The following article by Elizabeth Lambert appeared in the January 1996 issue of Architectural Digest
The musician Sting was on tour in Mexico when his wife, actress and film producer Trudie Styler, called to tell him that she had found the perfect house. "He asked if I liked it," Styler remembers. "I told him I loved it. He asked why I wanted to buy it. I gave him a lot of reasons. There was silence. Then I told him that there was a 350-year-old tree in the garden. 'Buy it,' was the quick reply."
That ancient copper beech is now one of his favourite retreats. He disappears often. A fugitive look comes to his eyes and he's off, guitar in hand, to the shade of that tree, to a hammock in the boathouse or cushions in a bay window, in search of a little solitude where he can "read or meditate or think or maybe not even do that," always working out the music that is on his mind.
"Writing songs is a solitary business," he says. "I like having people around, I like the house to be alive, and I'll be sorry when the last builders go, but there's always Sartre's definition of hell. I can disappear in a house like this."
From the solitude of songwriting to the final recording and editing in the studio he has made in the dining hall, Sting's music is now a product of Lake House, the residence in Wiltshire that he and Styler have created. All the songs for his last album, 'Ten Summoner's Tales', were written and recorded here. 'Fields of Gold' was inspired by his love of the surrounding fields and the wildflower meadow beside the house. His next album, which will be released this spring, was also written and recorded at the house. Call it a cottage industry of sorts.
And that's only part of what goes on at Lake House. Styler has her office here, and the couple's four children, Mickey, Jake, Coco and the new baby, five dogs and uncounted cats find their territory everywhere else. One day Styler is working on a scene for the first feature film she produced, 'The Grotesque' (which she also stars in, with Sting); the next day musicians and technicians are arriving to rehearse for Sting's latest tour. One night it's a celebration for the cast and crew of her film, the next it's a birthday party for a gang of five year old pirates.
Never a dull moment, but, as Styler says, "If it all happens here, then we're all here too."
Getting themselves all in one place wasn't easy. Moving around had become a habit. Sting, who was born Gordon Sumner, grew up in Newcastle, and as a boy he accompanied Beatles records on a guitar abandoned by an uncle. He became an English teacher by day, played in local jazz clubs by night and acquired his nickname the night he wore a yellow-and-black striped sweater. There was time on the road in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he was lead singer and bassist for The Police, then more touring when his solo career took off later in the 1980s and travel to locations for acting in such movies as 'Plenty' and 'Stormy Monday'.
Styler, too, has spent time on location, as an actress and a producer of documentary films, including 'Boys from Brazil', about Brazilian transvestite prostitutes, and 'Moving the Mountain', about the student rebellion in Tiananmen Square. For years the couple lived in New York as well as in London, matching schedules to see if there were a few days when they might be in the same city at the same time. No place felt like home.
Lake House has changed all that, for two reasons: First, they want to be here. "It used to be all right to go away," says Sting. "Now it isn't." Second, the house allows them to stay home more often. As Styler says, "It's no problem getting people to come here for my meetings or Sting's recording. The problem is getting them to go back to London. The house is benign, and everyone picks up on that. My work comes out of New York and L.A. Having the office here means I can be with the children in the morning, go horseback riding, walk the dogs, and when New York wakes up at three-thirty our time, I get on the phone, and my day finishes around midnight. It doesn't feel like a long working day. I've been doing the things I want to do, so it feels like my life. This house makes it all possible.
"We began with a pretty idealised view, thinking the work would take two years; we could come down on weekends and then return to the comforts of London. That idea lasted until Sting saw the house. He loved it so much that he talked me into moving in right away. The builders, the band, the crew - everybody else moved in too. Then he went on tour again and left me with all the boys."
The chaos was manageable, thanks to Alain Mertens, their designer and friend. He dealt with every problem, inside and out, and found the exceptionally agreeable crew of builders, headed by Roger Davies, who made it feasible for them to live in the house while the work continued.
Mertens is relatively new to the world of design. For years he was known as the man behind a London Gallery, but when be bought a tiny house in upstate New York, friends started asking him to do their houses. "Suddenly I realised I was enjoying this," he says, "and thought I'd better learn something." Courses at Columbia University and in Vicenza to study Palladio followed.
