When Jill O’Neill and partner Justin Lowry bought a Victorian house five years ago, it was an opportunity to unleash their creative flair and showcase the antiques and upcycled furniture they specialise in… and craft a family home in the process!
“Our focus all along was to be kind to the house and keep its Victorian heritage so whilst we wanted to put our stamp on it, we didn’t plan on doing anything drastic,” says Jill who with partner Justin are at the helm of antique and salvage yard On the Square Emporium and upcycling boutique ReFound in Belfast.
“We were smitten with the old style and our goal was to bring that old character back and make it contemporary and useful for a family,” explains Jill.
“We have our own personal style in that we like antiques and traditional finishes but also upcycled pieces and those with an industrial edge. With this house we couldn’t get away with too much of that but we did manage to add the mid-century factory lights above the peninsula in the kitchen and the industrial shelving in the office/craft room.”
“We have our own personal style in that we like antiques and traditional finishes but also upcycled pieces and those with an industrial edge.Jill O’Neill
“The main things I adore about the features in the house are the three stained glass windows. We actually picked up on those blue and red tones throughout. Also we uncovered parquet flooring in the hall and a beautiful tile floor in the porch.”
“The first bit of building work we undertook was mechanical and electrical (M&E); none of the wires were tracked so we had to get it all redone. With any kind of replastering work, what people need to think about is lighting. In our case we should have tracked cables to the bed lockers, instead we have lamps at our bedside with trailing cables. Small details like that can help refine the finished look.”
“I confess I do miss plants and would just love to have more around the house so I’m looking at macrame hanging plant holders as a happy medium, especially for the bathroom.”Jill O’Neill
“The one piece of structural work we did was to knock through the wall between the kitchen and living room to make the space larger, more open and light.” Of the six bedrooms in the house one was converted into a dressing room and another into an office.
“We also had to do some work on the chimneys but the rest was really décor; painting, wallpapering and furnishing the entire house. For that – it was very useful to have our own antique shop!”
Making the house kid-friendly was a process in itself. “We originally had tall pot stands and I also had in my head the idea of adding chunky planters on the floor, but we’ll have to wait until the children are a bit older to add greenery.”
“I confess I do miss plants and would just love to have more around the house so I’m looking at macrame hanging plant holders as a happy medium, especially for the bathroom.”
For practical reasons Jill and Justin converted one of the rooms into a playroom, even though the toys somehow always tend to migrate back to the kitchen. “We redecorated the playroom recently and have a circus theme going. It’s a work in a progress as I have yet to install the pull down tables for storage; at the moment the toys aren’t in any particular order.”
In terms of floor finishes Jill has parquet flooring in the hallway for easy upkeep and lkarge floor tiles in the kitchen / living area with a large Persian rug, which Jill says is a good alternative to carpet. “I love the Persian rugs. They are so heavy they don’t lip up, they are easy to clean and come in gorgeous colours.”
“Rugs can do a lot to add warmth to a room and it’s also a good in-between option before you choose the carpet you really want. A nice carpet is expensive. We have lovely old wooden floorboards we didn’t want to cover up; that made our use of carpets permanent.”
The one room they got a professional designer in for was the kitchen; the rest they designed themselves. “Our approach to interior design might seem haphazard but there is a bit of a method to it all. As hinted to earlier, the first thing to get right is the colour scheme; we went with a neutral palette to begin with – grey for a modern décor.”
“If you’re going to mix and match you might as well go for it, within reason of course.”Jill O’Neill
“In the living room we carried through the grey tones on the walls but for the upholstery we picked out colours from the Persian rug. I recommend using a statement piece like that to figure out what colours will work in the space you have.”
“If you’re going to mix and match you might as well go for it, within reason of course. Even the cushions on our sofa are of different styles. And Roman blinds feature an Aztec pattern.”
“For the dining room I got this idea of a peacock colour scheme. I found a gorgeous iridescent wallpaper and started decorating the room from there. We added a painted black floor with a black and grey Louis De Poortere rug, mushroom coloured ceiling and frieze, a large gilded mirror.”
