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JH ENGSTROM EXHIBITS: "FROM BACK HOME"

Iconic Swedish photographer JH Engström is currently exhibiting 'From Back Home' in Berlin, a collection of images tracing his childhood memories back to the province of Värmland READ MORE...
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REVIEW: 'TREAT PETITE' BY FIONA PEARCE

There's something so irresistible about miniature food, the treats we love made into tiny packages you can just pop into your mouth - virtually guilt-free! READ MORE...
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GEMMA, LILY & LINDSAY'S PHOTO BOOTH FUN FOR DIOR

"Three friends taking pictures of themselves in a photo-booth as they go off to Glastonbury festival''. This was the brief John Galliano (remember him?!) gave to Nick Knight READ MORE...
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12 STUNNING PHOTOS THAT CAPTURE THE WORLD

As an amateur photographer, I'm fascinated by the universe of possibilities we can explore in creating images with our digital camera - why limit ourselves? I read a debate a while ago READ MORE...
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'FROM ARCHITECTURE TO FASHION IN 8 SECONDS'

Since 2007, Montreal photographer Nicolas Ruel has been refining an in-camera double exposure technique, where with a quick swivelling motion of his device, a second plan is overlaid on a main READ MORE...
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LULA GOES TO JAPAN

Lula is about to pretty up Japan even further this October with its unique mix of memoir, philosophy and fantasy, as interpreted by editor Kazuo Sazuki READ MORE...
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December 31, 2013

Afternoon Tea, Art (and the Coolest Toilets Ever) at Sketch

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After screening the second #UnlockArt film in the Le Meridien and Tate produced series last month, we were treated to a fantastic afternoon tea at Sketch in Mayfair. It's a gallery/cafe/restaurant spread over two floors of a converted 18th century building, and it's just a magical place, one of the reasons London is such an incredible city to visit. 

We were taken to the Glade which is where Afternoon Tea is served, a gorgeous, jewel-toned room that had me looking at the walls, ceiling and everything else for several minutes - total distraction!

Glade_SketchPhoto from Sketch.co.uk

The most charming pastry case sits near the entrance of the Glade room:

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We went all-out and had champagne as well as tea which came in white porcelain teapots with bust sculptures as lid handles. 

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The finger sandwiches were lovely, some came topped with caviar and quail egg. My favourites were the mini croque monsieurs.

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I was full by the time I realised I hadn't yet had the parfait sitting next to my plate, but you know my rule, pretty food can't go to waste so I ate it right up, and I was glad I did as it was one of the most delicious things on the table:

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The decor throughout the spaces, from the walls to the ceilings to special installations, was intriguing:

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Now, normally I don't include the fact that I 'went to the bathroom' in a post, but I'm mentioning it this time because it was the coolest thing ever. I was directed to walk up these stairs...

Sketch_bathroomPhoto from RosieParsons.com. I think that's a DJ booth inside there. 

...not realising when I got to the top that I was actually in the bathroom until there was no where else to go, and then I clued in that the glossy white, egg-shaped pods all around me were the toilets:

Sketch_podsPhoto from People.com - Sketch made it on their '7 Public Bathrooms Nicer than our House' list

When I went in, my pod - which glowed pink - was talking to me in a male voice and I have no idea what it was saying. (And I only had one glass of champagne so that wasn't it.) Outside, the mirrors were definitely made to mess with your vanity - they were convex so your face looked warped. I got the message - it was 'Stop staring at yourself and get back to admiring this awesome toilet!' I had to find photos of it online because I don't normally take my camera into the bathroom, people tend not to like that. 

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Lastly, an exterior shot as the car pulled away far too early to take me to Kings Cross station to head back up to Newcastle - I'd love to see what they do for breakfast:

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Thanks to Le Meridien for another wonderful day!

