Required Reading

London’s Todhunter Earle Puts a Refreshing Twist on Traditional English Design

Anyone seeking to bottle the essence of 21st-century English decoration and design will find it in the portfolio of Emily Todhunter and Kate Earle. Since launching their firm, Todhunter Earle, 20 years ago, the pair have built a sterling reputation based largely on their innate understanding of British country houses. But they bring an equally sympathetic touch to city apartments and landmarked townhouses, contemporary new-builds, iconic hotels, yachts, villas and ski chalets. 

Black and white photo of Kate Earle and Emily Todhunter of the London firm, Todhunter Earle
British interior designers Kate Earle (left) and Emily Todhunter — who formed their London firm, Todhunter Earle, in 1998 — recently released a monograph, Modern English, from Vendome press (portrait by Richard Braine). Top: The book includes a Notting Hill home whose garden-level sitting room features a painted mid-century bamboo coffee table, Edwin Lutyens–style ladderback chairs and a reproduction Chippendale two-seater sofa. The table lamp is by Penny Morrison and the wall light by Naomi Paul. All photos by Paul Massey unless otherwise noted

At the heart of what they do is a mastery of scale and flow that allows them to create interiors that not only look wonderful but feel comfortable and inviting. Their rooms, characterized by confident patterns and painterly colors, are designed to be lived in and loved — a joyful antidote to the over-perfect showhouse look. 

Notting Hill kitchen designed by Todhunter Earle
In the Notting Hill house kitchen, Carrara marble counters sit atop painted custom wood cabinetry. The rattan stools are by Cox & Cox.

Their style, which is playful and engaging, has earned Earle and Todhunter many loyal clients who return to their firm again and again. By no means are all these clients British — but what attracts people to the studio is an aesthetic best described as English with a twist. It is characterized, as Todhunter puts it, by “a relaxed informality, an element of wit, and the eclectic combination of old with new.”

Powder room designed by Todhunter Earle
The home’s powder room in clad in Pierre Frey‘s Mojito wallpaper. The mid-century Italian wicker mirror, in the style of Franco Albini, is from Valerie Wade. The Dodo Egg pendant light (seen reflected in the mirror) is by Beata Heuman, and the sconces are from Pooky.

The pair met through a cousin of Earle’s in 1990 and joined forces professionally in 1998, after already establishing their own solo careers in London. Since the beginning, each of them heads up her own interior design team, but every project the firm undertakes has the full approval of both.

Devotees of their effortless style will be delighted that Earle and Todhunter have now published their first book, for which I wrote the text. Those not so familiar with their work will have the treat of discovering it for the first time.

Living room in the Notting Hill home
An oak-branch chandelier from Richard Taylor hangs from the ceiling in the Notting Hill living room. Antique Suzani cushions adorn the sofa, the coffee table is from Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, and the cabinets flanking the fireplace are by Julian Chichester. The antiqued Art Deco–style mirror over the mantel is by Rupert Bevan.

Featuring colorful perspective illustrations by Marianne Topham and photographs by Paul Massey and Ray Main, Modern English (Vendome) highlights 18 of Todhunter Earle’s projects, both British and international. The backstory of each is detailed, from the initial challenges it presented to the inspirations underlying the design decisions. 

Notting Hill bedroom
In the Notting Hill house’s main bedroom, a Howe side cabinet stands between the windows, while an upholstered bench provides a comfortable place to sit at the foot of the bed. The scalloped raffia headboard is custom.

The book is pleasingly diverse in its subjects, reflecting the breadth of the studio’s portfolio — as well as the range, and the caliber, of the clients they each attract. 

One chapter focuses on a large Arts and Crafts house in the Surrey Hills, about 30 miles west of London, owned by a Scandinavian couple. Rather than refurbishing the home to reflect its aesthetic roots, Earle decided to respect its heritage while introducing a spare quality more in keeping with the clients’ identity. 

Drawing room designed by Earle
For the drawing room of a heritage-listed Arts and Crafts property in the Surrey Hills, about 30 miles west of London, she selected a George Smith sofa and Soane ottoman and bar cart. The wooden side table is a 19th-century piece from Tarquin Bilgen Antiques; the painting is by Peter Joyce.

To this end, the studio curated a selection of key 20th-century Scandinavian and French works — including pieces by Josef Frank, Danièle Raimbault Saerens, Märta Måås-Fjetterström and Raoul Ubac — along with Röllakan rugs. She chose a cool, neutral palette for the walls, using a mix of linens, wools and velvet for the curtains and upholstery. 

The house has protected heritage status, so lighting — including an antique Swedish chandelier in the drawing room and a glass-and-bronze pendant by Lindsey Adelman mounted over the dining table — had to be suspended from the same positions as the original fixtures. 

Dining room in the Surrey Hills home
Svenskt Tenn chairs surround a Fiona McDonald table in the Surrey Hills dining room. The chandelier is by Lindsey Adelman, and the wall hanging is Swedish.

It is a testament to the success of the design that the clients chose to spend the pandemic’s lockdowns there rather than in their primary residence, in central London. Says Earle, “We like to think that the feeling of relaxation, comfort and harmony we brought into the house stood them in good stead during that challenging period.”

The book also spotlights the firm’s talent for reinvigorating and reconfiguring London townhouses, which tend to have tall and narrow proportions. Earle crafted five floors of a traditional Victorian house in Notting Hill into a comfortable home that reflects the practical needs of a young family.

Corner of the Surrey Hills home featuring Flemming Lassen Tired Man armchairs
Elsewhere in the Surrey Hills home, Flemming Lassen Tired Man armchairs and footstool, Josef Frank for Svenskt Tenn floor lamps and a cocktail table from Hilary Batstone sit on an Aarambha carpet from The Rug Company.

