The rose-pink thatched cottage in the seaside village of Walberswick, Suffolk – home to designers Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi – isn’t as ancient, or incongruous, as you might think. Built in the 1940s “to look old”, its colour isn’t some fashionable flight of fancy; rather, it’s quite common in this part of the world, Thornton says. “Pink houses are traditional in Suffolk. People would mix natural pigments such as elderberry or ox blood with limewash.” The pair, who run the British fashion label Preen, used Nancy’s Blushes from Farrow & Ball to similar effect.
The house, a 10-minute walk from Walberswick’s wild, shingle beach, sits in an acre of lawn, bisected by a low beech hedge that backs on to a farmer’s field. The garden also has a wildflower meadow and a sprinkling of mature trees: sycamore, scarlet oak and a huge copper beech, as well as cherry, apple, plum and pear trees. A small, green, horse-drawn caravan – once used in an installation at a Preen fashion show – is parked in the shade. Wisteria grows up the walls of the house and the thatch hangs low, the first-floor windows peering from under it.
Inside, the house reflects the pair’s individual style: feminine meets gothic, with a touch of punk thrown in. Florals are everywhere – often paired with a dark background to keep them from feeling too saccharine – on duvets, curtains, throws and cushions, much of it from Preen Home. Elsewhere, in contrast, a piece of black lace functions as a curtain, and a cushion features Darth Vader. “It’s quite an English thing, this romantic, gothic aesthetic,” Thornton says. “We love anything floral, but that doesn’t mean it has to be pretty. I like the contrast between dark and delicate, and anything worn-looking and imperfect. We wanted a lived-in country look, with a nod to Arts and Crafts.”
On the ground floor is an open-plan kitchen/dining room and snug. Painted black shelves in the kitchen area form a strong backdrop to a collection of objects that includes a ledger book from a market in Japan, displayed under a glass cloche, and a large ceramic red-spotted mushroom (several of these are also found in the garden). Upstairs are three bedrooms; the couple’s daughters, Fauve, 12, and Blythe, eight, share a room.
Ornaments, frames, vases and glass bottles filled with single wildflower stems and blowsy bunches of cow parsley occupy every surface. Most of the furniture is from local vintage stores, including a well-worn farmhouse dining table, a set of three scallop-edged Victorian pendants hanging above it, and a day bed in the living area.
Thornton and Bregazzi discovered the village after holidaying nearby and falling in love with the area. When they bought the house six years ago, it hadn’t been lived in for several years; the homeowner would visit each year from New York, but otherwise it stood empty. Brambles, nettles and fallen trees obscured the lawn. “When we first saw it, we had to fight our way through them just to get to the property. It was like a witch’s house. The lawn was postage stamp-sized; once we’d cut all the brambles back, we were amazed at how big it was,” Thornton says. The clear-out also revealed a view across the fields to the sea.
The house itself was sound. “Even after all those years of standing empty, there was no damp.” They replaced the windows, changed the layout downstairs and put in a new kitchen, heating and wiring.
During last spring’s lockdown, the house – and particularly the garden – were a godsend. “We ate every meal together, we planted a vegetable patch and had picnics on the beach,” Thornton says. They dragged an antique bed frame into the garden, covered it in throws and used it as somewhere to lounge, under the dappled light of the tree canopy. “One of our favourite things to do was to cycle to the sea after dinner and watch the sunset. And we really got to know people in the village.” Walberswick has something of an artistic, starry reputation: residents include film directors Paul Greengrass and Richard Curtis, DJ and author Simon Mayo and several members of the Freud family, including Curtis’s partner, Emma, and writer Esther.
Covid hit Thornton and Bregazzi’s business hard. “We went from very comfortable to very scary, quite quickly,” says Thornton, who launched Preen in 1996 with Bregazzi (its name refers to the preening of birds, and reflects Preen’s early use of feathers). “The market for party and occasional wear disappeared.” Homewares, it turned out, were their saviour. Using old-season fabric, they created cushions and throws in limited runs: cushions are reversible, and quilted eiderdowns feature dark bases with florals on top. “We couldn’t keep up with demand.”
Despite the hordes of holidaymakers, Walberswick is wonderful in the summer. “Our days are simple and relaxing – cooking, eating and gardening,” Thornton says. “We swim in the sea in the early mornings, and explore the reed beds. There’s a sense of history and romance here: there is only one road in and out. At times, it feels almost like an island.”