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There aren’t many people who would agree to buy a house before stepping inside it. But Paolo Moschino (a cousin of the famous Italian fashion family) and his partner, Philip Vergeylen, had designed so many houses together that once they’d seen the gardens of their prospective home in Sussex, they didn’t need to see more. When the estate agent arrived, Vergeylen says, “We just told him: ‘This is our house. We don’t need to go in. We’ve seen the brochure, looked at the floor plans. It’s perfect.’ ”

What they meant by “perfect” was that it was in a perfect state for them to overhaul it. Since the duo bought Nicky Haslam’s interior design business in 1995, they have made their name by transforming houses for clients from rock stars to royalty. They’ve become masters at taking the skeleton of a building and creating a perfectly proportioned, timeless beauty that is somehow restrained yet grand.

The couple wanted somewhere they could “wander in the garden, tend to our plants in the greenhouse”

The couple wanted somewhere they could “wander in the garden, tend to our plants in the greenhouse”

BOZHO GAGOVSKI

Unlike many of their clients’ homes, the country pad that the pair wanted to create for themselves would not be adorned with ornate gilt, hung with ancient tapestries or furnished with palatial pieces. “We wanted it to be a space to slow down, to relax,” Moschino says. “It had to be a country house where we could just be: where we could wander in the garden, tend to our plants in the greenhouse, lie by the pool in the sun.”

“We wanted it to be a space to slow down, to relax,” Moschino says

“We wanted it to be a space to slow down, to relax,” Moschino says

For the house to take on their sophisticated style it had to have what Moschino calls its “old lady” interiors removed (the family before them had lived there for more than 70 years) and its English cottage garden transformed into something less fussy. “It was all just old-fashioned,” he says. “And everything was curved. I hate curves. Philip is Belgian and I’m Italian, so we wanted something more European.”

The two-acre garden was the first thing to be stripped back. Out went what Moschino calls “the flirty flowerbeds”, and in their places the duo created six “rooms” of plants: formal box-hedged areas holding clumps of agapanthus, lavender and hydrangeas, mixed with non-variegated shrubs. They were inspired, Vergeylen says, by the local Nymans estate, where the English artist Oliver Messel grew up. Hence the open areas of lawns, the statuary and the Jacques Wirtz-style “cloud” topiary interspersed with poetic touches: fountains burbling from giant urns, a koi carp pond, a little woodland that’s left wild.

The <a href=ground floor of the house has been designed so that you can walk freely from room to room” loading=”lazy” src=”https://www.thetimes.co.uk/imageserver/image/%2Fmethode%2Ftimes%2Fprod%2Fweb%2Fbin%2Faf7310a4-9e3e-4cd5-8b5a-b4cab512d413.jpg?crop=915%2C1281%2C0%2C0&resize=400&quality=3″ class=”responsive-sc-1nnon4d-0 fwlcWP”/>

The ground floor of the house has been designed so that you can walk freely from room to room

SIMON UPTON

Although the pair couldn’t touch the structure of the Grade II listed Tudor house, they were permitted to restructure the 19th-century extension and “ghastly 1970s bit that had been bolted on”. First they ripped out the ceiling in the hallway, to create “something more airy, slightly grander”. Then they linked all the ground-floor rooms “so you can walk around it in a circle”, Vergeylen explains, “which makes it very relaxing to live in”. From the light drawing room, with its pale greys, you walk into a showstopper of a dining room hand painted in blues and whites, then a serene pale Shaker-style kitchen with garden views, around into a cosy sitting room and into the hall again.

Other than in the terracotta sitting room, which is north-facing and naturally darker, all the walls are painted a “dirty” white; the beams all sanded down to a natural pale wood; the floors all finished in Belgian oak; the curtains sewn from Irish hand-beaten linen. It was important, Moschino says, to have it mostly the same colours, because “it’s not big. It’s a cottage really. Just one we’ve made a bit grander. So it needed to be light.”

The interiors have been carefully designed to retain the cottage feel of the property

The interiors have been carefully designed to retain the cottage feel of the property

The bedrooms they had more fun with, imbuing each with a distinct character. One is all pale greys, with pretty French grey-painted furniture, faded floral linen curtains and hand-painted leaves on the walls. A second is all crisp reds and whites. An attic room, housed below sand-blasted roof-beams, is more masculine, adorned with Napoleonic portraits, nautical round gilt mirrors and exotic brass lamps. Their own bedroom, though, is strictly woods and whites. “It’s like a monk’s cell,” Moschino laughs. “With guests’ rooms you can have fun, as it’s like an adventure for them. But if you’re there all the time you need an antidote to all the stuff.”

And there is quite a lot of, er, “stuff”. The men admit that they are addicted to buying — after all, it’s their job to find beautiful things for their clients. The problem is that often they can’t bear to sell what they find. So a lot of it ends up here. There are mantelpieces lined with beautiful ceramic pumpkins (“We got given one by Kate Malone, and it looked lonely, so we kept buying more,” Moschino says). The Italian has collected turtles and tortoises since he was a boy — first live ones, then models in everything from clay to silver — which sit on tables throughout the house. There are Italian busts and French pictures (quite a few by Jean Cocteau), Belgian vases and Italian urns — even a pair of ceramic chickens. While most of it is European, not everything is old, Vergeylen says. “If we fall in love with something, we just get it. We’ll use it somewhere.”

The ceiling in the hallway was removed to create “something more airy, slightly grander”

The ceiling in the hallway was removed to create “something more airy, slightly grander

SIMON UPTON

And if they can’t use it in London, a client’s house or the cottage, well, they extend into outbuildings. Hence the transformation of the barn into an airy, sun-filled two-bedroom guest cottage, where their green and white ornaments now live. And, they slightly bashfully admit, the conversion of the garage — from which the car has been evicted — into a china museum. Vergeylen says he “cannot stop buying china. I look at auction houses every weekend. I even brought china back in my hand luggage once from the Hamptons — and cursed myself.”

The beams are sanded down to a natural pale wood

The beams are sanded down to a natural pale wood

BOZHO GAGOVSKI

What their addiction means for lucky guests is that no one eats from the same plates twice. The Belgian says that setting a table with his treasures is one of his greatest pleasures. Sometimes he’ll set the dining room table in only blue and white to match the exquisite inky Chinese ceramics that adorn shelves, and the blue and periwinkle trompe l’oeil forest hand-painted on the walls. Other times, they’ll dig out the colourful rustic Italian pottery for a garden lunch on their olive-press table, found by the side of a road just outside San Gimignano.

Whatever treasures they display, there will always be beautiful glasses, pot plants they’ve cultivated in their greenhouse and fresh flowers on the table (“from Waitrose”, Moschino laughs. “We ripped out all the flowerbeds!”). Beneath it, there will usually be a French bulldog, looking lovingly upwards. Their bulldog Jack is their fifth — and he lives, tended by housekeepers, on site all week, waiting for his gentlemen owners to return. “He really rules the house,” Vergeylen admits, wryly. “We merely go and visit him on weekends.”

An Entertaining Life, Designing Town and Country by Paolo Moschino and Philip Vergeylen is published by Vendome

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