Architecture & beautiful houses
Saturday, 30/08/2014, 10:43

Interiors: a labour of love in rural Ireland


After the birth of their first child, Tom and Sasha Sykes moved from an apartment in bustling New York to Co Carlow in Ireland, where they built a home on the estate owned by Sasha’s family, fusing the modern, the traditional and the practical

Like many couples, the writer Tom Sykes and his wife, Sasha, a furniture designer, approached impending parenthood with a desire for a larger home and a calmer life. They were living in New York when their first child, Ben, now eight, was born. ‘We had been living in a fantastic, mafia-owned midtown Manhattan apartment,’ Sasha says, ‘but once Ben arrived we needed extra space. He’d spent his first month sleeping in a chest of drawers.’

The couple rethought where they were based and settled on Co Carlow, Ireland, where Sasha grew up. It was a practical decision. ‘We didn’t really want to leave New York and weren’t mentally ready to go back to London [where they had lived until 2002]. It was time for a new challenge. Tom still had projects in New York and I had clients there so we thought Ireland made sense because it’s that bit closer.’ They decided to stay for six months then review the situation.

Eight years and several reviews later the Sykes family (now including Elinor, six, and Johnny, six months) are still in Ireland, nestled between the Blackstairs and Wicklow mountains in a house they built in 2009. The plan was to build a small, practical house that would be easy to look after. ‘We wanted somewhere you could lock up and leave,’ Sasha, who studied architecture at the University of Edinburgh, says. She designed and project-managed the build, which took 10 months.

The house sits on a plot on the Lisnavagh estate, which has been owned by Sasha’s family since the 18th century. Her father is Thomas Benjamin McClintock-Bunbury, 5th Baron Rathdonnell, and the estate is run by her brother William and his wife, Emily. The house is within walking distance of her family’s homes, and Tom shares an office nearby with his brother-in-law and fellow writer Turtle Bunbury. ‘It’s a really nice commune,’ Sasha says.

Simple in design, the ‘labour of love’ had to be kept to a tight budget. The result is a unique two-storey, 2,000sq ft house with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. Sasha tempered her desire to build an ultra-modern home and took Tom’s more traditional taste into account. ‘I treated him like a client,’ she says. ‘I’d do research, pare it down and offer him a couple of choices. It was fun thinking about what the house would need to be in five to 10 years as well as making it suit our needs the day we finished building it.’

The property is entered through a carved-oak Arts and Crafts-style door to a spacious hallway, which leads to the hub, a large kitchen. Off this are a playroom, a living room (‘a bijou box of cosiness’) and a larder-cum-scullery where ‘all the muck and mess’ can be thrown if they need the house to look spruced up in an instant. High ceilings and large French windows make the most of the natural light and mountain views.

A south-facing porch, designed with entertaining in mind, integrates the interior and the outdoors. It is used for alfresco eating, as a storage space for logs and bikes and as a play area. ‘It is essential as the weather is so changeable,’ Sasha says. A hot tub and an outdoor shower are popular during winter and summer respectively.

With nature on her doorstep, Sasha has easy access to the materials – straws, grasses, leaves and flowers – that she incorporates into the resin and acrylic furniture that is the signature of her design company, Farm 21. Although Tom has discovered a knack for fencing, she does all of the internal DIY jobs. ‘My children call me the Fixer,’ she says, laughing. ‘I can turn my hand to pretty much anything these days.’

The exterior

The comfortable, low-maintenance house sits in a remote site on the edge of the Lisnavagh estate’s 137-acre Christmas tree plantation and has far-reaching views of the Blackstairs and Wicklow mountains. The building’s design is an adapted version of a sustainable straw bale building module using locally sourced materials, with a timber frame. The layout is based on a traditional farmhouse, centred around a large kitchen. The porch is a multipurpose sheltered outside space used for eating, playing and storage.

The kitchen

The kitchen has parquet flooring, which Sasha says everyone advised her against because of the potential wear and tear. The acrylic table is one of her own designs. It encases baking tools from the 1820s and 1830s that were being thrown out of her old family home. The woven chairs came from Mealy’s auction house in Castlecomer,Co Kilkenny (, and the tapestry-covered chairs came from Tom’s aunt. The wooden American fridge in the corner is used as a cabinet. The bookcase, which has a Paul Mosse painting above it, was made by Sasha out of four planks of ash separated with acrylic dividers. The copper lights are by Tom Dixon ( The kitchen cabinets and worktops are from Ikea ( and have extra-deep (850mm) cupboards to house bulky equipment. Highlights of bold colour have been used throughout the house, for example in the larder, to cheer it up on grey days.

The hallway

The hallway is accessed through the main entrance, which is beneath the cover of the porch. The front door is Arts and Crafts-inspired and made from local Lisnavagh oak.

The living room


The graphic wallpaper is Leopold by Designers Guild ( Sasha explains that part of the reason they chose the textured gold L-shaped sofa was to accommodate her ‘extra-tall’ in-laws, who like to read the newspapers horizontally. All of the windows open inwards. They were bought in France and transported to Ireland in a horsebox. The cube and table are both Sasha’s designs. The piano was bought through and is covered in cigarette burns. ‘It conjures up images of its previous life in a bar somewhere,’ Sasha says.

The playroom

The east-facing playroom has been painted yellow to enhance the light. Sasha designed the storage unit in an attempt to contain and organise an ever-growing collection of children’s books and toys, and incorporated a fold-down table for the children to use when drawing and colouring. The clown costume in the far-left corner belonged to Tom’s grandfather and dates from 1902. The painting above the television is by Sasha’s grandmother Pamela Drew, who was an RAF artist. The stools came from Orkney, and the Sligo chair inspired Sasha’s Carlow chair, which is now in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin.

The bathroom

The view out of the bathroom window from the free-standing bath, which has quirky upright taps and was bought at an auction, is over the mountains. The entire room is tiled in green and Sasha chose a teal carpet to promote a feeling of deep relaxation.
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