Interior designer and creative founder of Neptune Emma Sims Hilditch talks to us about her design philosophy, her West Country home and, of course, AGA cooking…
Emma’s ethos is simple. Her company, Sims Hilditch, creates beautiful, usable interiors designed to enhance the quality of the lives of those who live in them.
The company began at Emma’s kitchen table just after she married. She needed both a job and curtains for her house and the two things came together perfectly.
Before this she’d been working in the film industry with people including director and producer Ridley Scott, so curtain making was a bit of a change to say the least. Emma’s husband, John, was in the army and she wanted to find a job more compatible with this and her desire to start a family, so she trained as a curtain maker.
Through the curtain making business, Emma soon began advising on wider interiors issues, including paint colours and furniture. Although she had no formal training, she found it was an area in which she excelled.
“I think a good interior design practice is about more than just being creative,” she says. “But I do think you need to have that flair to start with. It’s a bit like trying to be an artist if you have no artistic skill. You can learn but you can never have that magic that comes when you just have it in you.”
Aesthetics and practicality are at the heart of all she does.
“It’s all about making real homes comfortable, functional and elegant or beautiful,” she says. “It’s no more or less than that. It’s about thinking of all the different aspects of design. It’s about functionality, but also form. When you have that balance and get it right you have a home that really works for a family.”
Emma’s husband John co-founded Neptune with his friend Giles Redman and Emma sewed the first garden hammock for Neptune on her kitchen table.
“I did refuse to carry on,” she laughs. “As they’re very difficult to make.”
Emma and John’s own house in rural Wiltshire is beautiful. Originally, it was three Cotswold stone workmen’s cottages built in 1790 and a separate barn. The couple bought all three cottages, two of which had been converted into a school in the 1800s. The third was where the headmistress lived.
“When we acquired them, the caretaker was still living in one, aged 82,” Emma says. “He’d worked there all his life so the place had a lovely history to it.”
The couple began by converting the school room into a three-bedroom cottage to live in. The caretaker stayed on in his cottage for another five years until he eventually needed to move to a care home. Emma and John then converted that cottage and knocked it through. Years later they bought a neighbouring barn owned by a local farmer and undertook a major development that saw it joined to the original cottages. The result is the house visitors see today.
Centre stage in the kitchen is an AGA eR7, which Emma chose for its flexibility. The most innovative AGA model yet, it has an easy-to-use touch-screen control panel which allows control each of the ovens and hotplates, each of which operates independently. There are additional temperature settings for the roasting and baking ovens too, making it perfect for a busy family home.
“I grew up with AGA cookers, – the old oil or solid-fuel ones,” Emma says. “It always felt like such a luxury to have an AGA. I dreamed of having one. We had an old Rayburn when we were first married but the AGA was better for our family of five. We’ve had one for around 20 years now.
“I love the way you can cook in them and the food that comes out of them. I love the roasting oven and the flexibility of having the AGA on slumber and just using the hobs. A lot of the things I’m cooking now are stir-fried or just cooked in a pan. Maybe three times a week, I’ll use the main oven and roast some vegetables or grill something. The AGA is very easy to use. That’s what I love about it. And it’s quick to heat up – much quicker than I ever thought possible.
“My husband is vegan and I’m probably more flexitarian. We follow the blood type diet as it very much suits our different blood types. John is an A and I’m an O. O is the hunter-gatherer type. I’ve discovered eating a vegan diet doesn’t suit me in isolation. I feel I need some meat. A really small 2oz grass-fed piece of meat once a week. That’s all the meat I eat.”
The kitchen is stunning and it’s easy to see why Emma finds it such an inspiring place to cook and eat. The cabinetry is from Neptune’s Chichester range – the first kitchen they ever designed – and it’s been in for 17 years.
Keen not to waste anything, when the couple reconfigured the house they moved the cabinetry and had it rebuilt in the new kitchen.
“We used Carrara marble for our worktops,” Emma says. “We love it because it offers a very beautiful, very neutral finish for a kitchen, plus it’s timeless and classic. People worry about it getting stained – and you do need to be cautious about lemon juice or other acidic foods – but you can always refinish it. I tend to go for honed marble, not polished, as polished shows all the marks. If you go for honed it doesn’t show so badly. We have old wooden floorboards and underfloor heating too.”
The kitchen island is currently painted in Neptune’s Olive and the rest of the kitchen is painted in Shingle. Emma has re-painted her kitchen many times over the years and changing the island colour is a clever way to really change the dynamic of the kitchen space.
“I also think greys and blues work really well in a kitchen and with a white AGA they work particularly well,” she says. “Neptune’s Mist is a great kitchen colour, as are Shingle and Cobble. My kitchen at the studio is Flax Blue,” she says. “It’s such a cool colour and it looks amazing with brass. We’re doing a client’s kitchen at the moment and it’s a project I’m really loving.”
One of Emma’s top tips for getting a kitchen just right is to ensure the lighting is perfect.
“It’s really important to think about the lighting in the evening,” she says. “Our kitchen isn’t just for working in – it’s for everyday family life. Lighting is especially important if it’s an open-plan space where you eat as well.
“I’d always suggest putting the lights on dimmers and having some lamps around the place. Then your AGA and your kitchen will look beautiful while you’re enjoying the fruits of your labour at your kitchen table!”