Photos © The Swelle Life unless otherwise credited

December 20, 2013

Offices that Inspire at Home and Work

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I've always thought of the office as a place where creativity goes to die, CEOs and directors ironically conspiring to make you want to go back home to bed as soon as you walk into the reception area, but that's more of a reflection of the places I've worked than what is possible. I once went for an interview for a project managment job at a software company in Toronto and walked into the office equivalent of Xanadu. I swear I saw monkeys glide by on rollerskates smiling and waving, it just looked like so much fun. It was a massive open-plan, two-level space with high ceilings, lots of windows, natural wood, probably exposed brick as was the trend at the time, and colour. And faces that looked energised and engaged intead of 'over it', on bodies kitted out in cool clothes, not that soul-sucking business casual. (Don't tell anyone but sometimes I slept at my desk while at the job I was trying to leave. I blame the sea of grey partitions for lulling me into unconsciousness.)

The creation of a workspace, whether it be at home or the office, is about vision and choices. First, you have to want to create an inspiring space - why does that only seem to be the designation of creative studios and young, hip companies? Do data entry people demand to look at drab walls, dull carpets and fake plants in need of dusting while they work? Would they not feel a little more motivated to tap those keyboards all day if they were hit by a splash of yellow or some shiny white gloss? These days there are so many design options when it comes to office furniture, it's just a matter of knowing what kind of environment you want to work in and pulling together the right pieces. In the Workplace pavillion at the 100% Design show I saw desks and seating, even storage lockers, that obliterated any existing notions I had of what office furniture is about. I'm talking mind-blowing cool.

Take Dauphin's Perillo chair, crafted from one continuous sheet of thermo plastic with a high gloss finish, the seat surface, backrest and armrests offering an uninterrupted, ultra-modern form. 

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Ok, so these chairs may be more suited to a lobby or reception area - the most awesome ones ever! - than behind a desk, but they illustrate what great things can come from leaving behind any pre-conceptions about what the office environment should be. 

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Here's a home office (I think) that is made up of a simple trestle table against a white wall, but add a cool chair and fill the walls with colour (looks like someone has attempted an homage to Rothko) and you've got a space that makes you want to sit down and get into your work, with or without those shelves of old-school lunch boxes. 

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This at-home workspace makes the most of a tight area. The large table, offering an ample workstation, nearly fills the space yet appears light, and a sideboard and tall shelving unit enhance the decor of the flat while having the capacity to store a significant quanity of supplies. The benefit of the home environment is the flexibility to add features such as decorative lighting, like this one which looks like a mature dandelion, giving a more eclectic and stylised feel to the space. 

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I included this outdoor office for fun because it's just so neat, and another example of how a workspace can take any form. Just one question - how do they move around within it?!

December 19, 2013

Sideboard Daydreaming

Sideboard_Punt_SussexThe Punt Sussex Low Sideboard in blue, c. 2000, is my current lust. The design is inspired by the shingled, angled roof of an English cottage. It reminds me of sunny days at the beach. 

Never underestimate the potential power of storage furniture. Take the sideboard, or credenza if you must, a feat of form and function. It provides storage while offering a major feature piece for a space, it can anchor a room, and it will reveal much about its owner. I think opting for a sideboard in the first place, say over a hutch or cabinet which seem to be more traditional choices, reveals a love for design. It's really incredible how two or three boxes on a stand can be endlessly reinterpreted to provide a practical solution to clutter while dramatically enhancing the look and feel of a space.
 
Sideboards_Nest
 
The designs I've featured here are from Nest who have a selection of sideboards that make me tingly. (Yes, I get tingly for sideboards and I'm ok with that.) Right now I'm selling my huge, ornate French sideboard and hoping to replace it with something sleek and contemporary in the new year. Good design can be prohibitively expensive, particularly from the icon-producing brands. I'm eternally frustrated from finding interior pieces I want to live with forever but happen to be thousands of pounds - most of what you see here, remember this is daydreaming! (And you learn from the icons what makes good design, which helps you develop an eye and recognise desirable features in the lower-priced products). However, there is a lot of good design made with accessibility in mind, so much so that there is always something that will fit with what you're looking for and won't feel at all like a compromise. If you're also looking for value, have a browse of voucherbox.co.uk to find offers from UK furniture and homewares shops.  
 
