Mistakes, regrets and inspiration: Inside the homes of Ireland’s interior designers

From short-term flooring to a too-small utility, even the experts’ homes aren’t perfect

Ireland’s interior designers spend their days creating stunning spaces for their clients, but what design choices do they make when it comes to decorating their own houses? Here we take a sneak peek inside the homes of three interiors experts and see how they relished the chance to experiment with trends, showcase their signature styles and create homes with soul.

Limerick-based Geri O’Toole of Geri Designs took on a restoration project, transforming — with her husband Cathal — a derelict farming cottage built on the grounds of Mountshannon House into a modern-rustic gem. They juxtaposed elements that were in keeping with the character of the property, such as reclaimed beams and brick feature walls, with modern touches like industrial metal. She also incorporated antique elements and unusual, one-off art pieces picked up at auctions to create a sense of timelessness.

“Timelessness is so important to me,” she says. “I love my interiors to feel soulful, for somebody … to walk in and think this feels like it’s been done over time.” One of her pet peeves is if everything feels too shiny and new, “a little too matching and too perfect”. She suggests that one way people can achieve that feeling of timelessness is to get a piece of custom joinery made for their home. Going bespoke may seem expensive at the outset, but will be less likely to date.

If O’Toole has one regret with her own cottage, it is the laminate flooring they put down. “When we were moving into the house, we always knew it wasn’t going to be big enough for us long-term.” Because she knew more work would eventually be needed, she went with laminate rather than choosing “forever flooring”. Laminate, she says, is “fine” if it’s dressed up well. However, she loves natural materials, so “it doesn’t feel close to my heart.”

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Two children on and they are now “jam-packed for space” and renovating again. An extension will house their new kitchen. Fortunately, the gorgeous Neptune units in their current kitchen will not go to waste. “We’re definitely going to use the majority of that for the utility.”

When they were restoring the cottage initially, O’Toole was so busy with work projects that she had to decorate it “on gut instinct” as she didn’t have time to do detailed sketches or plans. This time around, however, she will plan out elements like the bathrooms to the last detail so that she doesn’t miss any design opportunities.

Eclectic luxury

Suzie McAdam is perhaps best known as a former judge on RTÉ's Home of the Year, but she also runs a design consultancy recognised for creating elegant yet playful interiors. So, perhaps it’s no surprise that her restored Victorian home in Sandycove, Dublin, is a masterclass in eclectic luxury. Think chinoiserie wallpaper, oversized handblown pink glass kitchen light fittings and, her “Cleopatra moment”, a one-tonne marble bath.

McAdam describes the process of decorating the home as “design freedom”. “I really just wanted to have fun and bring playfulness,” she says. “Design can be very rudimentary and drab, and I just really wanted to surround myself with things that are interesting and unusual.”

One of her favourite design moments in the house is a pair of disco dog sculptures in the drawing room because they spark different reactions. “Some people come in and think, ‘are they Christmas decorations?’, some people think they’re very scary, others think they’re really fun.”

She advises people to take their time collecting pieces that they love, rather than buying everything new in one go. Much of her collection of art and antiques was picked up over the years in places like Milan and Paris. “If I was at a dealer and saw something really beautiful and didn’t have it in mind for a project at that stage, I’d maybe acquire it and put it in storage.”

The process of renovating and decorating her own home has taught her a huge amount as a designer. “It was like a crash course. Obviously, I’d worked on renovations for years. I suppose I didn’t really understand how invested people are … and the stress involved,” she says. “It’s given me an understanding of the pressure.”

Would she do anything differently? “I put in a huge master walk-in closet and master bathroom and a slightly smaller utility,” she says. Now that she has young children, her priorities have changed. “I just wanted the luxury. Now I want the practicality. [The utility] is perfect, it works … but I never anticipated the amount of laundry.”

Maybe next time round she’ll opt for the bigger utility; McAdam’s Sandycove home is currently on the market for €2.5 million with Bergins.

DIY and upcycling

Also in Limerick is the founder of Abbeyfeale Interiors Wioleta Kelly, who moved to Ireland from Poland in 2006, and now lives in the countryside near the village of Tournafulla with her husband and twins (who are about to turn three). The views from their windows are stunning and so “country cottage style suits our little bungalow best”, she says.

Kelly’s work means that she is “constantly inspired” by new design ideas she would love to try out in her own house. Despite the temptation to stray in different directions, she has fulfilled the country cottage brief, incorporating rustic elements such as a sliding barn door to conceal a pantry.

However, her passion for DIY and personality means that it is far from a cottagecore-by-numbers interior. Her individuality is evident in elements such as the dramatic murals on either side of the fireplace in the sitting room, and the mural of woodland animals that she created in the twins’ nursery using a projector and permanent markers.

Her favourite element in the house was a swing that used to hang in the sitting room, but this has been taken down to make room for a divider wall that she built herself. She comes from a really creative family, so DIY and upcycling come naturally to her — and saves money. “I’m very pragmatic. I don’t believe in spending lots of money. If you have an unlimited budget, wow that’s amazing but I’m realistic. Most of us have bills to pay.”

Other recent DIY projects included a slatted wood wall feature and table that conceals the radiator in the hall. She notes that halls tend to be the most under-decorated part of a house, and suggests people use paint to add a pop of colour to this space.

In the past, she used to repaint rooms in her house about once a year, and this gave her a chance to experiment with every paint brand out there. “I can tell you exactly which paint is the best in the Irish market.” (She favours Colourtrend.) She has also learned from her own mistakes — she painted the tiles in the shower area of their bathroom, but even though she did her research and used primer and good quality paint, it has peeled because of the hot water and steam.

Her house may have been her design playground, but the DIY experimentation is temporarily on hold: her adorable, “very busy” twins are constantly on the go, crayons are everywhere and wallpaper is being peeled off by little fingers. While potty training may have replaced pots of paint, for now, she is saving up for another big revamp … but not until the twins are making their Communion.