This project is a prime example of Todhunter Earle’s careful marrying of old with new. The first-floor drawing room, for example, features antique Suzani cushions, an antiqued Art Deco–style mirror over the mantel, an oak-branch chandelier and a Lyall coffee table from Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler. Earle offset these more traditional pieces with the clients’ exuberant contemporary art

Downstairs, a sitting room opening to the garden features a painted mid-century BAMBOO COFFEE TABLE, Edwin Lutyens–style ladderback chairs and a reproduction Chippendale two-seater sofa. Bold prints and crisp colors imbue it with a relaxed and informal air, well suited to this family area.

The main bedroom, on the second floor, combines a classic hummingbird wallpaper with cream-colored linen curtains and an end-of-bed upholstered bench. The result is youthful and airy, invigorated with bolts of color.   

Living room in St. Moritz designed by Todhunter Earle
For the large living area of a penthouse in a Norman Foster–designed building in St. Moritz, Earle chose a Paul McCobb armchair from the 1950s and Flexform sofas. The wood of the bespoke fireplace mantel matches the floors. The surrounding wall is covered in hair-on-hide panels.

As you might expect from a duo with many international clients, the Todhunter Earle aesthetic travels well. For a commission in St. Moritz, Earle was asked to transform two über-contemporary penthouses designed by Sir Norman Foster into one huge lake-view apartment. 

The clients had requested interiors that felt warmer than Foster’s relatively cool contemporary architecture, desiring something more in line with traditional Alpine style.

So, Earle clad one wall in each room with wood and designed a scheme rich in cashmere, cowhide, horsehair, velvet and linen, using a rare vintage Fortuny fabric for the guest-room curtains. For the living room, she commissioned a bespoke indigo carpet based on a 17th-century Italian document.

The dressing area in St. Moritz designed by Todhunter Earle
The dressing area in St. Moritz features a Kevin Walz for Ralph Pucci daybed.

Populating the rooms are thoughtfully selected furniture pieces, including 1950s Paul McCobb armchairs in the drawing room, leather-wrapped bedside tables by Gosling and a Mattia Bonetti armchair in the main bedroom and a Kevin Walz for Ralph Pucci daybed in the dressing area. The effect is of understated sophistication — effortless chic for clients who wanted an interior that would be comfortable and inviting but also complement their museum-class art collection.

The cover of Modern English from Vendome Press
Vendome released Modern English this past fall. On the cover is a “party barn” the firm designed in Berkshire, about 50 miles west of London. 

Ultimately, the book shows that Todhunter and Earle’s work has a definite English quality, but one that has nothing to do with chintz, fussy florals and whimsical wallpapers. Instead, their designs betoken an instinctive way of doing things that is relaxed, unpretentious, discreet and elegant — the very definition of true English style. And underpinning it all? The elusive idea of ideal proportion, of something quite simply being “right.”

Kate Earle and Emily Todhunter’s Quick Picks

Edna Martin flat-weave rug, 1950, offered by FJ Hakimian
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Edna Martin flat-weave rug, 1950, offered by FJ Hakimian

“I love Scandinavian mid-twentieth-century pieces, and Edna Martin is someone I admire enormously,” says Earle. “Läggspel is an infrequently used word which means means ‘puzzle,’ or the kind of game where pieces have to be assembled to make a whole. It was a word that she apparently used to describe many of her intricately woven rugs.”

Søholm table lamps, 1960s, offered by Coroto - Deubel D'Aubeterre GbR
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Søholm table lamps, 1960s, offered by Coroto - Deubel D'Aubeterre GbR

“I love the quirky shape of these unusual lamps,” says Todhunter. “I also appreciate the fact that, since they are handmade, they are very slightly different from each other. Although these date from the middle of the last century, they’ve got great heritage, as Søholm pottery’s origins date right back to 1835.”

Blanc de Chine table lamp, 1930, offered by Carlos De La Puente Antiques
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Blanc de Chine table lamp, 1930, offered by Carlos De La Puente Antiques

“Also known as Dehua porcelain, blanc de chine was the name Europeans gave to the fine white porcelain of the Ming period,” notes Earle. “Pure and harmonious, this is a look that never dates and suits interiors both traditional and contemporary.”

Erik Kirkegaard dining chairs, 1960, offered by Antique Modern Mix
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Erik Kirkegaard dining chairs, 1960, offered by Antique Modern Mix

“I absolutely love these Joan Miró–inspired chairs,” say Todhunter. “They are very comfortable but also fun, distinctive and upbeat.”

Vladimir Kagan Serpentine Cloud sofas, ca. 1990, offered by Habitat Gallery
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Vladimir Kagan Serpentine Cloud sofas, ca. 1990, offered by Habitat Gallery

“It’s hard to look at a piece by Vladimir Kagan and not be reminded of the starry postwar era, when he was designing for celebrity clients including Marilyn Monroe and Gary Cooper,” says Earle. “These serpentine sofas are the epitome of glamour.”

Louis XVI marquetry commode, ca. 1780, offered by Antiques-House Heymann GmbH
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Louis XVI marquetry commode, ca. 1780, offered by Antiques-House Heymann GmbH

“Here in the UK, I am happy to report that so-called ‘brown furniture’ is having a moment again, not least because of the fine timbers and intricate detailing evident in work such as this,” says Todhunter. “I love the refined elegance of this period of French classicism — unbeatable.”

Paolo Tilche for DePadova Silvia armchair, new, offered by Inform Interiors
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Paolo Tilche for DePadova Silvia armchair, new, offered by Inform Interiors

“Rattan has proved itself the most extraordinary and resilient of materials,” says Earle. “This chic armchair transports me to gin and tonics on the terrace on balmy, summer evenings.”

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