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If you want to see more products that help you to organise and beautify your space, take a look at the favourites from my Houzz Ideabook Fabulously Decorative Storage.

December 05, 2013

How to Save Money on Your Wood Floor

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Hardwood tends to be the most expensive of the flooring options, especially solid wood, but there are ways to save money on the total cost. First, don't do what we did and blindly hand over money to a contractor only to stare at the floor afterward and wonder what exactly it is that you got and how much it really cost. With that no-brainer out of the way, here are some things you can do to avoid overpaying, and also be in charge of what you're getting:

  1. Do your research. Educate yourself on the popular species of wood floors and the types within a species as there can be several, varying dramatically in appearance and also in quality. Also, be able to recognise the difference between solid and engineered wood. If you ask for, and pay for, a solid wood floor but engineered was installed, would you know?  
  2. Source the wood yourself. Choosing the wood for your floor first-hand means you're getting exactly what you want and the best quality for your money. In our case, we asked for 'maple'. We didn't provide specifics (because we didn't know the differences) and we weren't asked for them, either. Maybe what we got was commensurate with what we paid, but because it was left up to the installer to source the wood and there was no communication, we really can't be sure. 
  3. Request or source the installation products. There are many products involved in the installation process including flooring adhesives from Buzz Wood Floor Products, underlays, and sanding and finishing materials, and the quality of these can be as varied as the floor itself. You're trusting that your installer isn't using cheap and inferior products that may let your floor down in the future. If you want to be sure you're get quality throughout the entire installation, ask what products they use before proceeding. 

My advice after our rookie first installation is to be sure you feel in control of the job at every step. Yes, that can be a bit of a lofty ask, especially if, like us, you find yourself struggling to find someone to do the job at the time you need it done and don't have any flexibility, such as when you take possession of a house. Contractors can tend to gloss over details or make you feel rushed to make decisions, deferring to the 'just trust me' approach. All you really need to do is say you need an afternoon to make a decision and let them know later in the day, no one should have a problem with that, no matter how busy they are. It's your time, your money, and your home, so be sure your installation is all it should be!

December 02, 2013

How to Choose a Duvet

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A duvet, or comforter, is an essential piece of bedding for all seasons, yet many of us are unsure about what we're buying and whether it's the right one for us. There are a few important features to consider when choosing a duvet, including fill power, types of fills, baffle box construction, and tog rating. I'm on my third duvet and I couldn't tell you what the fill power is, and I'm not exactly clear on whether it's stuffed with down or feathers (probably a mix), but I'll know what to look for next time. (We just got a chihuahua puppy so 'next time' might be coming sooner than expected.)

Let's go through the major features of a duvet and break down what each one means: 

Fill power

This is a rating for down (not feathers or synthetics) that measures its ability to expand and trap air, and it applies to any down-filled product, such as down coats and sleeping bags. A rating of 400–450 is considered medium quality, 500-550 is good, 550–750 is very good, while 750+ is considered excellent, though this type of down (from a limited number of mature geese kept for breeding) is very rare and therefore expensive. Fill power is probably the most important factor in choosing a duvet, but bigger is not necessarily better. Higher fill power does mean a better quality down, but it may not actually be necessary. What you choose depends how light, how soft, and how warm a duvet you need. You could wind up spending a fortune and finding yourself throwing off the blankets in the night because you're too hot to sleep!

Types of Fills

There are two types of fills, natural and synthetic. For natural fills, the most common choices are goose or duck down, duck feather, and down/feather combinations, with cotton and silk also available but harder to find. Down alternative comforters can be more cost effective and are ideal for those allergic to feathers or needing to clean their duvet often as they can be machine-washed at home; down and feather products must be specialty dry-cleaned. Natural duvets are better at trapping air than synthetic, so normally require less filling to achieve the same level of warmth.  Goose down duvets are especially light for the level of warmth that they give. If you like a bit of weight to your covers, duck feathers are heavier due to the quills so they may give you more of that snuggly comfort you're looking for. Another benefit of natural fills is they allow your skin to breathe more naturally while you sleep. 

