Modern life is rubbish! The people whose homes are portals to the past
Emma Preston in her 1950s styled home Photograph: Courtesy of Emma Preston
What is it like to live in a time machine? Five people explain why they made their home into the perfect replica of an earlier era
by Sirin Kale
Will future generations look at the interior design of the early 21st century in appreciation? Possibly not. We do not appear to have crafted many design classics, unless slab-like corner sofas in mud-grey velvet are Eames chairs in the making. Our feature walls are gaudy; our furniture cheaply made. Scarcely anything seems to be built to last, which is just as well, as the next Instagram-led interior design trend will be along soon enough.
But there are those who retreat from modern trends into the interiors of the past, drawn by the allure of original designs. We speak to five people whose homes are portals into the past.
1930s: Aaron Whiteside, 38, stained glass restorer, Blackpool
Whiteside has assiduously converted his suburban semi into a prewar home. Photographs: Richard Saker
My mum says that I was always into the 30s, ever since she can remember. I’d go around to my aunt and uncle’s house and play old dance band records. At weekends, I’d rummage in Patrick’s Saleroom, a sort of junk shop that’s still around today. I’d go there every weekend from the age of seven or eight and buy all sorts of weird things: gramophones, gas mantles, electric toasters, Bakelite hairdryers. I have an obsession with 30s vacuums. They’re the best! They really get all the crap out of the carpet.
I shut the door and I'm in 1936
The music, the fashion and the style were magical. Even the food was great – everything was homegrown back then. I would go back in time now if I could, although I’d take my family with me. It probably wouldn’t live up to my expectations unless I was rich and able to do fun things such as go to the Savoy theatre and go out dancing.
Aaron Whiteside’s kitchen in Blackpool
I grew up over the road from the house I live in. It used to belong to an old lady. She was well over 100 when I was a child. She was a real character: a former schoolteacher, very strict. Us kids used to call it the witch’s house, because if a ball hit her window you’d see an eye poke out from behind her venetian blinds. She’d come outside with a carving knife and cut the ball open. But she was a lovely lady, really. It must have been annoying for her, all these kids knocking balls into her windows.
After she died, the house lay unused for nine years, until I bought it. I found her old ration book and letters from her sweetheart, who died in the first world war, under the floorboards. The letters were quite upsetting to read, knowing how he died young.
Most of my furniture comes from Patrick’s Saleroom, unless it’s something rare and hard to find, in which case I use eBay. Everything is vintage, apart from my Alexa – but that’s hidden in an old speaker. I have a laptop for work and watching Netflix. But that’s it. I restored a 1951 Bush television, so I can watch old movies on it. I know it’s not from the 30s, but TVs weren’t popular back then.
There’s a lot I don’t like about modern life. I find society quite greedy. Everyone’s a bit more selfish. If I live by any 30s values in my life, I suppose it’s trying to have good manners: be polite, and nice to folk, and help them as much as you can.
When I come home from work, I like to shut the door and pretend I’m back in 1936. Not to the extent it’s freaky, though. I do go to work and see my friends and have a normal life. But my house is my little time capsule. The 30s stay here; when I leave the house, I’m back in the real world.
I forget I have a 30s house. If I don’t warn people before they come over for the first time, they walk in, stop speaking, then ask me if it’s my grandparents’ house. I had a postman come to the house once and ask me if my mum and dad were in. I get it. It looks like an old lady’s house.
1940s: Julie Kelty, 53, homemaker, South Uist, Outer Hebrides
Julie Kelty in her kitchen in South Uist
Kelty at home in South Uist. Photographs courtesy of Julie Kelty
Everything in my house is 40s-style – or if it isn’t, it’s hidden away. I have three children, so there’s no way in the world I could get away without having modern things such as a TV and a washing machine. But the washing machine is covered with a curtain and the toaster is in a cupboard under the worktop. I have a real 40s toaster on the counter: I daren’t turn it on, even though it does have a plug fitted. My kids are always complaining about the toaster. They go: “Mum, why is the toaster in the cupboard?” I say: “Because that’s the way I like it!” But they don’t mind, really, because they know it makes me happy.
I love the simplicity of the era
I’m most proud of my living room. It’s so relaxing. I love the rocking chair and the old clock on the mantelpiece. If you don’t look at the TV, you can imagine you are in a 40s lounge. I love to sit there and read old magazines from the 40s. Sometimes, they have people’s addresses on the label. I think about them: what were they like? What lives did they lead?
