When Jethro and Claire Marsh had a baby in August last year, they knew space would be at a premium in their one-bedroom flat in Penryn. But despite the squeeze, they wanted baby Frank to spend his early life here in the house they had lovingly renovated over the previous few years. “We wanted Frank to be familiar with the home we had created, if only for a short while before we moved on,” says Claire.
Jethro, who runs The Natural Plaster Company, and Claire, a nanny turned full-time mother, moved to this flat in the summer of 2010. The upper floor of a period town house, they were attracted to the property by its position close to the town centre and by its views over the Penryn River. “How many people are lucky enough to see water and boats from their first home?” asks Jethro.
The only snag was that the building, converted into flats during the 1980s, had a number of problems, from damp to a lack of central heating. Jethro was able to rise to these challenges because, as well as being a plaster craftsman accustomed to tackling everything from ornate cornices to stucco work, he has amassed a huge amount of general building knowledge over the years. “It was really nice to be working on my own place at last, having spent years and years renovating places for other people,” he says.
The first and most drastic alterations addressed the flat’s lack of sound-proofing. “The floors were wobbly and the noise was horrendous,” says Jethro. “The people downstairs could hear us walking around, and we could hear the people above us doing the same, so it was clear something had to be done.”
He set about adding new joists, floors and ceilings, taking advantage of the fact that all the rooms were quite lofty by borrowing some height along the way. “The new joists look like the original fabric of the building and have solved the problem completely,” he adds.
During this phase of the work the flat was, in Jethro’s words, “in utter chaos”, so his next task was to skim and paint the walls of the bedroom so they would have at least one finished room. “It was important for Claire to have somewhere to hide,” he laughs.
The couple then turned their attention to the kitchen and ordered some units from B&Q, thinking the doors were going to be a neutral shade of cream. “When they arrived, the cupboards were much darker than we were expecting,” admits Claire. Their rich putty colour turned out to be something of a happy accident, though: “We ended up really liking the effect,” she adds. “It set the tone for the decor in the rest of the flat, which is now a series of subtle greys.”
Next was the bathroom, which turned out to need a serious refit when they discovered that it was leaking into the property beneath. Jethro gutted the room before putting it all back together using his tadelakt plastering skills.
Tadelakt is a technique that hails from Morocco and dates back around 2,000 years. Jethro, who has “been plastering for ever”, acquired the skills on a course in Devon and has since worked on several high-rolling building projects in London, some of which involved creating tadelakt bathrooms and wet rooms on a grand scale.
“I always gain inspiration from the interiors I have been working on,” says Jethro. “Tadelakt really appealed to me because, whether you are using it in a large or small space, it gives a really soft effect and can be shaped into wonderful organic forms.”
Though it appears to be quite thick, the plaster itself is actually just a few millimetres deep. Olive soap is applied to the surface, and the fat in the soap reacts with the lime to harden it; this, along with repeated burnishing, compresses the plaster and gives it a flawless, waterproof finish. A final application of beeswax brings out the shine.
“The great thing about tadelakt is that it can go anywhere – on top of plasterboard or on to a solid wall – as long as you use the correct bridging material,” says Jethro. “You can add pigment as well, to give it any colour you like, and you can use it to tailor-make curves and niches, all with a totally seamless finish.”
Despite its small size, the finished flat is a fabulous showcase for all sorts of other clever uses of plaster, from textural lime-plaster in the bedroom to plaster corbels that hold up the mantelpiece in the sitting room. There is even a huge and elaborate architectural plaster carving above the couple’s bed; Jethro’s brother, a monumental mason, made this for them as a wedding present.
Claire, Jethro and Frank are now preparing to move on to a larger family house, but there will be a certain amount of regret at leaving behind this small wonder of a flat. Given that Jethro is currently restoring the historic plasterwork at Cornwall’s own St Michael’s Mount for the National Trust, who knows what grand designs might appear in their next home.
For information about tadelakt and other plaster projects, contact Jethro Marsh at The Natural Plaster Company. Tel. 07765 049612, www.thenaturalplastercompany.co.uk