Tog Rating

If the idea of fill power is a bit confusing, you can use the tog rating - the measure of thermal resistance - as a guide to decide how warm a duvet to buy. It's simple: the higher the tog, the warmer the duvet. 

The tog range is categorised as follows:

Lightweight summer: 3.0 - 4.5 tog
Spring/Autumn weight: 7.0 - 10.5 tog
Winter weight: 12.0 - 13.5 tog

You can now buy 'all season' sets which consist of two duvets: one lightweight and one spring/autumn weight, so when combined by fastening them together with either press studs or Velcro, they become a 13.5 tog winter duvet, so you're covered throughout the year. 

Baffle Box vs. Sewn-through Construction

All duvets are contructed into a box (or diamond or hexagonal) pattern to keep the filling from shifting and collecting at one end of the duvet. But what you ideally want is baffle box construction. This method installs walls of fabric perpendicular to the top and bottom layers of the duvet, creating three-dimensional boxes of space inside which allows the down to expand to its fullest potential for the highest loft with no cold spots. Sewn-through duvets use a cheaper and more rudimentary method, simply sewing the top and bottom layers of the duvet together which can allow tiny bits of down to escape through the needle holes and can allow for cold spots if you allow your duvet to settle. 

In summary, duvets with natural fills are light, comfortable, soft and highly energy efficient, although synthetics are making great strides in terms of lightweight warmth and tend to do so at a cheaper price point. Natural duvets last longer than synthetics; a top quality natural duvet could give you 30 years, while a good quality synthetic duvet will generally only last about 10 years, which may be long enough, depending. The choice is yours!

November 29, 2013

The Living Wall

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Creative interior landscaping with plants in the commercial environment has been around for decades, Plantrite being one UK company known for beautifying businesses with plants from their own nursery. And now we're finally seeing a trend in living home decor, which I witnessed at the 100% Design show in London. Taking the concept of the houseplant to a much bolder, committed level, is the idea of using plants to create wall art; in essence it's a living wall that is designed for your home, incorporating complementary natural textures in a lush green palette. Other approaches seen at the show included plants as part of sculpture (below, left), and building a wall that is not just living, but edible and renewable (below, right). Mette created a wonderful farm kitchen that integrated all kinds of innovative design and technology to support a truly functional, self-sustaining indoor food garden, effectively transforming the traditional kitchen into one where we not only prepare food, we produce it. (We'll have a more thorough look at that soon.) And there's another benefit beyond the vivid visuals; a living interior can also be designed for an olfactory experience. Scent gardens offer another dimension of the senses to enjoy, and I think once you live with, say, the highly aromatic scent of herrenhausen, it would be tough to go back. 

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New technology in interior gardening combines aesthetics and function:

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I think it's very exciting to see how design and technology are merging to create advanced home gardening solutions; they not only allow us autonomy in terms of how we procure our fresh and healthy food, they also make our homes uniquely beautiful and vital. Who wouldn't want to live with that?

Photos © The Swelle Life

November 18, 2013

Caged Creativity: Dinner as Performance Art

A wonderful film made of our evening captures the magic created by a Taste of Space 

Remember the dinner shrouded in mystery I alluded to previously as part of the Unlock Art series with Le Meridien and Tate? This is it. (It culminated in a completely unpredictable finale which will be revealed at the end.) Promised an 'immersive dinner', created by A Taste of Space, (formerly A Taste Full Space), the evening began with a knock at our door at 6pm in our rooms at Le Meridien Piccadilly. We were each delivered a turquoise wooden puzzle (seen below) which came with a note indicating that the codes we would need to Unlock our dinner experience were inside the puzzle. And that if we struggled to open it (that was me) we could get some help from Franz who was creating molecular cocktails for us in the Terrace Grill & Bar - now that's incentive to admit defeat! 

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After we were warmed up with our codes in hand, we were driven to a secret warehouse in Hackney where we walked through a candle-lit entrance:

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The doors opened to an expansive, dark space filled with elegantly set tables lit with candelabras in cage enclosures, the scene eerily highlighted with spotlights. The effect was so dramatic and mysterious I swear I thought we were enveloped in fog, but as the photos show we were not! 

