My Modern House: artist Helen and architect Niall Maxwell decorate their contemporary barn for Christmas in rural Wales
Helen: “We moved to Wales from London’s East End in 2004, tempted by an opportunity to help a friend develop Cardigan’s port. We upped sticks for a year’s sabbatical before making the permanent move when we bought the farm and built a contemporary barn, in which we now live.”
Niall: “Our first view of the place elicited polar reactions from the two of us. Helen was nesting with a baby due, while I was still wanting to conquer the world. I think we drove away from the place with Helen laughing at how bad it was and me with a glazed look and the word ‘project’ going around in my head.
“We both have come to enjoy the space, privacy and diversity in nature here. We’re lucky to be located on high ground surrounded by woodland and pasture with views of the mountains.
“This barn we live in is actually a temporary home while we build a new permanent one. We demolished the farmhouse a few years ago, having come to the realisation that the bare bones of it weren’t worth saving. The stone is being recycled as a dry-stone wall.
“We needed a simple form of construction that we could manage ourselves, with the manual help of the office and one or two experienced trades.
“It’s a totally ‘dry’ construction once you’re off the floor, as I have an aversion to wet trades and the messy process of making.
“The materials were chosen for practical economy, a pragmatism borne out of locally-sourced skills and the availability of affordable materials.”
Helen: “If I could change anything, I would say that the addition of a boot room would assist greatly with family life!
“We have furnished the barn with a small part of a larger collection of Hans Wegner chairs that we have been accumulating since the mid-1990s.
“These sit alongside bits we’ve designed ourselves, such as the dining room table, and pieces salvaged from skips and manufactured objects.”
Niall: “Given that our living space is a single large room, we considered how we would use the space throughout the day and how the environment would change throughout the year.
“Both rooms have two large windows located to make the most of the morning and evening sun, and to give specific views onto the garden. The building is oriented towards the weather, so there are no south-facing windows.”
Helen: “The layout of the space changes throughout the year: in winter it’s focused around the hearth, in summer we’re focused around the large windows that slide open to provide access to the gardens.”
Niall: “The landscape here is quiet, with steep rolling hills all around. Being 800 feet up we have far-reaching views to the Cambrian mountains on a clear day.
“We have been slowly landscaping the gardens, terracing the steep banks with dry-stone walls and planting trees to be a buffer to the winter winds.
“We spend a lot of our spare time outside. Helen has also created a significant produce garden and large rockery, which is a full-time job on its own, especially in springtime.
“Up until January this year the farm was both home and office, with our team arriving daily for work. We’ve since moved the office into Carmarthen.”
Helen: “We’re home birds, and the farm is a great bolthole for us. Niall travels quite a lot, so it’s always a relief for him to come home to this space and the surrounding acres of farmland.
“The barn has worked so well when the boys, Finnian, aged 12, and Corin, aged 10, have been young and need to feel we’re close enough to call on.
“Now they’re spreading their wings, they need a little more space, so, from next year, we’ll start using the farm office for overspill before connecting that with the new farmhouse as one large dwelling – hopefully by next summer.”
Niall: “We’ve always spent Christmas away from here with family – travelling east is our annual ritual. But we’re very much looking forward to hosting next year when the house is finally finished.”
Helen: “But we still decorate the barn. The tree is about memories, with German family heirloom figurines, combined with the children’s homemade decorations.
“We’re happier accepting that the toilet roll and glitter angel needs to share centre stage with more beautiful homemade decorations, or those made by friends of ours, such as the porcelain stars by ceramicist Justine Allison.
“Anyway, there’s no point being too precious at this time of year as the cat tends to cause mayhem with the tree no matter what we do.”
Niall and Helen, how do you define modern living?
Helen: “Perhaps the barn reflects the reality of modern living, which is much less formal than previous times. The architecture reflects how space is becoming more fluid in the way it is used and configured and that has definitely informed the way we have thought about our new home and its layout.”
If you moved, what would be the first thing you’d take with you?
Niall: “In terms of permanent features, it would be the Dutch tile stoves – they are our only source of heat in the barn (we have one on each side) and they are incredibly simple pieces of efficient wood burning technology. You can purchase extendable sections, which include a bread oven and a warming bench.”
Helen: “The Wegner rocking chair. Although, our new cat has also taken a shine to it so it’s not always available for me to use.”
Is there a home on The Modern House website that’s caught your eye?
Niall: “The gallery/house in Holt, Norfolk, is rather charming and they have impeccable taste. I had the chance to visit the other week when over that side of the country for business.”