Ruth Campbell admires the stunning palatial interiors created by a talented designer who grew up in a modest council house

OPULENT chandeliers dripping with cut glass, elegant stone sculptures and gilt-edged antique French mirrors and furniture perfectly set the scene in Norma Staker’s two stunning Harrogate apartments, with high ceilings and huge windows overlooking green parkland.

Her witty and stylish interior design, which includes a trompe l’oeil optical illusion on one door, featuring the interior of a grand French chateau, transports you back to the time of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who established a glittering royal court at Versailles.

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Norma, who confesses she loves all things French, especially when they’re antique, even has a portrait of Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV, in one bedroom. And she is on the hunt for a painting of Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France prior to the Revolution, to hang elsewhere: “I find her fascinating,” she says. “I’ve read a lot about whole period and would love to go to Versailles one day.”

But, while she may be influenced by the period, Norma’s style is a far cry from the overly lavish and indulgently luxuriant baroque look of that time. Combining her love of ornate French antiques with a restrained and pared back, Swedish-style colour palette and soft furnishings, she manages to avoid the more garish excesses of the ancient French court. “I would call my style French Gustavian, slightly more minimalistic and shabby chic,” she says.

Interestingly, Gustavian décor dates back to the 1770s, when the future King Gustav III returned from Versailles and, inspired by what he had seen there, created his own simpler version of French rococo with neoclassical influences. Norma, too, has taken what she likes from both periods and put her own take on it, creating a unique look which reflects her distinctive style.

Subtle, neutral colours, such as Farrow and Ball’s Charleston Grey and Old White, flow from one room to another, with curtains and upholstery in pale, natural linens and silks. “I love natural fibres,” says Norma.

While one of the apartments is rented out, Norma and husband John, from Rothwell, on the outskirts of Leeds, use the other as a weekend retreat and a base when they visit their son Jonny and his family, who live in the historic spa town.

Renovating the two-bedroom apartments, which date back to 1840 and 1860, was a project they took on after selling the wholesale DIY products company they set up together in 1971.

When son Jonny, 32, decided he wanted to run his own furniture company rather than take on the family business, they sold up to a large American company a year ago, but found it difficult to simply put their feet up. “So we bought a couple of apartments to do up. We have always worked hard. We enjoy working,” says Norma.

She originally established her own interior design company, alongside the family business, after people started asking if she would do up their homes when she and John renovated an old period property in the Seventies. “We transformed what was a small, 300-year-old stone cottage into a four bedroom, two bathroom home, with four reception rooms,” says Norma. “I started to fill it with antiques. I made it a bit grander, quite different from what it was. People liked what I did and asked if I could come and do it for them. So I started to buy and sell antiques and, at the same time as I had my son Jonny, set up my own interior design company and shop. Jonny used to come with me to antique fairs and I started getting more adventurous, travelling to buy in French flea markets to source antique linen, furniture, lighting and mirrors.”

Alongside the DIY business and shop, Norma also bought barns and other properties over the years, which she did up in order to sell on, putting in new kitchens and bathrooms.

The palatial surroundings she has become used to now are a far cry from her upbringing in a council house. The daughter of a postman and one of six girls, she says: “John and I are both from modest, happy backgrounds,” she says. “My mother never worked outside the home, but made all our clothes, curtains and everything.” It’s a talent Norma has inherited. A hands-on designer, she makes her own curtains and cushions, and even created an innovative antique French linen cover for the flat-screen TV.

Over the years, she has amassed huge collections of antiques and curios, such as 19th century lace wedding gloves, beaded handbags and vintage jewellery, which are displayed in glass cases and in old ‘shadow box’ frames in both apartments.

Norma managed to furnish the first apartment, which was already tastefully renovated and decorated, almost exclusively from leftover antiques and furniture she had amassed, that had been gathering dust in outbuildings at her own home. The second apartment, which was originally part of a hotel and needed more structural renovation, she started from scratch. “When I walked in, I just knew straight away what I was going to do. It was so much more fun and exciting,” she says.

With husband John doing much of the physical work, including the painting, it took just three months to complete. “John had just retired and needed something to do, so we absolutely gutted it,” says Norma. “We knocked out walls to make a larger, open hallway and put in a new kitchen, with marble floor, and modern bathrooms.”

The couple also had all the period coving restored. They lifted the carpets to expose original wooden floors, now transformed with chalk white paint, and ripped out a reproduction Adams-style fireplace. John also installed period-style wooden panelling on the walls of the two bedrooms and lounge. “Unlike the first apartment, I bought everything for this one. If I saw something wonderful I couldn’t resist,” says Norma.

A charming old wood and glass shop display cabinet from Paris makes a stunning centrepiece in the hallway. A series of antique cherub ornaments, one of Norma’s passions – she has 40 in her first apartment – are displayed throughout the rooms. An original late 1800s armoire and sofa, covered in French linen, and an antique French tapestry rug add to the period feel of the grand drawing room, where a distressed and mottled ornate mirror hangs above the fireplace. “I love that look, when the mercury in the old glass goes,” she says.

Most of her recent antique purchases were brought to her by dealers. “A lot of stuff comes from people I have dealt with over 30 years now. I have contacts who let me know if an interesting mirror or cherub ornament comes their way. I don’t have to go to France any more to buy.”

In this apartment, she has mixed old pieces with a few modern finds. A quirky deconstructed chair, modelled on an antique piece, but with the frame and underside of the upholstery exposed, adds charm and wit. “It’s as though they’ve taken all the guts out,” says Norma.

Another 21st century purchase is the central chandelier, made from hand-rolled clay beads and wrought iron, which she had specially imported from South Africa. “I saw them in a hotel in London, but you can’t get them anywhere in England. They are hand-made by the men and women in a community badly affected by HIV and this gives them an income to help provide their children with an education,” she explains. “I love the chandeliers and the whole story behind them.”

Having now completed both apartments, Norma would like to renovate a third. “I enjoy the creative process. For me it is all in the setting up of places, doing them up and wanting to move on to the next thing.”

And Harrogate is their preferred location: “It’s a good quality of life here, with lots going on. It’s a buzzing, busy place. We will be looking for somewhere on the Stray parkland again. Harrogate has the kind of properties I love, with high ceilings and light-filled rooms, where the sun comes pouring in, creating that feeling of luxury.”

In January, she and John are planning to visit a large antiques fair just outside Paris. “And I might actually get to go and see Versailles someday soon,” says Norma. “We have never had time before.”

*The Parisienne Apartment is rented out through Harrogate Holidays: W: www.harrogateholidays.co.uk T: 01423 523333 E: bookings@harrogateholidays.co.uk

* W: charlesworthproperty.com