“The library was Justin’s brainchild, designed as a snug with dark red leather style wallpaper. The library shelving itself is salvaged and customised to fit; the fireplace came from Larry Mullen’s house, the drummer from U2! He was remodelling an old house and this was taken out – lucky for us! It’s a stunning cast iron Colbridge fireplace with blue tiling inset.”
“There are a lot of items we really like and think how to make use of; we started off with a modern sofa and now we have a Chesterfield.”Jill O’Neill
“Sometimes there would be an item that would come to the shop and we’d find a way to use it in the house. We got an old 1920s telephone box that had been on the Stormont Parliament grounds and Justin thought, why not open it up and use it as panelling inside the guest wc, and keep the door of course to get in.”
“We also got a climbing wall from an old gym and use it as a coat hanger in the boot room. There are a lot of items we really like and think how to make use of; we started off with a modern sofa and now we have a Chesterfield. It’s a mix and match job really; now unfortunately we’ve done up most of the house so there isn’t much more we can add.”
That said, Jill muses she may one day extend at the back. “That would mean getting rid of the courtyard but at the same time opening up our breakfast room to the rest of the kitchen. Currently there’s a doorway and we actually don’t use it that much as a result. As for the dining room it mostly comes alive at Christmas and for dinner parties, so we mostly eat in the kitchen and a table there would be practical with young children.”
These days in fact, Jill’s sights are set on the outside in more ways than one. “I’m currently deciding on a colour for the front door; it’s always been black but it might benefit from being a different colour as the walls are white and the edging is black. We’ve also recently re-rendered (it can be expensive so shop around) and we are looking at adding tiles to the front of the house.”
The kitchen is of course at the heart of the home but Jill says it could use a bit more heating. “We have two small cast iron heaters in there but it can get chilly, especially with the tiles on the floor. It’s a sunny space so it’s not too bad but we could have thought of the heating a bit more by adding underfloor heating.”
The house relies on an Aga range for the hot water, and a gas boiler for the radiators which Jill and Justin upgraded by installing a larger range to get more heat from it. They also added Nest heating controls which Jill says has considerably reduced their energy bills.
“Because the house is so draughty the heating controls make a huge difference because now the heat automatically comes on, and switches off, when we actually need it to via our smartphones.”
“Live in the house for a good while before you rush out to fill it and decorate it. It’s important to get the right thing and that can take money.”Jill O’Neill
Jill’s main piece of advice for renovating a period property is to take your time. “Live in the house for a good while before you rush out to fill it and decorate it. It’s important to get the right thing and that can take money. Not everything that will suit can be bought off the shelf either. We were extremely lucky to have our shop as a ready source of furniture.”
“It’s about putting your stamp on it without making it too incongruous; you can go modern in a period home but make sure to bring traditional elements back in, such as dark wood.”
“Remember too that seemingly simple things like window dressings are expensive, from shutters to curtains, so think long and hard about what you want or if you want any at all. They add warmth but sometimes the room’s furnishings can dress the windows.”
“We went a bit more traditional than we could have in the dining room for the curtains; we were in a hurry to dress the room and I wonder if we couldn’t have taken our time a bit more with them. All I can say is you need deep pockets for an older house!”
“And don’t start all over again; use your old stuff, show the history of your past lives, houses, cities. You don’t have to use it all but don’t hesitate to showcase that part of you.”
“Finally, as with any project, getting the right people on board is crucial. We found this to be the case with all the work we had to get done on the parquet flooring, staircase and banisters.”
“Same with the range, not every plumber will know how they work. To choose our tradesmen we went with word of mouth and visited houses they’d worked in.”
In case you’re wondering, this treasure trove of a home does come with some level of upkeep. “It’s true there are no straight lines and with old window panes dust gets in the corners. All that period charm comes at the price of dusting and hoovering!” says Jill. But it’s well worth it.