When Maria Fernanda Guirao enrolled on the design course at London’s prestigious Motley Theatre in 2007, she found it a gruelling but rewarding experience. ‘We practically slept under our desks… but I learned to do everything – costumes, sets, woodwork, trompe l’oeil.’ The tough training led first to a successful career as a costume designer and then, following the birth of her second child, it inspired her decision to retrain as an interior designer – a more family-friendly career choice. She soon landed a job with her friend and mentor Kate Guinness, before setting up her own practice (guiraodesign.com). It was an astute, sideways move: ‘A costume has to express its wearer, and it’s the same for interiors. There’s no right or wrong taste, it’s about finding the colours and objects that make you feel happy.’
You could also say the same about the north London home she shares with her husband, Matthew Morgan, a writer, and their three children. By knocking down walls and layering colour with texture, mid-century prints and antique finds, she’s turned their traditional Victorian terraced house into an expressive, uplifting home. It’s also very practical, with zones for relaxing, entertaining and socialising. Upstairs there are five bedrooms and a home office. Downstairs, in the pink and leaf-green reception rooms, deep shelving houses a well-stocked bar, and there’s enough space for the children to scatter toys and make dens. Like a stage set, it’s become their ‘little world’.
Maria’s previous home was a maisonette a few doors down. ‘When I moved in I was newly single and feeling sorry for myself. “Everyone gets pregnant in that flat,” my neighbours told me.’ The local myth proved to be true. Within months she met Matthew. ‘When I was expecting our first child we decided to move to a bigger home. We’d set our sights on this house, but it was too expensive.’ Then came the crash of 2008. ‘We were walking past when the owner appeared. We asked if he was still selling. He said “Yes” and invited us in. We fixed a price there and then.’ The last owners had altered the house, adding the extension at the back and converting the attic. ‘But most of the work had been badly done. Many design crimes had been committed.’ These included the decor, which was grey, white and a ‘disturbing ham’ colour.
The couple set to work. Downstairs, the laminate flooring was ripped up to reveal original floorboards, which were stripped and limewashed. Upstairs, partition walls were removed to open up the poky bathroom. With cascading houseplants and bright, encaustic tiles, Maria is reminded of her childhood home in Argentina, where her mother ran an art gallery.
Some original features, like the stained glass and marble fireplace, were intact, but most of the plasterwork had been ripped out. Luckily, Maria was able to rescue sections of original mouldings from a neighbour, who was also refurbishing a property. She used these to recast the 19th-century cornices and roses.
Her theatrical background has made her resourceful: ‘You learn to do everything in theatre, there’s a democratic ‘make do’ attitude. It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone helps out, whether it’s sewing on a button or sweeping the stage.’
Maria did most of the decorating herself, experimenting with colours, ‘like a teenager trying out new hair dyes’, she smiles. ‘My clients’ homes have to be perfect but I’m not afraid of trying out new colours here.’ While every room is different – fern-green curtains in the living room, a whisper of calamine pink in the bedroom – the effect is the same. ‘Muted surfaces don’t reassure me. Mixing colour and pattern is where I feel comfortable.’
In Maria’s world, ‘anything is a treasure’ – floors are strewn with traditional woollen ‘Frazada’ rugs from Argentina, there are family portraits and art ‘rescued from family attics’ and, in the sitting room, beachcombed shells and stones are displayed under glass domes. The sprawling sofa came from her first flat: ‘I didn’t even measure it. I just sat on it and thought it was comfortable.’ Most of the antiques – the Murano chandeliers, the 1960s resin side table – were found locally. Among her favourites are the multi-coloured lamps by 1980s designer Ettore Sottsass. For upholstery, she used botanical prints by Swedish designer Josef Frank.
In the kitchen, the floral wallpaper (also by Frank) is a recent addition. ‘It makes us smile,’ Maria says, and it matches the extendable antique French table, which she painted blue. The circus sign was discovered in the garden of her previous home, while the kitchen units were an impulse purchase from deVOL: having seen them in a magazine she drove to Leicester to buy them. They’re freestanding and one day will travel with the family to their next home, rather like props from a stage set.
Feature: Serena Fokschaner
Photographs: Sebastian Boettcher