think of the people doing the grand designs where they do a new build house, and everybody thinks that’s, you know, probably the most difficult.

Jane: Actually building a new build house is relatively straightforward, but extending a ground floor, one bed flat propping up two flats above. Was it?

Jess: Yeah, it’s one, but they’ve actually got three floors above us, so

Jane: there was some excavation work

Jess: Oh my God, there was So much excavation work.

Jane: And you just think how much technical work and how much effort goes into renovating flats, like one bed flats,

kind of space to work ratio is really high.

Jess: It’s true. And I feel like that’s almost true of everything though. Like often renovating, working with something that’s existing, whether it’s a building or a bit of furniture or something, often it is more complicated.

I’m glad you said that as well cause I remember the technical stuff being quite difficult and trying to get my head round of it, because I project managed it and yeah, it sometimes it would take me and the builder quite a while and Ben to work it all out.

Jane: Well that was the really lovely thing about working with you is that you had such, obviously, such a clear vision for the project. It felt like we were properly collaborating on the design aspect and facilitating what you wanted it to look like and what you wanted it to be.

I can’t remember whether you were always going to project manage it on site, because I know that I, I was having my first baby.

Jess: Yeah. I can’t remember, to be honest. But we were happy with it because yeah, we were on a really tight budget,

So that was actually that worked out fine. So that was quite lucky cuz otherwise it would be, I mean, it was still daunting to be honest. I still found that hard work,because I’m not a project manager. But yeah, it, it was kind of what we needed to do and our main contractor was great.

Don’t get me wrong, there was like stressful points but yeah, it would’ve been more stressful if he wasn’t as reliable as he was.

Jane: I felt like you had quite a good match there. And also I guess because you were so involved in the design, you had your head totally in what needed to be accomplished.

We worked together really well. I think he was really good at attention to detail.

Jess: One of the reasons we went with them is because I think they needed one project at a time which we really liked so they wouldn’t be juggling on and offsite. So it meant it was quite quick as well. You know, it was quite intensive, but it worked really well.

But I also was very on it in terms of, holding them to account on stuff, I suppose. I made them retile some of the patio twice because they didn’t get it perfectly level. And I guess that’s the kind of thing that if you’re project managing it, you need to be on top of, you know, that would, that would annoy you forever if you had a like puddle on your patio all the time.

And I remember they redid it and I, don’t really like confrontation, so not that keen to like pull people up on stuff all the time, but sometimes you just have to, and then they redid it and it still was pooling and I was just like, it, it is still not working. You’re gonna have to redo it again.

Jess: And I drove the tiles absolutely mad, I think because with the courtyard tiles. It’s four different colors. I planned the whole thing. I gave them a tile by tile plan for exactly where every color should go.

So even though it looks random, I still planned everything, including exactly where they cut the edges so that, the way you look through the glass kind of blended on a perfect half or something.

You have to be very specific if you want a level of detail

Jane: Yeah, it’s just not leaving it to chance.

Jess: Yeah, I don’t think we left anything to chance at all.

You always get a few surprises, but generally we stuck to the plan.

And yeah, that meant that we were able to come in on, on budget more or less as well. But Ben was very good at keeping a very tight eye on the budget. And for me, actually, what, that was one of the biggest things I had to learn because I was used to specifying things and working with designer brands that would l lend us really expensive sanitaryware

I think a tap alone that I originally thought I would specify was like £700 just for the bathroom tap. And gradually I’d do so many different specs and every one that the price would come down and be like, no, it’s still too expensive. Down, down, down, down, down. But actually sometimes you have to be, more creative if you’ve got less budget anyway.

It doesn’t always mean that the design has to suffer overall, it’s just trying to balance out the quality in, a mixture of things from different places.

Jane: Maybe the time energy goes up though, as the budget comes down.

Jess: Yeah, totally true. It, It took us a long time.

I think by the time I actually finished it to the point where I could be happy to use it for my studio, was the beginning of 2020, and we did the extension in 2017.

So yeah, it was, it was slow.

Amy: Do you feel like the success of working with the contractor was because he would just had one project and he was really focused, but also that you’d already done a lot of the, the thought work on all of your decisions so that you were able to give him the information he needed at the time he needed it. Like do you think that was kind of at the crux of what made it work?

Jess: Yeah, I think that’s definitely true. I mean, I remember being on the phone to him, it felt like all the time, and I was lucky that I had a job where if I wasn’t in a meeting, I would answer the phone.

But yeah, there weren’t really surprises in that way, I guess,when he would be asking questions. I would be able to explain something over the phone or come and have a meeting about it.

