What happened when our daughter decorated our house

Georgina Key, left, renovated her parents Jean and Bryan's house in east London with her co-designer Sophie Scott, second from left
Georgina Key, left, renovated her parents Jean and Bryan's house in east London with her co-designer Sophie Scott, second from left - Andrew Crowley

We’re advised never to work with children or animals, but is it easier or harder to work with one’s own children?

Collaborating on something as stressful as a major house renovation can, in the best of cases, create tension; but it can also be a rewarding project for everyone concerned, as was the case for Jean and Bryan Key when they commissioned their daughter, Georgina, to work on the renovation of their new home.

The couple’s previous home was a rambling seven-bedroom Edwardian house in Richmond, where their four children and family friends naturally congregated. “We had lots of parties, dinners and fun there, with young and old alike; it was a very lively house,” recalls Jean. So much so, many of their friends were devastated when they decided to sell it.

Nevertheless, for Jean and Bryan, the time was right to downsize. Jean had recently retired from a career as a secondary school teacher, while Bryan had scaled back his work as an M&E (mechanical and electrical) consultant in the construction industry. While their youngest son was still living at home, their older three had all moved to east London, where housing is, in comparison with Richmond at least, more affordable, and the couple decided to follow suit and move to Wanstead, an area they were both familiar with.

While they were planning their move east, Georgina was developing her career as an interior designer, having set up the design firm Studio Skey with co-founder Sophie Scott. So when Bryan and Jean found their new home, the idea of asking Georgina and Sophie to mastermind the renovations was a no-brainer.

exterior of house
The Keys's semi-detached Edwardian house in Wanstead - Chris Snook

But this was much more than a curtains-and-cushions interiors project. The semi-detached Edwardian house, although charming, had been in the same family since it was built. Last modernised in the 1960s, it was tired – think faded wallpaper and fitted gas fires – but nevertheless it proved popular with buyers and went to nerve-wracking sealed bids when it came onto the market at Christmas 2019. Bryan and Jean were renting locally, ready to pounce when the right property appeared, and they won the bidding war. They remained in their rental while the plans quickly evolved.

The house had a generous, if dated, floor plan, with three separate reception rooms, a boxy little kitchen and a dated lean-to sun room tacked onto the back of the house. Upstairs there were three good-sized bedrooms plus a box room, all of which shared one bathroom. “My parents thought it was the perfect place to create something tailored to their new lifestyle, with the opportunity for entertaining and gardening, both of which they love to do,” says Georgina.

She and Sophie set to work rearranging the floor plan to suit Bryan and Jean’s lifestyle. The lean-to was first to go, and rather than adding a rear extension in its place, Sophie and Georgina opted for a side extension to win over the planning department. The former kitchen and rear reception room have been reconfigured to create a new downstairs WC and shower room, plus a laundry room, and, opening onto the garden via Crittall doors, a spacious kitchen-dining-living space, perfectly geared towards the kind of relaxed entertaining that the couple love.

Jean loves to entertain – so Studio Skey put the kitchen and garden on the same level to make it easier - Chris Snook

There was, however, a little negotiating to be done regarding the latter room. “We had some debate on the open-plan kitchen-dining room,” Georgina admits. “My mum initially wanted to have a separate dining room as she’d had for the past 30 years, whereas my dad was happy to go with the new layout.

“In our previous house, my mum always disliked the kitchen being a few steps up from the garden, as it was here. To sway her, we suggested dropping the floor so that the kitchen and garden are on the same level. It took some time but Mum came round in the end.”

“It does work really well for entertaining,” says the now-convinced Jean.

Upstairs, Georgina and Sophie cleverly rejigged the space, losing the box room in order to create three en-suite bedrooms, for guests to stay in absolute comfort. “They pinched a bit from here and there and somehow made it work,” says Jean.

The really transformative aspect of the renovation, though, is the addition of new and larger windows that take advantage of the views. The former sitting and dining rooms have become one open-plan room, with a new side window looking onto the church green.

The new open-plan layout means the sitting room merges into the dining room, with new and larger windows taking advantage of the views
The new open-plan layout means the sitting room merges into the dining room, with new and larger windows taking advantage of the views - Wanstead Village House

It’s the same in the couple’s bedroom, which now overlooks the church and surrounding mature trees, amplifying the village-like sense of place. This room also has a new Juliet balcony overlooking the garden and the tall trees in the park beyond.

“We thought about using the front bedroom, but it’s nice to have more privacy and be able to enjoy all the greenery,” says Jean. “My dad loves to see nature,” adds Georgina, “so this was important, and it really feels like you’re in a tree house when you’re in there.

The principal bedroom has a Juliet-style balcony
The principal bedroom has a Juliet-style balcony and features a blanket from The Wool Company - Chris Snook

She and Sophie also took their cue from the house’s surroundings when they added a long clerestory window in the kitchen, which cleverly references the one on the nearby church hall, a detail that helped the design to be waved through the planning process.

