Interior design

Home renovation: “How I transformed my 18th century cottage to reflect my African and Caribbean heritage”

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Megan Murray
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Tiled, green fireplace renovation

This 18th century cottage has over 300 years of history and it’s not over yet. Watch this culture-filled transformation of a home shaped to represent the experience of a modern Black British family.

Kemi of Instagram renovation account Cottage Noir is an entrepreneur and founder of Stylist Loves favourite The Cornrow, an online boutique of lifestyle and decor products edited with the modern Black British woman in mind. 

As an expert in trend spotting and curating beautiful homewares, it’s surprising to hear that Kemi didn’t already have a vision of a property in mind when she set out to find a family home with her husband and daughters, but it’s the surprise that makes her story all the more interesting.

“Searching for a property, we only really had two criteria,” she explains to Stylist.co.uk. “And that was something we could afford and something in a location near the girls’ school… I certainly did not have 18th century Georgian cottage on my must-have list, I didn’t even know properties like this existed in this area!”

Kemi and her family stumbled across a historical gem in a 1760 baker’s cottage which originally supplied bread for the estate of the local duke. “I immediately fell in love with it,” she recalls. “The layout was interesting, the fireplaces were beautiful. I loved all the beams and the often quirky original features. None of the walls or ceilings were straight, but that didn’t matter, I thought that was fun!”

Kemi says her husband wasn’t initially as keen, having envisaged something a little more minimalist and modern for their family. But, after hearing the cottage’s incredible history, it’s not surprising that he was soon on board. 

Concerning the property’s enchanting story, Kemi explains: “The first people who lived here that we have been able to name were a baker and his family according to the 1841 census. The cottage was used as a bakery up until the end of the second world war and there are still traces of the original bread oven in the kitchen and lots of tales of eccentric previous bakers!

“I know all this because we inherited a ‘history book’ when we moved in telling the story of the cottage from 1760 onwards, filled with history and photos. It was a wonderful gift to receive and we will be continuing the story of the cottage in the book, to pass onto its next custodians – including the cottage’s debut on Stylist!”

What was your inspiration when starting your renovation?”

“My interior style is inspired by a combination of my African heritage, British stately home vibes and my Jamaican nana’s front room. I call it ‘Afro-aristo meets Caribbean nan chic’!

“The African heritage is reflected in the textiles and wallpapers that I have used throughout the home, my love of geometric shapes and by my art and sculpture collection. The stately home vibes you will see in the plentiful curtain and canopy action, particularly in the girls’ bedrooms and I have also made the most of the fireplaces. I also have curated what I call an ‘ancestor wall’, partly inspired by all those oil paintings you see of ancestors in those stately homes. It made me want to celebrate and revere my ancestors too!

“The Jamaican nan chic is the boldness with pattern, the little artefacts that pop up everywhere, and basically in the more-is-more vibe!

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“The overall intention was to renovate the house in a joyful way that would completely represent us as a modern Black British family. I felt this was especially important, being the mother of two little Black girls, growing up as minorities in today’s Britain. 

“I must admit, I found it very difficult to source inspiration for this aesthetic by looking at interior magazines or social media. Particularly pre-George Floyd’s murder, the visibility of Black people and Black design in the interiors space was pretty much non-existent. So I had to do the research myself and follow my instincts more than I thought I would have to. I also started curating stories on my Instagram called ‘The History of Black Interior Design from 5,000BC to tomorrow’, which has been overwhelmingly successful. This design research has led to me collaborating with the Museum of the Home on a forthcoming exhibition of the very West Indian front room aesthetic that I mentioned earlier!

“I also found it really hard to find a one-stop-shop for all the homeware I love and so I created my own homeware store, The Cornrow, which curates homeware and lifestyle products with a modern Black aesthetic, at an affordable price, for everyone to enjoy.”

Kemi's daughter's bedroom renovation
Home renovation: children's bedroom before and after

What DIY hack are you most proud of?

“Trying to pimp up a door leading to our home office gave me the idea of turning it into a secret door. I sourced a mural wallpaper that looked like rows of bookshelves and papered that onto the door. I then disguised the giveaway key-hole by putting a light switch over it! It’s really effective and always fools visitors, well back when we could have visitors! 

“I used floating cabinets in the sitting room and as bedside tables. Cupboards floating off the ground are easy to install and give a powerful visual effect of making a room look larger and more spacious.”

Kemi's bedroom renovation
Home renovation: bedroom before and after

 What part of your renovation was the biggest challenge?

“The biggest challenge was having confidence. I was continually attracted to bold prints and often quite bright colours and I would be terrified wondering, ‘Will it work? Will it work?’

“I never could quite know for sure until the last strip had been wallpapered or the last patch had been painted! Luckily, it all worked out fine. I realise that if you are passionate about something and have a connection to your aesthetic, not to worry, you will love the end result!”

Tiled, green fireplace renovation
Home renovation: fireplace before and after

Which is your favourite room?

“This has to be my bedroom. It’s got a blue cloudy mural wallpaper, the flooring is a cosy wool with a hint of blue and the ceiling is painted in a light blue too. I also found a lightshade in Ikea that looks like a cloud, too. I wanted it to feel like you are floating in the sky. 

“I have also kept the room really simple with the biggest bed we could squeeze in and a super comfy mattress. I created it as an area intended simply for rest.”

Green living room renovation
Home renovation: living room before and after

Kemi’s favourite home inspiration accounts:

  • The Vitamin D Project

     Africa’s account is curated in an extraordinarily beautiful way and presents an inspirational yet honest picture of modern Black British home life along with some wonderfully direct social activism.

  • Natasha Interiors

    Natasha’s page leaps off the grid with her images of a home filled with bold and clever interior design, mixed in with a wonderful contemporary Black art collection.

  • Sophia Cook

    Sophia is a powerhouse! I fell in love with her when she appeared in George Clarke’s TV show Old House, New Home and her account, with it’s now Instagram-legendary citrus yellow and green kitchen, never fails to uplift and inspire.

Kemi’s go-to homeware brands:

  • The Cornrow

    The first one has to be my own brand, The Cornrow. I launched it with my sister last year to create a brand for homeware tailored to the modern Black aesthetic, for everyone to enjoy. If you like the Cottage Noir vibe, you will love The Cornrow. 

    Shop homeware at The Conrow

  • Eva Sonaike

    Eva Sonaike has a wonderful range of homeware which is inspired by the beauty of African luxury. Her prints are really special and the colour palette is both unexpected and divine.     

    Shop homeware at Eva Sonaike

  • Dar Leone

    Dar Leone is a really lovely homeware store inspired by the founder’s childhood in Sierra Leone and her global travels. Her online store is a real treasure trove and I can’t wait to visit her bricks and mortar store post-pandemic!

    Shop homeware at Dar Leone

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Images: Kemi / Cottage Noir

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Megan Murray

Megan Murray is a senior digital writer for stylist.co.uk, who enjoys writing about homeware (particularly candles), travel, food trends, restaurants and all the wonderful things London has to offer.

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