And It did work really well.

Maybe that’s why because I’d kind of thought about most of the different aspects of it and how it was gonna come together.

Amy: I think we forget that from the contractor’s point of view, it must be quite frustrating to want to get, momentum and get everyone going and then like to have to stop and like, okay, you haven’t actually decided your final tiles.

I think we just forget to put, put ourselves in the contractor’s boots and just think actually what they’re trying to achieve is really difficult.

Jess: Yeah.

What really helped us was having your schedules before so that we had a really clear kind of, timeline to order everything in and process it. So nothing was a surprise from that. Having every single thing listed out that you need to,spec with a gap, a big empty hole for like, you know, pending was super helpful for us.

In terms of really driving that home to the client like your organization level is obviously really good, which is why it makes sense that you are doing HomeNotes. And, I think that meant we were able to be like, at least a step ahead most of the time or a couple of steps ahead of the contractor.

I know a lot of people who’ve done projects who get serious

decision fatigue. Like, and I’m not saying that I, we didn’t ever get that, but I don’t think we did really like, I suppose because we planned it all. I dunno, one thing I find is really important to get a coherent design for the kind of look and feel of it, is that you kind of have to plan everything together.

So I think I’m thinking about the next project, even though we won’t do all of the aspects all at the same time, I still want to know exactly what’s gonna happen in the whole thing because, every decision impacts each other.

So you kind of like to hold everything in your head together to get the balance between the whole space.

Cause it’s not about a series of individual rooms. It’s actually about the experience of moving through the home. You are always like moving, aren’t you in the house?

Jane: Do you think that you understood what the project management would entail or do you feel like it was still a little bit of a shock?

Jess: I mean, it was still a shock. In my job, I always worked alongside a project manager. So I kind of knew to some extent what it entailed. But that wasn’t my, that’s not my side of things really. I was used to, specifying materials and and the design aspect.

But yeah, I mean it was just the, the shock I guess was the intensity of it being, the first time we’d done our own project. Cause I’m normally designing for someone else and you can switch off at the end of the day. Whereas I remember just being up till one, like every night.

Cause we were both working full time. Being up super late every night, really knackered, trying to you know, get things ready for the next day basically, or line up whatever decisions or place, whatever orders we needed to. So it was just, yeah, it was intense from that respect and trying to just be really fastidious with detail.

I mean, me and Ben were we’re quite a good team, although we’re quite, we can be quite antagonistic as well, so, so it doesn’t always feel easy, but he is incredibly good at planning and research, whereas I’m much more intuitive and I kind of just will start doing something so we just have quite opposite approaches. But actually I think that meant that we’ve explored everything and kind of pushed boundaries, I guess, of what we could achieve.

Jane: Are there any lessons that you think definitely not gonna do that. Like what are you taking into the next one?

Jess: So, I’m trying to think. I mean, it’s gonna be such a different project. I’m, I’m glad that we know kind of how hard it is. I guess the thing that I’m worried about is now we’ve got two kids and one of them is allergic to dust, which is really not ideal for a lot of stuff, actually but, what would I take into it? I guess just a confidence that we can do it. Cause it’s kind of amazing to look back now and to live in the space. The best thing about doing the project was that we get to live in this, a space that we love and that we feel really good in. And that’s super practical and like, serves all of our needs.

So just having the space work really hard. And the, in terms of the decoration, yeah, all of the color and pattern just makes it feel it does feel quite a joyful space to be in and really light.

One thing I did think of was that, which I floated to Ben, kind of tried to float the ideas to him casually the other night that we have no white at all. I’d quite like to try and do that, so like have no white ceilings or anything like that.

And we’ve got, we’ve got a few colored ceilings here, but yeah, I think I’d just want to push even more with the decoration side.

Amy: I think what’s so successful about your project your home at the moment is it’s so colorful and joyful, but the balance is amazing. Cause I think sometimes when people are playing with color, like it can feel a bit like, not gimmicky, but just quite full on. But I think there’s such a, a delicate kind of atmosphere. It feels exciting and fresh, but also just like you could enjoy living in that space and just be there for a long time, you know?

And I think getting that balance is actually really difficult. And I think that’s probably why as architects we always default to white.

Jess: I think that’s why everyone defaults to white, really white or gray. There’s more to get wrong when you’re using color in a more experimental way, I guess, or in a bolder way. But I mean, for me it’s a lot about, creating that calmness and flow throughout the space is a lot to do with creating rhythm with repetition of, so repetitions of color, repetitions of patterns.

