Designer Anthony Burrill and his wife Emma have embraced country house living on their own terms
If you know about Anthony Burrill and the upbeat graphic slogan prints he creates, you might guess that he lives in a creative urban hotspot – east London, Glasgow, Bristol… Actually, he lives with his wife Emma, two almost-grown-up children, their spaniel Pip, plus some chickens in a former granary, deep in rural Kent.
The couple met at the Royal College of Art when Emma was studying photography and Anthony, from Lancashire via Leeds University, was studying graphic design. After graduating, they worked from their kitchen in Brixton but, with the arrival of their second child, they decided to move. “We both grew up in rural places so we wanted to escape the city and be nearer to the beach. Emma’s from this area and we fell for this village because of the lovely school, and made our plans around that,” says Anthony.
For the first 10 years they lived in a cottage, on the look-out for a good piece of land for a self-build. They also began to covet this Victorian granary that had been converted into a house. “We loved that mix of industrial and domestic,” Anthony says. They were less thrilled by the interior. “It had been converted in the 70s in a not very imaginative way – it’s an agricultural building but it had been ‘country-cottaged’,” Anthony says.
While some creative couples might prefer to manage without an architect, this pair could see the value of bringing in the pros: “Architects are brilliant at things like spatial awareness, creating beautiful sight lines and they are meticulous about the details,” Emma says.
They had their perfect architects waiting in the wings: Nick and Rosamund England of England Architecture, recommended by friends and based in nearby Rye and south London. “We share a passion for Modernist buildings and love their ideas and aesthetic,” smiles Anthony. “There was such a good connection that we had a lot of meetings that were an excuse for lunch and a glass of wine as well as making plans.”
The couple didn’t want to be shackled to any preconceived ideas of what a country home should look like. “We were inspired by the Hauser & Wirth Gallery in Somerset, that mix of architecture and farmyard and garden. We wanted clean, open space and lots of light,” Emma says. The architects guided them to a simple layout, with a large kitchen-dining room at the centre of the house. “It works really well with teenage kids because it’s open plan so we feel more connected to them,” says Anthony.
To preserve the proportions of the main space, the kitchen itself consists of one monolithic island, topped with white marble. And rather than boxy stairs, the architects designed the open steel staircase, built for them by a local farmer friend with a side-line in metalwork.
The dining area opens on to the living room, which was added on in the 70s. Now it’s clad with long horizontal boards of Douglas fir which has weathered to a beautiful silver-grey, while a wall of glass opens on to a deck and replaces the twee French doors. England Architecture created as many windows as they could get through planning approval, to frame the views of the countryside. To avoid competing with these views, the couple painted every room white and introduced colour through art and objects.
They are drawn to midcentury pieces, many of them found in the junk and antique shops of nearby Rye: “We like the simplicity but also the quirky nature of this era,” says Emma. Their home is also peppered with colourful pieces of ceramic and glass from the 60s and 70s. “We love the unique, hand-crafted nature of these pieces, the eye-popping colours and geometric op-art designs.” Anthony agrees. “I made a poster that said ‘want better, not more!’ and I think that’s really important – have less stuff but choose things that will last a lifetime.”
A separate work studio adjoins the house: “Work and home life have always been connected for us,” says Anthony. His work takes a traditional approach to printmaking and typography, but uses the techniques in a modern way. He has just produced a book, Look and See, and a limited-edition acid house vinyl record, and is currently getting ready for a new craft biennale at Harewood House near Leeds. In the exhibition, Useful/Beautiful, Burrill’s thought-provoking messages will stand in a Robert Adam-designed hall alongside Chippendale furniture and Jacob Epstein sculpture. Perhaps Burrill’s enduring appeal lies in the humour and positivity behind his simple messages, qualities which are valuable in challenging times.
Emma has left photography behind and gardening is her passion now. She’s a volunteer gardener at the renowned Great Dixter and helped build a show garden at last year’s RHS Chelsea. Her spare time is spent carving a garden out of their own seven-acre plot. “There are always more projects to do here,” she says, “but we’re not in a hurry. It feels like we’re going to be here for ever.”