This vintage-filled Belfast apartment was once part of a military hospital
07th Aug 2020
Imagination and fun combine through endless curios in this playful Belfast apartment.
Walking into Rebecca Henderson’s East Belfast apartment is like stepping into a storybook – there are so many interesting layers, details and compelling characters to explore. You find yourself reaching out to touch things, tilting your head to see something better, and getting lost in a little daydream daze admiring all the curious corners.
It comes as no surprise to learn that this early-30s Fermanagh woman has been collecting pieces for her “first proper home” since she was 15.
“My mum and my granny were both obsessed with interiors and antiques,” explains Rebecca, who now runs a vintage jewellery shop, Mary & Mabel.
“Ever since I can remember, my mum was dragging me around antiques shops and auctions. I hated it at the time. Now you’d struggle to get me to do anything else at the weekend,” she grins.
Rebecca studied textile and fashion design management at university in Edinburgh, which cemented her fascination with set design and display. “I did my final year dissertation on the retail landscape. I wanted to explore how to make merchandising interesting and compel people to linger.”
Clearly something she’s nailed.
After graduation, Rebecca went on to work for Anthropologie in Edinburgh for three years as selling manager, where she worked closely with the visual manager to create concepts for the window displays. “Everyone on the team there had an artistic background; we all got involved in making art projects for the store display. It was great.”
“When I moved home to Northern Ireland, I rented for a few months in Belfast while I looked to buy. The minute I viewed this place, I knew it was perfect. I was so taken by the quiet, secluded setting. The garden frontage and small patio were a huge draw for me, as I had no outdoor space in Edinburgh.”
Rebecca also loved the building’s history as a former military hospital and the interesting layout of the duplex-style apartment – with open-plan living area (leading out to a private terrace and shared garden), kitchen, bathroom and bedroom downstairs and then stairs up to a mezzanine area above.
“The vast double-height ceilings, huge windows and mezzanine area gave it a bit of a New York loft feel to me,” recalls Rebecca. “I loved it.”
Luckily for Rebecca, her dad is “very handy”. So together with a friend, he painted the white walls in Farrow & Ball’s Perbeck Stone and transformed the “terminally beige” bathroom and kitchen with clever tiling. They also did the work themselves to extend the mezzanine level to stretch it across the full width of the property – creating a clever nook for a small guest double bed in the process.
“The other big investment I made in the place when I moved in was to install handmade shutters on the beautiful big windows in my bedroom and dining area,” says Rebecca.
“I felt curtains would detract from the beauty of the windows themselves and the mood-lifting view out to the garden.”
When it came to furnishing the apartment, Rebecca had plenty of pieces collected over the years ready to put in. “I’ve been collecting since my teens. I remember some of my first purchases, bought with money saved from my after-school job.
“At an auction in Fivemiletown, Co. Fermanagh, I bought the vintage mirror that hangs in my bedroom, the wooden boot lasts in my bathroom and the suitcase under my stairs with all the old travel stickers on it. I always wanted to buy interesting things for my home, even when I was renting, unlike friends of mine who didn’t see the point. The point is, I still have these pieces and I cherish them.”
Rebecca recalls one of her favourite shops in Edinburgh. “It wasn’t even a shop, really. There was an elderly lady who used to sit at the bottom of my street in Morningside and set out a table in front of her ‘shop’ to sell stuff from house clearances. But the shop itself was so unbelievably jammed, you couldn’t set foot in it. She used to yank chairs and things out with her walking stick. It was hilarious.”
It’s interesting that Rebecca credits museums, galleries and “cool merchandising in shops” as her main source of design inspiration. “Trends mean nothing to me. I pick up something because I’m drawn to it. A lot of the time I don’t even know why.
Visitors have commented I have quite a few pieces of religious iconography, but I’m not religious, I just like that they’re old and find something strangely compelling about them.”
This is part of the magic that Rebecca has created in the space – it doesn’t work if you pull individual items out and question them. The pair of matching ceramic deer ornaments on the bookshelf, the papier-mâché rhino head in the kitchen, the industrial locker cabinet by the guest bed – in lesser hands, such a mix of epochs and styles could be a jumble; in Rebecca’s careful curation, it’s an endlessly pleasing tale of nostalgia, character and delight.
All photographs: Nathalie Marquez Courtney
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