So for instance, the kitchen is the darkest space and the hallway is the darkest space.

So I wanted to use the brightest colors in the kitchen and the boldest patterns in the hallway because in the kitchen they kind of lift the space visually. And in the hallway again,it doesn’t have any direct light in it, the hallway at all.

So. The walls are coveredin two different patterns on either wall that I’ve hand painted, but one is the same pattern that’s used on the kitchen tiles, but it’s like,30, 40 times the scale. But that color that I’ve used on that hallway wall it’s the same color that’s in the courtyard tiles.

The courtyard tiles are pink, blue, green, and gray. And that blue is, is kind of, very similar chimes off that blue in the hallway pattern. And also it’s the same blue that’s the ceiling of the bathroom and it’s the same blue that is on the steels.

So I’ve repeated lots of elements like that. So like with the pink the peachy pink in the walls on the exterior walls and the courtyard walls.

Again, it’s similar to the dusty pink in the courtyard tiles. So so it kind of creates a rhythm and a flow. It’s all one big pallet throughout the space. That’s how I would recommend that you kind of approach being more playful with color.

It’s really nice to hear your methods for how you kind of put everything together. Do. You think it’s something that you’re going to involve in your next project?

Yeah. And I was thinking a bit recently, like because of my job, I’m always. Thinking of the finished article and like making things perfect. Normally for work, when I hand it over, something over it, whether it’s for an event styling or for a window display or a interior, it’s like it’s, it needs to be perfect. When I hand it over and that’s kind of finished.

What I’ve been realizing is that actually that’s just the starting point for when the real kind of living begins. It can be quite intimidating. Everything looking perfect all the time on Instagram.

Our flat looks amazing when it’s really tidy, but in reality, it’s never really like that. But what’s great is that even when it’s a complete mess and there’s nappies on the floor, and there’s shopping all over the place.

The background of the space is still great. It still feels good to be in that space. I’m not saying it doesn’t feel even better when it’s tidy, but you still get the benefit of you know, living with a beautiful backdrop and something that where everything works properly is just a really nice experience. I guess I always start with how you wanna feel when you are in the space and I think what I’m most pleased with about our project is that it makes you feel good to be in it.

Jane: I really like the idea of doing a mood board for the new project, which is really clear about that reality of how you would live in the space, because it’s when you are putting things together on Pinterest, it’s so easy to imagine this better version of your life where everything’s gonna be perfect in this new place. But just to really be focused on, how are we gonna make this space work for us when the shopping’s out, when there’s clothes all over the place? I really like that idea.

Jess: Yeah, I can just see in my head now a mood board with like nappies in it.

Jane: It’s great to incorporate it.

I, I really think living in a home before you start a renovation I think it just gives you this other level of understanding of the space, the light, how you use it, because you always think that you’re gonna use it in a certain way and then when you, daily life kind of takes over and then you realize, oh yeah, actually that, that place would be better used as this.

Amy: So I think if you can, I would always opt for enjoying the space first. Yeah.

Jess: I think it’s much harder to design it if you haven’t lived in a space and you don’t understand the light and all of that. Like with our garden you know, it’s all kind of tiered because of the natural slope of the, of our plot here. So a way to get round the, having a big slope in the garden. But you know, one side is like, I know we knew that that’s where the sun is in the morning, so it’s really nice for a cup of tea. and then the other side’s the other kind of patio.

It gets the sun in the afternoon and you know, you kind of know exactly how you’re going to use the space.

Jane: It’s amazing what you’ve achieved I would love everyone to go and look at the photos on our website because yeah, they’re gonna love it.

Jess: Thank you. Yeah, it’s been really nice for me to look back actually and think about what we’ve done. Cause you kind of forget. And it’s also, useful thinking about the next project to remember the process and to, think about what works and what doesn’t work.

Amy: Photos of Jess’s finished project can be found on our website, homenotes.co/storiesfromsite and we a hundred percent recommend checking out Jess on Instagram at King Celia Studio.

Thanks for taking the time to listen to this episode. Renovating can be a rollercoaster and if you are at the beginning of your renovation journey, come and find out about our Getting Started Course at homenotes.co to make sure you get the best value from your project. Finally, if you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please do follow or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, as it will help us reach as many people as possible and all learn from these amazing experiences.


Our closing thoughts:

It can be tempting to admire interiors that look spontaneous and exciting and think that it is an easy look to achieve!

But as always, putting in the time and energy into careful, thoughtful planning is the only way to achieve great things!

It’s a reminder to ourselves that good things take time 🙂

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