We sat down with Melanie Brown of Design Direction to discuss her approach when designing Borthwick Castle, the Scottish castle that was once home to Mary Queen of Scots, and found out what it’s like to work with specialist historians.
What is the ethos of Design Direction?
Design Direction specialises in bespoke interior design, working closely with a select clientele who demand the highest quality craftsmanship and exclusivity. We work with private clients, property developers and hoteliers. From the initial consultation through to the planning stages, to the finished product and creating exceptional design solutions, which add tangible value to contemporary and historic properties.
The overriding ethos behind Design Direction is that every detail matters, no matter how tiny. That’s why we put so much effort into building up relationships with suppliers and craftspeople. We make sure we can find or create exactly the right piece, whether it is a button for upholstered chairs or the perfect carving for a four-poster bed.
How did the exterior and surrounding of Borthwick Castle dictate your design approach?
It’s impossible not to be inspired by the magnificence of Borthwick Castle. Six hundred years old and known as Scotland’s Greatest Keep, it is a phenomenal structure consisting of some 30,000 tonnes of Ashlar Stone, quarried in the local town of Middleton. It’s an imposing fortress, composed of a massive double tower. These stone structures today evoke a sense of grace and peace, and that feeling now stretches throughout the interiors too.
The brief was to restore the castle to its historic grandeur and to carefully preserve and enhance all the architectural detail. It sits in the spectacular countryside on the Borders route and that sense of incredible countryside and wildlife is evoked in the interiors with sumptuous colours and textures, informal weaves, soft Scottish wools and Harris tweeds along with hand-carved wood, and oil paintings.
Which room excited you the most?
There are ten uniquely designed bedchambers with lavish bathrooms and I love them all. Magnificent yet intimate dining and lounge areas, roaring fires, breathtaking views and spiral staircases. But for me, creating the Stateroom interior was incredible. It could be a Scottish landscape with its blaze of colourways, inspired by popular colours in Tudor times; ochre and bronze, lime, sage and emerald greens, purple and red.
Did you encounter any difficulties when installing various pieces of furniture?
The logistics of moving furniture and fittings into a 15th Century castle with only spiral staircases were extremely difficult. Furniture had to be hoisted in through a balcony window to the State Room, most of it in pieces, to be assembled on site. The hand-carved wrought- iron chandelier in the Great Hall, for example, carved with Tudor motifs of flowers, wildlife, acorns, deer and twisted vines, arrived in 40 large boxes. And, the Mary Queen of Scots’ bed was a jigsaw puzzle of 18 pieces.
George Smith was instrumental in furniture installation. Some pieces were especially made so they would fit through certain spaces, while other items were assembled inside the rooms as we would not have managed to get them into the castle any other way.
What was the inspiration behind the pieces of bespoke furniture?
Borthwick Castle had to feel sumptuous, opulent and quintessentially Scottish, retaining every bit of its medieval grandeur and atmosphere, while at the same time having the comforts of a luxurious home. George Smith’s classical designs worked perfectly. The hand- built traditional methods of the George Smith team helped me to create a pair of love seats for the Stateroom. I spent six months sourcing 150 Scottish regimental buttons which I then passed to the furniture makers to include in this pair of purple Mulberry velvet-covered seats, which now look incredible in their historic setting.
What did the specialist historians bring to the project?
I worked alongside the castle owners and specialist historians from Scottish Heritage to ensure that Borthwick is set apart from other venues through the preservation and enhancement of its historic features. Exhaustive historical research informed the project and inspired the individual ambience of each of the ten bedrooms, the castle’s Great Hall, State Room, Garrison and numerous hidden passages, halls and stairwells.
Crests from historic figures directly associated with the castle are embroidered into the Mulberry velvet-upholstered dressing table chairs in each bedroom, including the crests of Mary Queen of Scots, Lord Bothwell and Oliver Cromwell. The colourways used throughout are popular colours in Tudor times and there are hand-carved crests above the door of each bedroom. The remnants of 15th Century frescoes remain in the Great Hall and I’ve installed hidden lighting to highlight them.
What was the most unusual item you sourced for the project?
A painting which I found in the Lots Road Auction house in Chelsea, London. It was absolutely perfect because it was designed to be mounted high on a wall and looked at from below. It depicts the battle of San Romano in Italy (Florence vs Sienna) in 1432, just as Borthwick Castle was being built, and it was painted soon after, around 1440-60 by the artist Paulo Occello. The painting is the first example of Italian Renaissance perspective. I just sensed I would find a place to hang it, and it can now be seen in the Sinclair bedchamber with its arch-domed ceiling.
How long did the project take from start to finish?
The project began in Autumn 2013 and the main body of the refurbishment was completed in summer 2015. It was extremely complex and required daily hands-on decision-making so I relocated during the 18-month project to live on the nearby Arniston estate.
How do you plan for doing such large projects?
The most important factor is understanding the clients’ brief and the working needs of the property, whether it is a home or a 5* destination. From there, it’s really like piecing together a jigsaw and getting the timings right. Major work which needs to be carried out such as new electrics, roofing and flooring needs to be booked in, while ensuring that the interior concept is realised. It’s about ensuring that you have built up relationships with respected suppliers, craftspeople, furniture makers and auction houses so that you know where to source the bespoke materials, furniture and items that you need, and the timescales involved. The key to any project is assembling the right professional team and contractors. Throughout it all, it’s vital to have a firm grasp on the deadline and the budget.
What is your favourite piece of furniture and why?
There are ten uniquely designed bedchambers and it was very important to give each one its individual ambience. Each George Smith bedroom dressing chair has crests from historic figures directly associated with the castle embroidered into the Mulberry-velvet. I specially commissioned each crest to be created in French gold brocade.
How did you interpret the character of each bedroom, such as Oliver Cromwell?
Described as both a hero and a villain, Oliver Cromwell was no doubt a man of great passion. The Oliver Cromwell room is a sensual haven, lying beneath the Great Hall, down a quiet winding staircase. The room features an exact copy of Cromwell’s bed, complete with his coat of arms hand-carved in the finest oak. The room has a free-standing bath at the foot of the bed and a fascinating defence window in the castle’s stonework.
The Sir Walter Scott room is inspired by Scotland’s great writer who visited and wrote about Borthwick and is a poetic, romantic and restful space. Featuring purple and blue earthy hues, there is a subtle nod to his passion for hunting, with wildlife featuring in the styling of the room, and a lovely view of The Pentland Hills. The small bathroom door opens up to a luxurious and bespoke wet room set within the castle walls.
One of the most famous rooms in the castle, the Mary Queen of Scots room, features a three- meter canopy bed from the Stuart era, inspired by the original royal bed, which is currently on display at Holyrood Palace. The room also has outstanding views from two seating alcoves and doors, which would have allowed Mary to reach her private chapel. Every room has a sense of the historic figures who once lived in, or visited, Borthwick.