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We wandered in like wide-eyed children trying to make sense of this magical scene, and unlike children, we were served delicious cocktails:

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We were told by our host, Laurie Trainor Buckingham who is the creative behind A Taste of Space, to expect an evening where anything could happen. We were all very excited!

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The first row of cages contained three tables which were set for the first course, but first we had to open the locks with our codes. 

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We were served organic Scottish salmon cured with beetroot, horseradish and Laphroaig whisky, with a smoked cod roe cracker and stained glass beetroot carpaccio with apple and dill, and hot borscht on the side. Wine was Chablis, Domaine Gilbert Picq et Fils 2009/2010 and complemented the gorgeous starter perfectly. 

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Dancer

While we were eating we noticed that in the next cage was a young woman who was watching us, then she appeared to be trying to slide under the barrier into our cage! We kept eating while watching out of the corner of our eye, expecting her to pop up beside our table at any moment. 

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We played musical cages and moved to the next set for the second course. It began with potatoes baked in a salted parcel and came with a mallet for breaking them out of - or Unlocking? - their hard shell. They were absolutely delicious, and I decided to try a bit of the shell as well - it was super salty - right as someone came by and told us not to eat that part. (I'm still here so it's ok.) Then a platter of the most tender lamb I've ever eaten, along with Jerusalem artichockes, was placed on our table. We'd heard the lamb was roasted for seven hours. 

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"Um, they're looking at us - what do we do?" Give them the platter of lamb, of course. I slid it under the barrier (thinking they were hungry) but they didn't devour it, they played with it! It's ok, we had finished, it wasn't wasted. 

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While we ate, the dancers - from a performance group called The People Pile - began to do their own thing, moving in all kinds of ways which began to engage and entertain us. This was just the beginning of that!

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What, you've never partied with a banana peel and candelabra? We found ourselves in one of the empty cages - how did they get us in there, they didn't speak! - circled around one of the candelabras. One of the performers who was standing amongst us produced a banana peel and whipped it down onto the floor. We had a laugh at the randomness and then she pointed at the group one by one and each person responded by doing something with the banana peel. It felt a bit Dada which is a great exercise in letting go of expectations to go with the flow and let things unfold as they will - as adults, how often do we get to do that? 

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Dessert, presented in the third and final set of cages, was molten chocolate cake inside a cage of sugar, served with sea salted ice cream and a coffee-based cocktail that was equally decadent. If that wasn't enough to leave one satisfied, a gorgeous cheese course followed and balanced the sweetness of the dessert. 

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Now for that unpredictable final act. After one of the best dinners I've had, and definitely the most unique dinner experience I've ever had, we found ourselves in the very last cage - again, how did they manage to round us up like that? Then the most amazing thing happened. The performers came up to us one by one and hugged us. This wasn't just any hug, it was a very loved-up embrace that really caught me off guard at how powerful it was; this was some serious, good energy they had harnessed. I know what you're thinking: 'Alcohol helps!' Yes, but in this case the experience was what was most intoxicating, and we got caught up in this great thing that unfolded around us. So after I had two of the most heart-felt cuddles ever - from mute strangers no less! - I stood back and took a shot of the scene. 

I think this photo proves it wasn't just me who felt the power of The People Pile:

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Pretty amazing, eh? 

A huge thanks to Le Meridien and Tate for giving us this truly spectacular evening. And to A Taste of Space and The People Pile for creating it.  

Photos by Dave Watts, except photos #2, #9 and last photo, by The Swelle Life

November 13, 2013

Best of British Design: Tom Vousden

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The James Desk (£1500) and James Desk chair (£675) in Walnut, with tweed upholstery. Also available in oak.

The 100% Design exhibition showcased some great British design talent, and my favourite part of attending was discovering new names. Welsh designer/maker Tom Vousden caught my eye with his uniquely elegant desk and chair frames in walnut and oak, and I loved how he combined the woods with other materials. Powder coated steel made up the legs of the side table and the shutter-like panels on the sideboard, and an armchair featured hand-knitted cushions in warm tones. I really wanted to sit in it. I should have. 

