Three days before Christmas, in 2015, Thorsten van Elten and his partner Karl swapped central London for rural East Sussex. “I was fully ready for a change,” says the German-born design retailer, who had lived in the West End for 20 years, after he moved to England to study interior design. “Karl’s family arrived for the holidays on 24 December, so it felt immediately like home.”
When the pair began looking to buy in the countryside, Van Elten knew a beamed cottage wasn’t going to work – he is more than 6ft tall. “We wanted a house where we could dance underneath a disco ball. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my days trying not to bump my head.”
The three-bedroom bungalow they bought near Battle, four miles from the sea and atop a hill, was built in 1978. Constructed from brick and black-stained timber, it has a huge decked terrace with an impressive fig tree, and a sloping, one-acre garden. The living area and kitchen are on one side of the house, and the three bedrooms, along with the bathrooms, are on the other. The terrace spans the whole of the living space, and a stylish, black-framed conservatory (which Van Elten calls the wintergarten) was added by a second owner, an architect. It is filled with cacti and succulents.
The house is not without its 1970s touches: original exposed breezeblock walls – painted white – and square terracotta floor tiles in the kitchen, which were all in immaculate condition. The bathroom features the original sunken bath and golden plywood panelling, and timber ceilings throughout give it the feel of a cabin. “I didn’t have to do much to it,” Van Elten says.
You can tell a house is right when your existing furniture fits. And Van Elten has a lot, mostly contemporary pieces picked up from his days as a buyer at upmarket furniture store SCP, as well as vintage pieces. A 20-year-old Cappellini sofa, reupholstered in orange, sits in the living room alongside a Tepee sofa by Lucy Kurrein for SCP. Not everything has a designer label: there are two sets of classic German beer garden tables and benches, one in the kitchen, one on the terrace.
Van Elten first made a name for himself with his online store, championing emerging designers, including Ed Carpenter and Alexander Taylor, and objects sourced from Germany, many of which have found their way into his home. Kitsch figurines and garden gnomes abound – the latter everywhere from the master bedroom to the bathroom. “I guess it’s a German thing,” he says. “Mine are handmade by a family business in the former East Germany, which has been going since 1874. They are entwined with German history: the family was forbidden to produce them for a long time, until the state needed hard currency, so they were allowed to produce them again, only for export. I don’t like all garden gnomes, but I love these.” A family of woolly sheep, by designer Hanns-Peter Krafft, keep watch outside the living room door.
“The house was rented for about 10 years before we bought it, and the garden was uncared for,” says Van Elten. “In our first summer, I was really excited about all the fruit that was growing, but the animals got to it before me. Last year the squirrels nicked all my peaches, and this year my little apricot tree has been stripped bare by a deer. But I find it relaxing and really good exercise. Just walking up and down it several times is a workout in itself.”
Creatures find their way inside, too. “There’s an air vent that invites the odd mouse. And we sometimes hear them in the wooden ceiling. In another room we can hear pigeons, magpies and seagulls running around on the roof. I like that our house has a large population – particularly when friends and family visit with children: it’s to be lived in and enjoyed.”
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