A 19th-century cottage filled with dark colours and interesting antiques

Treating her home as a canvas, Eniko Kirkwood transformed her once-conventional 19th-century cottage using colour, pattern and interesting antiques. Photographs Ruth Maria Murphy

Dark 19th century cottage

‘Look out for the house with the blue door,’ says Eniko Kirkwood, as she gives directions to her home in Comber, near Belfast, which she shares with her husband, Michael, and their two labradors. By the time we arrive, however, the blue door, with its deep Arts and Crafts hinges, has been transformed, and is now a spring-like leaf green.

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‘Things change all the time in this house,’ she says. One month, guests might be admiring a new floral wallpaper. A few weeks later, it’s an adventurous paint effect in a bedroom.  It’s clear that Eniko, a Hungarian-born interpreter, who felt instantly welcome in Northern Ireland, regards her home as a canvas. ‘I’m always gathering ideas and inspiration for different looks in magazines and online,’ she says. ‘I’ll confess that I don’t enjoy the process of painting and decorating, but I do like putting the brush down, standing back and seeing the final effect.’

Set at the end of a quiet lane, the semi-detached cottage sits opposite a sprawling Victorian pile once occupied by Northern Ireland’s second Prime Minister, John Andrews, whose brother, Thomas, was the chief designer of the Titanic. ‘Our home was probably built in the 1890s for farm workers on the estate,’ says Eniko, adding that the three-bedroom house was not actually their first choice. ‘We’d set out to buy a detached property but, one day, Michael mentioned that this house was up for sale. It’s 10 minutes away from his parents’ home, in a lovely area where he used to play as a child.’

It was the bucolic County Down setting, with a duck pond and a river crossed by a bridge, and shaded by tall trees, that captured Eniko’s imagination even before she had stepped inside. ‘I said, “This is it, I don’t even need to see the house”, as I’d fallen for the area.’ Houses in the hidden hamlet, a five-minute walk from town, rarely come up for sale, so a bidding war ensued – the Kirkwoods emerged victorious.

The previous owners had bolted on the light-filled kitchen and dining room extension that overlooks the long garden at the back of the house. Upstairs, they added the bathroom and bedroom, which lead to a roof terrace above. They’d also painted everything – walls, doors, ceilings, joinery – in varying shades of white and magnolia. All of which suited Eniko perfectly. ‘Everything was so neutral that it was easy to change and make my own, without spending too much.’

For inspiration, she turned to interior designer Abigail Ahern, the doyenne of brooding interiors. ‘I’d been toying with the idea of a traditional cottage look, but then I spotted one of her dark schemes and I knew I wanted a room like that.’ The snug, with its pretty Victorian fireplace, was the first to be transformed with a coat of deep blue paint. ‘My husband’s initial reaction was not positive. But he loved the result.’ Emboldened, they pooled their skills to bring atmosphere to the living room, now a monochrome mix of black walls with crisp, white woodwork. ‘It’s our favourite room,’ she says. ‘It feels like a cocoon.’

This is a house where everyone pitches in, so when Eniko’s mother and stepfather visited from Hungary, they found themselves perched on ladders, repainting the nondescript cupboards in the kitchen a deep, dark blue. The overhead units were removed and replaced with simple open shelves, now filled with bright crockery. ‘I love that busy-kitchen look,’ Eniko says.

The style here is an exuberant mix of influences from contemporary high street to traditional. ‘I don’t have a particular look and that’s why every room feels different. I like a bit of everything: Scandi, boho, eclectic… It would be safe to say I’m a maximalist,’ she says. Although the decoration is new, a great deal of the furniture and objects are antique. ‘It was my grandmother who really started my love of anything old. Some of my favourite pieces, like the oil lamps and an antique coffee grinder, came from her. They all have stories to tell.’

With a keen eye for an overlooked gem, Eniko frequents local antiques shops and reclamation yards, as well as eBay and Gumtree. Apart from the deep velvet sofas – ‘I have a thing about them’, she admits – nothing here cost more than £500. ‘Not everything is that old, it just has to have the right feel.’

Fitted wardrobes have been removed in favour of freestanding versions, which Eniko feels add more personality. A glass-fronted cabinet in the living room was a present from Michael and, in the kitchen, the convivial dining table was once a prop on Game of Thrones. The dresser, revamped with a coat of dark paint, came from a vintage shop in the Lake District. Underfoot, the wide wooden flooring is reclaimed, ‘It’s the only thing we didn’t do ourselves,’ she says.

Upstairs, the bathroom was given a Victorian feel with encaustic-effect tiles, houseplants and a claw-foot bath. The melting, ombré tones of the main bedroom, tucked under the eaves, were an experiment. ‘I’d seen this look on a paint company’s website. I went online and found a tutorial on YouTube. It didn’t start well, so I developed my own technique using three different paints.’ Another bedroom has a soft limewash. As Eniko stands back to survey the result, she says, ‘I like it now, but it’ll probably be very different next year!’

The living room

Eniko painted the living room in Railings, a dark, almost grey shade by Farrow & Ball, which provides the perfect backdrop to her eclectic mix of antiques and high-street finds. The coffee table was bespoke, the rattan pouffe is from Ikea and the pendant light is from Marks & Spencer.

Dark 19th century cottage

The dark green velvet sofa is from Made. Shutters provide privacy while letting the light in.

Dark 19th century cottage

Fresh white paint on the woodwork provides a crisp contrast to the dark walls.

Dark 19th century cottage

The dining room

The dining table came from a local reclamation yard and was originally a prop on the set of Game of Thrones. The walls are painted in Mole from Abigail Ahern.

Dark 19th century cottage

The couple bought the dresser at the back of the dining room from a vintage shop in the Lake District. Eniko revamped it with a coat of paint in an almost black shade.

Dark 19th century cottage

The kitchen

Eniko transformed the once-pale kitchen cabinets with a coat of Dock Blue by Little Greene. She also replaced overhead cupboards with open shelving from Ikea. The walls are painted in Madison Grey from Abigail Ahern.

Dark 19th century cottage

Curios and vintage pieces that Eniko has picked up over the years from antiques shops and flea markets fill the house.

Dark 19th century cottage

The coffee grinder belonged to Eniko’s grandmother and is one of many pieces of vintage kitchenalia that fill the open shelves.

My Dark Home

The couple have a good collection of old vinyl.

Dark 19th century cottage

Exotic houseplants and cacti abound.   

Dark 19th century cottage

The bedroom

Eniko has experimented with different paint effects throughout the house, such as the ombré-style wall in the bedroom, which she achieved by using three different shades of green applied with a wide paintbrush to blend the colours.

Dark 19th century cottage

The furniture is a mix of new and antique, and the stool, chest of drawers and wardrobe were all found on Gumtree.

Dark 19th century cottage
Dark 19th century cottage

Throughout the house, Eniko has played with contrasting colours. Here, a chalky lilac shade has a softening effect on the moody grey on the lower half of the wall.

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Dark 19th century cottage
Dark 19th century cottage

The bathroom

The bathroom was given a new look with inexpensive fittings from Victorian Plumbing and floor tiles from British Ceramic Tile.

Dark 19th century cottage