I get all my furniture on the island. There’s a brilliant place called ReStore that restores old furniture that people have donated: almost everything in my house is from there. There are two charity shops on the island that are also really good – I can always pick up beautiful things there and they aren’t expensive. The charity shops on the mainland know about vintage now; they put up the price.
I dress in 40s clothes, too. I love the style – it’s very feminine. The ladies always got dressed up to go out back then. They took care, you know? No leggings and long T-shirts! I always wear a skirt, no matter what I’m doing. You have to wear thick tights in winter, though.
I love the simplicity of the era. It’s not over the top, like it is now. There’s too much stuff now. It’s all about what car you have, or what clothes you wear. Even modern cars are stressful. There’s so much that can go wrong with them. Back then, things were simple and modest. It felt like everyone was in it together. People were different – they did things for each other. I love that sense of neighbourliness and community.
If I had the chance to go back to the 40s, I’d love to go. Not to stay there – I imagine it was pretty terrifying to live through the war. But maybe after the war, when it was all over, to visit a world without cars and people everywhere. That’s one of the reasons my husband and I moved to Uist – to get away from technology and crowds and to live a simpler life. There are plenty of places on the island where you can look around and it’s exactly as it would have been in the 40s. Although, sadly, technology has followed us to the island – we got 4G last year. I’m constantly looking at my phone now. Adverts pop up and I think: “Ooh, I’d love to buy that.” I wish I wasn’t looking at my phone all the time.
1950s: Emma Preston, 51, clothing brand owner, Bolton
Emma Preston at home in Bolton
Preston at home in Bolton. Photographs courtesy of Emma Preston
I’d say my style is mid-century American ranch style, with a tiki influence. I’ve always loved vintage style, ever since I was a teenager. In the 80s, I was into the mod scene. I remember walking into a friend’s house when I was about 19 and everything was styled like the 50s: there was a cocktail bar and 50s magazines. I thought it was so stylish. After that, I never looked back: I’ve decorated all of my houses in a vintage way.
I feel wowed by it – every day
When I started collecting in the 80s, you could pick up stuff in charity shops and flea markets for next to nothing. I still have a 50s pale-green and pink bedroom suite I got at a Manchester flea market in the early 90s. Nowadays, I get most of my things through specialist dealers, although you can also get good pieces from eBay and Etsy if you look hard enough. I’d love some Heywood-Wakefield or Paul Frankl rattan furniture and I’m desperate for an Alfred Meakin cactus teapot – I have almost the full set, but I’m missing the teapot.
I have two cocktail bars. They are pretty special. One is a mid-century bar with a glitter vinyl front. My tiki bamboo bar I got from a friend who was selling it. I’ve owned several bamboo bars over the years. At one point, I had about four bars in my house at the same time. I had to get rid of them, though – you can’t keep them all.
I do have modern bits in the house. My kitchen isn’t original. It’s styled on a Youngstown kitchen from the US; it would be difficult and expensive to ship one over, so I created the look using chevron cupboard pulls and aluminium trim on a modern kitchen. I had really positive comments on my Instagram account from people in the US, which was nice.
The only thing in my house that I really hate is the TV, because it doesn’t fit with the decor. We have a modern TV – my husband, Nigel, insisted. It is nice to watch old movies on a decent screen, though. William Morris said that you should have nothing in your house that you don’t know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Everything in my house is beautiful to me, apart from my telly – which is useful!
I don’t wish I lived in the 50s. I love vintage style, not vintage values. When I’m reading magazines from that period, some of the adverts are so archaic. It’s all about buying the woman in your life a vacuum cleaner for Christmas. But I couldn’t live in modern surroundings, either. This trend for grey at the moment – I can’t bear it. Everything is grey. People are even painting the exterior of their houses grey! I need colour in my life.
I’ve felt so fortunate to have this beautiful home during Covid. I get so much pleasure from every item in my home. It’s so lovely to sit at my bar and have a mai tai while I put some lounge music on. I feel so grateful to live here, look at everything and feel wowed by it – which I still do, every day.
