In Oprah Daily’s series, My Creative Space, newsmakers, celebrities, and other notable names reveal the place where they feel most inspired, open up about their prized possessions, and share a few things they can’t work without. Don’t miss our other installments with Elizabeth Gilbert, Yvonne Orji, Aidy Bryant, Ina Garten, and Gloria Steinem.
Ever since Paula Sutton moved to Hill House—a picturesque 19th-century Georgian home in the countryside of Norfolk, England—the born and bred Londoner dreamed of having a small garden retreat where she could grow fruits and vegetables, as well as set up a private office.
But there was one problem: The muddy, grassy spot she’d initially been eyeing had since become home to the massive trampoline where her then 8-year-old son and 5-year old twin daughters spent many hours. “I knew that they’d eventually grow bored of that giant trampoline,” says Sutton, a former bookings editor at Elle UK who in the midst of burnout, left her job—and London—in 2010 for the peace and quiet of the English countryside. About six months later, that transition inspired her to launch Hill House Vintage, the popular lifestyle blog and Instagram account where Sutton documents the nooks and crannies of her nearly 200-year-old house, while also sharing her tips and tricks for creating lush floral arrangements and exquisitely table-scaped garden suppers, as well as her love of floaty, ’50s-esque dresses. Over time, Sutton built a loyal following of fans, who, like her, loved all things cozy and vintage. Then, last year, cottagecore (an aesthetic that, as the name implies, embraces the charm of the English countryside) took off—and with it, so did Sutton.
At the same time, her patience at home also paid off: “Lo and behold, a few years after moving into Hill House, I noticed ivy creeping up the side of that trampoline. So I asked my children, ‘Have you finished with the trampoline?’” she tells Oprah Daily. “But all that did was remind them that it was indeed there!” In March, after five years of prodding, her kids finally relented—and Sutton immediately began putting her long-awaited gardening plans in place.
But due to the coronavirus pandemic, that project, which involved building four lush garden beds filled with flowers, fruits, and vegetables (including spinach, Swiss chard, and sweet pea) and a one-room office, quickly became much more hands-on than Sutton had intended. After the country’s lockdowns made it difficult to hire a construction crew, she and her husband enlisted the help of a family friend—who in turn enlisted Sutton to get her hands dirty, too. “I never planned on helping to build my little retreat, but in the end, I helped carry every single truss and every single piece of wood. He’d go, ‘Come on, Paula, you’re climbing up on the roof’ or ‘You’re helping me lay the cement,’ which were all things I’d never done before,” says Sutton. “So not only is it my own place to grow and create, but I also take great pride in the fact that I helped build it from the ground up. It’s truly the most wonderful, most satisfying thing ever.”
Inside the office, Sutton got to work decorating with a mix of items that, like her home, include things both new and old, as well as pieces that Sutton says are “very old, but new to me.” Think: an intricately carved Victorian armoire she purchased on eBay, a desk from her dining room, a daisy-shaped Edwardian side table, a vintage powder blue cupboard for all her tableware, a sitting area complete with an antique Swedish bench, a scalloped-edge table, and two French chairs that Sutton bought when she first moved in with her husband more than 20 years ago.
“The more formal way of describe my style is shabby chic, but I think of it as perfectly imperfect—things that are a bit scuffed around the edges yet still beautiful, and nothing that’s too pristine or too precious to put your feet on,” she says. “I think some people might find it old-fashioned, but I believe there’s a comfort in the old-fashioned, so I love it.”
Ahead of the release of her first book, Hill House Living—which is a mix of both decorating and life lessons—the charming queen of cottagecore gave us a peek at her beloved garden office. Along the way, she revealed her sweet trick for getting past creative blocks, her treasured toolbox, the perfume that “feels like there’s somebody cheering me on,” and more.
My Greatest Gift—To Myself
After I finished writing my book, I found myself the most beautiful typewriter—which I think perfectly encapsulates who I am and how far I’ve come. Not only is it vintage, like most things that I love, but it also signifies the fact that I’m now a writer. It was always a dream, and to actually realize that dream has been quite amazing.
Every time I look at my book, I’m blown away by the fact that I came to Hill House without any idea of what I wanted to do with my life. All I knew was that I needed to get away from the rat race—the constant pressure to keep up and to go, go, go all the time—and that something had to give because I felt I was missing out on my children’s childhood. So, we came out to the countryside without any real plan, and once the kids settled in at school and my husband went back to commuting, I remember thinking, Oh gosh, now what? Now what do I do?
Like most city folk, our eyes had been bigger than our wallet. We’d gotten this lovely Georgian house with lots of period details—but we couldn’t fill it. Not to mention that we were now living on half of our previous household income, because I’d given up my career to ferry the kids to and from school and all their activities. So to furnish the house in way that was both economical and beautiful, I started hunting for antique pieces of furniture.
Keep in mind, when I say antique I’m not talking about fancy Vincent Van Gogh paintings for 23 million pounds; I’m talking about a chair for 5 pounds that you can upcycle, refurbish, and paint. That’s how the Hill House Vintage blog started—which is to say, it was a complete accident. It was just meant to be a way to build a community and to get me through until I realized what I was really going to do. Of course, I didn’t realize that was the thing I was going to do. Now, I look at my book and it reminds me of that younger, slightly scared Paula, who thought, This is great, but now what? Well, that’s what—that book is what.
