Living the modern country life

Interiors stylist Eleanor Harpur gave up urban living for a country farmhouse in a coal mining corner of Co Laois


Eleanor Harpur spends her days trawling shops and junk yards to find picture perfect pieces that will create the mood a brand wants for its print ads, television commercials and identity.

As an interiors stylist, she’s carved a niche for herself creating eye-catching interiors and exteriors for clients that include Dulux, The Conran Shop, Brown Thomas, and The Crafts Council of Ireland. For Showcase Ireland she’s responsible for the look and feel of the crafts fair and also curate its home and gift section.

A print and textiles graduate from NCAD she cut her design teeth in retail working as a Saturday girl in Habitat where she learn

ed the ropes from talented stylists such as John Adams – who went on to open Article in Powerscourt Townhouse Centre in Dublin – and Noel McEntee, who works in set production as well as running a curtain and upholstery design business.

In 1999 Harpur’s parents retired to Crettyyard, a tiny village close to a former coalmine in a part of Co Laois that shoulders neighbouring counties Carlow and Kilkenny. From the new family home, Eleanor and her husband, Parisien Nick Hay could see a derelict farmhouse surrounded by outhouses and fantasised about buying it. Her sister, Susan, took the plunge first and set up home a few doors down from their mother. Then in 2005 Eleanor and Nick sold their house in Newbridge, Co Kildare, approached the farmer who owned the desolate-looking homestead and offered to buy the 1.5 acre site for cash.

Architect Keith Graham, then based in Carlow but now in Dublin, drew up the plans which took three years to get approval because the planners interpreted the proposition as a new build whereas the couple saw it as a significant refurbishment.

By the time they got the go-ahead in 2008 the property market had plummeted and some of their original ideas had to go including zinc cladding on the new-build roof and a polished concrete floor in the kitchen. The project took far longer than they had anticipated, with the couple spending six months living on-site in a caravan with their son Tom, then aged three. It was far from ideal as Eleanor was also pregnant with Margot, now aged four.

In an effort to engage with her new community, and to also see where her money was going, Harpur made a conscious decision to employ local craftspeople to work on the house. She hired builder Ronan O’Sullivan and Carlow-based Martin Rice of Diamond Woodcraft to do all the joinery. Rice lives at the end of her road and built the sage green storage in the hall, the kitchen and the deep-drawer bench to the rear of the room that hides all the children’s toys from view.

The 170 sq m house is on three levels, with steps leading down to the bedrooms and more steps taking you into a semi sunken sitting room which can be closed off from the rest of the house by shutting its big barn-like oak sliding door.

The kitchen occupies the entire original house. The three original windows are a focal point in the room and help retain the integrity of the old structure but she’s also added her own touches, many of which were props that she hired to use in shoots. They include the big Formica-topped kitchen table, found at Historical Interiors, Killian McNulty’s film prop business, a sister company to his online design shop, Mid-Century Online.

Above the sink, herb pots sit in a box left over from an Avoca commercial. There are Bunbury Boards from Lisnavagh, cushions by Jennifer Slattery and pieces by Castlecomer-based ceramicists Andrew Luddick and Rosemarie Durr, both friends, can be found in the drawers. Sinead Lough’s pinch pots, perfect for condiments, are also in use.

The house is far from finished, mainly because Eleanor is, by her own admission, “very picky”. She’s lived with painted concrete bedroom floors for two years because she can’t decide what to do with them. She’d also like to turn the remaining outhouses, buildings that the locals advised her to raze, into a proper office. For now she works from a desk that was made using leftover props and an Ikea top. The base features cardboard tubes sourced from an industrial packaging specialist in Bray. Using a staple gun and some Habitat fabric she reupholstered a chair she found in a Carlow charity-shop. It’s not surprising that Eleanor calls herself the “handy” half of the couple, admitting that she is the one who put up all the shelves in the house.

The kids watch everything she does and learn by osmosis. While they think it’s funny that their mother takes a toolkit to work, her son Tom loves to rearrange his room and when he heard about the photo shoot in the house, he set about rethinking it once again.

Tom’s mezzanine bed is reached by a birch ply ladder, made by Tullow-based Alan Moody. When he’s not playing his drums (no neighbours to drive mad) he spends much of his free time in his cousins’ house which is within walking distance down the road. Her family live so close-by that Eleanor sees them at least once a day – with shopping local for a litre of milk involving a seven-mile excursion, many early morning trips are made to borrow milk and cereal from her neighbouring mother and sister.

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