1960s: Nick Grant, 49, IT consultant, Dunblane
Nick Grant at his bar in Dunblane
Grant at his bar in Dunblane. Photographs: Nick Grant
I didn’t have a fantastic childhood. My mum died when I was six, of a brain tumour. TV was my escape. Every Saturday evening, I lost myself in classic American shows like The Dukes of Hazzard, The A Team, Knight Rider. Those 80s shows often visually referenced the 60s and Americana. There’s definitely a bit of nostalgia there.
I love that culture of hot rodding and classic cars
My interest in the 60s started with cars. I’ve always driven classic cars. I have a ’57 Chevy – it’s black with a red roof. I love that culture of hot rodding and classic cars. It’s linked together, my love of cars and interiors.
Living in Scotland, you need a bit of colour, especially at this time of the year. I looked at Chevrolet paint charts from the 60s. The dining room is painted in a turquoise colour that came from those charts. The dining chairs are Panton and the side tables are Bauhaus.
I wouldn’t want to live in the 60s. I’ve always believed that things tend to get better, although the last few years have stretched that for me. I guess I’m a traditional person in that I like to work hard and live quietly. But, beyond that, I don’t really relate to 60s values. My wife and I, we’re equals.
I like to combine modern conveniences with 60s styling. I’ve incorporated automation into the house, so all our lighting themes come on automatically at different times of the day. We have sound systems in every room. I love gadgets. But I make sure they’re all invisible. I don’t want them to change the look of the house, just make it easier to live in.
I love things with a history. We put in double doors that I got from a salvage yard between the dining room and the kitchen. They were from a cruise liner built in 1959. They add layers of history to the house. When you touch them, it feels like there’s a story behind them. Being able to keep things going and give them a new life, instead of throwing them in landfill, feels right to me.
1970s: Estelle Bilson, 42, stylist, Manchester
Estelle Bilson at home in Manchester
Bilson at home in Manchester. Photographs courtesy of Estelle Bilson
My dad was an antiques dealer and cabinet maker, so I grew up with mahogany furniture – lots of Edwardian pieces and William Morris. I used to go to auctions with my dad from the age of three or four. I’ve always hunted for stuff – when I was a student, I’d go around picking furniture out of skips. I’m such a Womble! Back then, people would toss out G Plan – no one wanted it.
I refuse to pay £300 for something I can find for £20
Everyone says to me: why the 70s? And I say: why not? It’s the colour, the shapes, the style. There’s some nostalgia there, too, because I’m just about old enough to remember the 70s. My grandparents kept all their 70s furniture well into the 80s. Back then, people bought quality and kept it for a long time, whereas now it feels as if everyone decorates their home at lightning speed to keep up with the latest Instagram trend. People treat their houses like fast fashion, whereas, 30 or 40 years ago, people had a style and stuck with it for 50 years.
I’m really tight. Everything is from Facebook Marketplace, car boot sales or eBay. I could go to specialist dealers, but I refuse to pay £300 for something I can find for £20 if I magpie about and keep looking. Sometimes, I’ll spend years looking for a specific piece. If I told you my search terms, I’d have to kill you. What I will say is that, if you want bargains, search broad. Type “coffee table” or “lamp”. It will take hours, but you’ll find gold for cheap.
We have modern mattresses – I draw the line on that. And we have a modern TV. Oh, and a Dyson. Old vacuum cleaners are awful. My prized possession is a Marcel Breuer long chair. My dad had one when I was a kid, but he had to sell it in the 80s because he was short on money. Mine came up on eBay and the starting bid was £500. I had only £500 in my bank account, so I sat there shaking, waiting for the auction to run down. Then, with three seconds to go, I bid and won it. I felt sick. I cried and then called my dad.
I wear 70s clothes, but not all the time. I’m a mum and I can’t swan around in a Jean Varon maxidress if there’s a four-year-old trying to smear yoghurt on me. Do I have vintage values? Absolutely not. I don’t sit about waiting for my partner to come home. I think a lot of things about the 70s were really bad. Thatcherism was shit, especially if you lived up north. If you watch Love Thy Neighbour, it’s so racist. If I had a time machine, I wouldn’t go back to the 70s. Actually – that’s a lie. I’d go back, stockpile a load of furniture and bring it back. But that’s about it.
What I like the most about the 70s is the mindset. The roots of sustainable living started in the 70s. The quality of build and design is that much better. Nothing looks like it will fall apart in the next 10 minutes. There’s years of use left in this furniture. I’m so glad to be able to save it from landfill.
• This article’s main image was changed on 12 January 2021 for editorial reasons.