A lesson in design

The Sunday Times, 15/02/15, using bold colour and cool British designers, HMC member school Roedean has redefined boarding school for the 21st century. HMC member Oliver Blond headmaster of Roedean is quoted.

As I wander in and out of elegant and airy rooms filled with handmade rugs, bespoke lighting, framed art and contemporary furniture by a largely British roster of companies — Ercol, Innermost, William Morris, Modus — I have to pinch myself. No, I am not in an English boutique hotel. These are the newly refurbished boarding houses of the independent girls’ school Roedean.

Few schools are as imposing or quint­essentially English. Founded in 1885, the school moved to its handsome, grade II listed collection of Arts and Crafts buildings in 1898. Perched on a clifftop on the South Downs, overlooking Brighton and the English Channel, it boasts an impressive heritage, top-end facilities, spectacular views of the sea and a list of old girls that includes the actress Sarah Miles and the author Tessa Dahl. Until recently, however, its four main boarding houses were tired and hopelessly outdated — not the sort of place a demanding, high-achieving 21st-century girl would want to live. Nor a place her equally demanding 21st-century parents would want to send her, especially given fees of up to £11,200 a term.

A £10m refurbishment and redesign by Buckley Gray Yeoman, a London-based architecture and interior practice known for its cool and contemporary hotel, restaurant and workplace schemes, has changed all that. “We wanted the houses to have a richness of detail and feel really English,” says Paul White, a director at Buckley Gray Yeoman. Before, the interiors were so institutional that you almost could have been anywhere, he says: “The bedrooms were cold and utilitarian, the dining room was stark and uninviting, with a bizarre collection of furniture, and the mostly aluminium-framed windows were drab and of poor quality.”

The architects started by giving each of the four houses its own identity based on colour. The chosen hues (red, green, yellow and blue) were used throughout each house on fabrics, furnishings and furniture. “Respect for what was already there was paramount,” says White. “We didn’t want to lose any of the buildings’ charm and character.”

Fireplace tiles and mouldings were restored, as were original artworks and radiators. A staggering 1,200 windows were replaced with double-glazed replicas of the originals and fitted with ornate Arts and Crafts handles, and the girls’ day rooms gained light courtesy of an arched glazed door placed in a solid wall. The architects also created niches or new break-out areas on each floor, and placed banquette seating along the drawing rooms’ impressive bay windows to make the most of the stunning view.

“Bedrooms had to be attractive, but also hard-wearing and practical,” says White. The magnolia walls were painted off-white, with a feature wall in an understated taupe, and the furniture simplified. “We built in joinery that forms an archway, turns into a desk and bed and, at the same time, frames the window, hiding the curtain rail and the electrical power outlets,” says White. This ingenious design also provides each girl with extra built-in storage above the wardrobes and under the bed. Communal study areas feature of-the-moment Bolon flooring, trompe l’oeil book wallpaper and a mirror above the picture rail that cleverly gives the illusion of depth, while bespoke staircase carpets feature a pattern at the end of each step to avoid unsightly treads.

Prior to the refurb, many of the most elegant spaces were seldom used. To remedy that, White and his team exposed the warm timber floorboards of the old dining room (ODR) and drawing room in each house and laid colourful rugs instead. Each ODR now has a large breakfast bar and kitchen island for cooking and shared meals, pendant lights in the shape of teapots, and mounted plywood stag’s heads on the walls.

Perhaps the biggest wow factor comes from the new bathrooms. “We tried to make them as spa-like as we could,” says White. They now boast rainfall shower heads, 24-hour hot water, sophisticated, monochrome tiling, and the former flimsy curtains have been replaced with proper doors.

“It would have been easy to replicate what was done in 1898,” says White. “But we wanted to make spaces that were designed at the end of the 19th century relevant to this century.”

As I leave, the headmaster, Oliver Blond, says: “People don’t expect this from a boarding school.” They most certainly don’t. But they might start expecting it now. The bar for designer lodgings has been raised, and then some.

Girl’s-eye view

“Before, it felt like everything was just crammed in,” says Sophie Sheaf, 17, currently a sixth former at Roedean and a resident of the Yellow House before the renovation. “We were constantly moving the furniture around,” says her friend Tatiana Hepher, 18. “Now it all feels really modern and grown-up.”

After seeing the design proposals, the girls’ main preoccupation was the colour scheme, says Marisa Abela, 18, also a sixth former. “The Blue House looked really snazzy, but we didn’t think the yellow would work. I mean, would you want to live in a yellow house?” The girls look mock horrified for an instant, but agree that the yellow worked in the end, because the architects used “nice, warm shades”.

Post-refurb enhancements include fewer shared rooms, no more four-bed or connecting rooms that other girls had to pass through, and “showers with lockable doors”. For Natasha Spinks, 17, a resident of the Yellow House, the break-out spaces on each floor, with sofas, armchairs and tea-making facilities, have been the greatest boon to her social and academic life. “Our corridor meets there all the time to work and hang out,” she says. “Before, girls would often congregate in one person’s bedroom. And that person would never get any work done.”

Sophie’s mother, Annie Sheaf, who was at Roedean from 1968 to 1974 and is president of the Old Roedeanians' Association, says she is amazed by the difference the redesign has made: “In my day, the rooms were cold, there was no colour and we had thin mattresses.” She “loved every minute” of her Roedeanian career, but says the houses never felt like a home from home: “When you came in, you went straight upstairs, because you couldn’t use the drawing room unless the housemistress invited you.” Now, she says, the houses are “absolutely stunning” and “extremely comfortable and plush, offering everything a girl needs”.

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