Extension aside, Bryan and Jean were insistent on preserving, restoring and reinstating as many original features as possible. “As a studio, we always aim to do this, so we were on the same page there,” says Sophie. For the flooring on the ground floor, however, Georgina and Sophie recommended limestone tiles with underfloor heating.

This proved to be the biggest sticking point between client and designer, mother and daughter. Jean was anti-underfloor heating, having had it in the rental house. “It was always either too hot or freezing cold,” she recalls. Her idea was to reuse the bedrooms’ original pine floorboards – destined to be hidden under sisal carpets – in the new kitchen, with heating courtesy of cast-iron radiators.

“There was no budging her, but the re-waxed floorboards give the impression that the room has always been there, and I have to say that Mum was right,” says Georgina.

The bedrooms' original pine floorboards were reused in the new kitchen
The bedrooms' original pine floorboards were reused in the new kitchen - Chris Snook

Jean was also adamant that she didn’t want tiles or glass screens in the bathrooms, to make upkeep easier, so Georgina and Sophie suggested coating the rooms in clay lime waterproof plaster, and creating dividing walls instead of screens to zone the shower areas.

“We were inspired by the traditional tadelakt plasterwork of Moroccan architecture,” explains Sophie. “As predicted, the bathrooms have proved very easy to look after,” says Jean approvingly. “If it had been down to me, we’d still be at the decision-making stage.”

Mirror from Etsy; Claystone plaster from EHO Crafted Interiors and bronze taps and hardware from Nicolazzi
'The bathrooms have proved very easy to look after': Mirror from Etsy; Claystone plaster from EHO Crafted Interiors and bronze taps and hardware from Nicolazzi - Chris Snook
The showers are protected with dividing walls, not screens
The showers are protected with dividing walls, not screens

This is a benefit of hiring an interior designer, she believes, because “you have someone to suggest clever ideas you’d never think of, explain all the options and hold your hand through the whole process.”

Bryan’s career has seen him working alongside many top interior designers and for this project he designed much-needed new plumbing, heating and electrical systems. “M&E and interior designers are notoriously often at loggerheads with one another, debating pipe locations and access panels, but we managed to keep the peace,” he says.

Whereas Studio Skey normally handle sourcing furniture for their clients, in this case Georgina and her mother went on buying trips together. They added to the collection of pieces that Jean and Bryan brought from the old house with ‘new’ purchases including an antique dining table, capable of seating 12 so that the whole family can gather round it, an old French bookcase for the sitting room, and a pair of French armchairs which Georgina and Sophie had re-covered in linen.

jean  bryan georgina key
'We're both very proud,' says Bryan - Andrew Crowley

Georgina and Sophie approached the project like any other. “Just with more lunches cooked by mum to fuel the lengthy decision process,” says Georgina. “No family catch-ups or Sundays in the pub were safe from us getting into a design discussion.”

And what is it like to live in a house that your daughter designed for you? “We’ve had people approach us on the street that want to come in and see the finished house. We’re both very proud, and love showing people around if they’re curious,” says Bryan.

As with their former home, the house has become a social hub for friends and family, with Georgina hosting her post-wedding barbecue here last summer. “It’s the perfect entertaining space for summer,” she says, “and all my friends are so happy to have a place for parties at my parents’ house once again.”

Creating a harmonious home: How to compromise when you want different things

  • When trying to decide on a look or design, pictures are better than words, so create a moodboard of magazine tear-outs or use a site like Pinterest. Use it to identify any common ground.

  • Likewise, browse interiors images together, giving each element a ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ to identify the things you agree on.

  • Explore all the possible options for each decision. Studio Skey considered different configurations of the kitchen, laundry and downstairs shower room, thinking about where would get the most light during the day. The trade-off for the final layout was that there is no natural light in the shower room, a situation they embraced by using a dark green colour palette.

  • If in doubt, defer to the main user of the room: let the head chef specify the kitchen, and don’t stress about a guest bedroom if you’ll hardly use it.

  • When comparing two ideas, it may be that the solution lies somewhere in between. Bryan wanted uninterrupted views of the garden via full glass doors, but Jean preferred a solid panel at the bottom to help protect grandchildren from accidents. Georgina and Sophie compromised by adding half a solid panel to the bottom, which also created a unique design detail for this project.

  • Accept that both parties may not be able to have everything they want, and compromise where possible. Bryan was keen to have a TV in the kitchen to watch the morning news but Georgina, Sophie and Jean thought it would spoil the look. They compromised with Sonos speakers set into the ceilings of the kitchen, living room, main bedroom and bathroom so that they could listen to morning news instead (and The Archers in Jean’s case).

  • To avoid rows, stay open-minded. If in doubt, Bryan advises flipping a coin.

You can check out Georgina and Sophie’s studio here