A bit about Tom Vousden: After finishing a Three Dimensional Design course at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2011, he returned to North Wales to make high-end, bespoke furniture for a variety of clients. Tom uses modern technology and techniques along with hand making to create authentic furniture of quality and longevity. 

For more information about these pieces or to enquire about bespoke designs you can contact Tom through his website

Tom_Vousden_100%DesignTom Vousden at the 100% Design show

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Tang Side Table (£355) with oak top and powder coated steel legs in blue; the James Desk Chair in walnut

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The James Desk in walnut

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 Lounge Chair with hand knitted cushions and hand turned oak buttons (£1550)  

Tom_Vousden_WalnutDeskWalnut Office Desk, Chair and Cabinet

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Lounge Chair in leather (£1350) with Oak Side Table (£325)

November 02, 2013

Natural Wonder Walls

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There's something very tempting about bringing the outside in to give our homes a touch of nature, without having to brave the elements. An arrangement of birch branches on a sideboard is a subtle way to do it, but we can go a lot further than accents, dramatically transforming our walls to experience the outdoors inside. We've come a long way from the days of 'ski lodge' wood panel wallpaper which didn't fool anyone (the orangey colour and glossy finish gave it away), and now we have trompe l-oeil wallpapers that trick the eye into seeing textures, creating the impression that the wall is covered in real wood, stone or tile as seen at I Love Wallpaper, for example.  

What I like about the natural textures over novelty features is that they're more likely to endure past a fleeting whim, so if you're going to do a whole wall or even a whole room (that's bold!) this kind of pattern may be the wise choice if you're considering trompe l'oeil in your home. They also allow for flexibility in your furniture arrangement as the pattern is consistent across the wall. A trompe l'oeil hallway or door, for example, while pretty cool looking, will anchor your room to the area and limit where you place your furniture. 

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Rustic wood plank and stone patterns turn this living room and bathroom into warm and serene spaces. Real stone and tile are very desirable features for bathrooms, but they can be expensive and require a lot of work to install. A durable wallpaper in a realistic looking pattern can be a very cost and time-efficient alternative to the real thing. 

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If you like a minimalist decor but don't want your space to feel stark, a wallpaper in a natural pattern will add texture and presence, making the room appear more cohesive. 

Can you think of a room in your home that could be improved with a natural pattern wallpaper? 

October 31, 2013

Five Benefits of Vinyl Flooring

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Vinyl flooring is a bit of an unsung hero of the home. Often it is overlooked in favour of laminate flooring, but it's definitely worth consideration alongside the other options, offering a host of benefits that homeowners may not be aware of. Here are some features that may help you determine whether vinyl flooring is the right choice for your home:

Easy to install and maintain

Many homeowners choose to install vinyl flooring themselves. It is a type of flooring that can easily be laid upon a flat surface and a lot of manufacturers offer do-it-yourself installation kits. It is also easy to clean and much harder to stain than carpets or solid wood flooring, making it an ideal choice for family homes.

Noise Reduction

If you have a busy household with children running about or pets, vinyl flooring could be a good choice. It reduces noise, which could make all the difference in making the most of that Sunday lie in.

Looks great

Vinyl flooring is available in a wide range of designs, patterns and colours that will complement any style of decor. It also comes in a variety of realistic-looking wood grains and stone that could pass for the real thing. 

Durability

Vinyl flooring can be long lasting and stand up well in spaces with heavy foot traffic, such as entranceways, kitchens and living/family room.

Saves you money

Vinyl flooring is in most cases an inexpensive alternative to other types of flooring, such as laminate or solid wood flooring. Opting for cheap vinyl flooring is a great way to save money whilst not losing out on style or practicality. 

So, vinyl flooring is well worth a try and is a particularly good choice for family homes due to its low cost, easy maintenance and noise-reducing qualities. And with the wide range of styles and colours available, it can be a great fit in any room, with any style of decor. Particular brands to look out for would be Leoline, Avenue of Styles, Tarkett and Beauflor.

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