My Most Creative Moments
My best ideas come when I’m puttering around my kitchen garden. I’ve got four large, raised beds and each has different flowers or vegetables—so they keep me very busy. I’ll be deadheading the roses or watering the dahlias, and the blooms will inspire all sorts of thoughts, from table settings that I want to create to how I might decorate the house for the holidays. I’m at my happiest in the garden, so that’s when I feel most creative—and that’s exactly why I made sure I’d have a view of the kitchen garden from my office desk.
My Office Essentials
There are two things I almost always have by my side when I’m working: My old-fashioned radio, so I can listen to Jazz FM—or, if I’m feeling a quieter, Classic FM—and a nice cup of tea. I start the morning with coffee, but once I’m in the office, it’s all about pots of tea. My favorite is loose-leaf Earl Grey, and it’s usually from a place like Twining’s. If I’m being posh, though, I’ll have some Fortnum & Mason. It’s a wonderful brand that I absolutely love—but it’s not an everyday tea. It’s the type of tea where you slap the hand of anyone who tries to touch it without permission.
My Flower Habit
When I was working in London, it was rare that I had fresh flowers. I might have had a bunch if it was my birthday or a special occasion, but day to day, it just seemed frivolous, especially when you were trying to hustle and bustle and get on with life. Like, who’s got time? Now, though, I have surrendered myself to being surrounded by beauty—which includes lots of vases filled with flowers that I’ve either grown myself in the garden or bought from the local florist. I’m particularly fond of peonies and hydrangeas, but to be honest, it changes all year long. Every season is my favorite season at the time, so I love tulips in the spring and dahlias in late summer and into autumn. It’s that last hurrah—that last burst of brightness before everything gets cozy and wintery. I used to believe that flowers had to be elegant and white, but now I’m embracing all sorts of clashing colors, interesting textures, and unique shapes. Simply because they’re fun and joyful, and they make me very happy.
My Sweet Pick-Me-Up
Whenever I feel stuck, I’ll bake something—and nine times out of ten, that’s a three- or four-tiered Victoria sponge cake. In fact, I’ve made it so many times that I no longer have to look at the recipe, so it’s almost like meditation for me. Even though I have all the gadgets and it takes forever, I prefer to bake by hand. I’ll mix my cake batter by hand, I’ll make the buttercream by hand, and halfway through, I’ll usually think, Why am I doing it this way? But the truth is, at least for me, when you do things yourself, they’re so much more satisfying. Plus, even though the base is almost always the same—a vanilla sponge cake with fresh cream—I usually switch up the design, the fruits, the jam, or whatever else I’m putting inside, so no two cakes are the same. By having that little bit of what I’m going to call excitement, which shows you the extent of what I do in life, it forces me to be a little creative. I’ll ask myself, Am I going to strawberries with this one? Do I want to put chocolate on top? In turn, that sparks even more creativity—that’s when the thoughts and ideas start to seep in.
My Most Prized Possession
Out of everything in my office, one item is by far the most important: A music box that I inherited after my mother passed away at the beginning of last year. I have no idea where or when she got it, but for as long as I can remember, it sat on her dressing table, and as a kid, I’d spend hours playing with it. In fact, my father even has a photograph of me that was taken shortly after I’d been caught red-handed, sneaking into their bedroom so I could listen to it. I just loved the sound of the music. Now, I keep it on my desk and whenever I want to feel uplifted, I’ll open up the music box—or I’ll spray a little bit of her perfume, which was Chanel No. 5. It immediately feels like there’s somebody cheering me on.
My Teeny-Tiny Stuffed Animal
In August, my beloved Chocolate Labrador/Doberman mix, Coco, passed away. He’d been by my side for the majority of my adventures at Hill House—and, in fact, our morning walks used to be the time in which I was most creative. It’s when I formulated plans for decorating the house, when I dreamed about what I’d plant in my garden, and when I first imagined what my office would look like. Those long walks would clear away the cobwebs and get me thinking. Later on, I started filming our little journeys together—Coco rummaging around the bushes, making new friends along the path—which I’d set to music and post on Instagram stories. They became quite popular with my Instagram followers, including one woman’s daughter. She was devastated when she heard Coco had died, so she knitted this miniature version of Coco for me. And I have to say, I absolutely love it. It’s probably one of my favorite things, which shows you just how goofy I am.
My Trusty Toolbox
This is the item people would probably be most surprised to find in my office—and it has just about every chunky tool you can think of. Because I love to run around in old-fashioned prairie dresses and make gorgeously tablescaped garden suppers, people sometimes assume that I’ll only do “girly” stuff. That is, I’ll only cut flowers or I’ll only bake. But as I said, I helped build this structure. I love getting my hands dirty—I love hammering away, drilling things, reupholstering chairs, building things. I think people often see me in a way that’s different than how I see myself—which is a sort of tomboy that just happens to wear a dress on occasion.
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