Mertens was born in Belgium but considers New York his home and has an office there. He has another office and an apartment in London, a room at the Ritz in Madrid where he is designing all the public rooms, and an apartment in Paris, where he redesigned the restaurants, bar and in three months, fifty-five suites for the George V hotel. "And it was summer," he points out.
With work in all those places and the firm credo that supervision is the most important part of a my job, he spends a lot of time in airports. He considers it an indulgence when designers put their stamp on the work they do. "My preference is for an eclectic classicism, and that includes modern. But whatever the style, my job is to find out what the client feels comfortable with and make it happen. For a house like this, it's important to respect the age and the architecture. Not mimic it, respect it."
There is both age and architecture at Lake House. Built in 1578 for a West Country wool merchant, it was enlarged in the eighteenth century when a broader staircase was needed to accommodate wide skirts, devastated by fire in 1912 and rebuilt, and expanded again for a visit by Alfonso Xlll of Spain. There are also additions that history doesn't explain - half landings and roof terraces and rooms set up high under the eaves. Among the sixty acres are gentle hills that shelter the house at the front and a network of streams amid the water meadows at the rear.
Respecting the house's history required careful restoration of the plasterwork, the stonework and the structure. Since it was to be a family home, the kitchen would be, in Styler's words, "not a butler's domain but our domain." She thought about how an abandoned downstairs kitchen and pantry, unused since the 1930s, could be combined into a big family kitchen and dining room, and Sting solved the problem of access to them. "He would try to describe to me what he had in mind - the half levels, the vaulted ceilings, the apses, the turn of the handrail - and my eyes would glaze over with incomprehension," Styler recalls. "He's a genius at seeing the potential of space."
Although he has no objection to being called a genius, Sting says the stair developed from the idea of a library with a spiral staircase in the corner. "When we decided to open up the room at the half landing to make an office for Trudie, things got more complicated. The trick was to make the staircase flow but give the ceiling a strong centralised pattern to stabilise it. Alain and I talked it through; then a computer simulation meant we could know we had been right."
As for the decorating, Mertens had a head start because he had already designed the couple's New York apartment. "He knows which ballpark we're talking about," says Styler. Sting is more specific. "Alain didn't need to ask about things like curtains," he says. "These mullioned windows are beautiful, and I want as much natural daylight as possible pouring through them. Things I don't like are spotlights, telephones and light bulbs. I can put up with just enough table lamps to read a book, but I don't want to see the bulbs. I want as many candles as possible.
"On the top floor we made one big room out of five or six small bedrooms. The kids beat us up on a regular basis, asking if they can have that room as their den, but we still haven't decided how to use it. I care very much about the rooms I live in - I have a will of iron and can get very combative - but Alain's a great mediator. He manages to find out what I want, what Trudie wants, and then play it down the middle." Nobody shrank from the lively debate. As Styler puts it, "Some days I win, some days Sting wins. I like softer colours and rich textures. His taste is more frugal, almost monastic. He's a Libra. On Monday he thinks he thinks the walls should be grey, on Tuesday he thinks they should be yellow."
"Some people could get a divorce over a house like this," say Mertens. "Not them. They have always worked together. And they've survived the trials of living with the builders for over three years - and they're still smiling. If you can stand the dust, it's ideal, because you don't know what you want from a house until you live in it. Everybody needs to find their space."
At Lake House, all the family members have their spaces. "Sting took the dining hall for his studio," Styler says. "He designed the library, so that's his space; he uses the boathouse for escape. I had to have a room that was mine. It was going to be one of the rooms downstairs, but he had to have a place for the piano, so that room is now the Trudie/piano room. I disappear either to the new puzzle garden, where I sit in the maze and puzzle things out, or to my bath, where I pull up a chair, put my feet up on the edge of the tub and think. It's my favourite room because Alain gave it the spirit of the house by having panels painted with the garden flowers and all the local wildflowers and birds."
There are plenty of bedrooms - for children, for the baby, for a visiting granny, for friends, for musicians who live here when they're recording. It's not a house that is filled with clutter: Most tables, in fact, hold musical instruments. Sting buys instruments of all kinds (and plays them all), from lutes and flutes to a spinet that belonged to Samuel Pepys. "It's a little difficult to play because the keys are so small," he says. "You need very small fingers. But Pepys described buying it in his diaries, so I couldn't resist. But this is not what some people would call a collection. I don't go out just looking for instruments. I buy them to play them."
There is also a fine music stand that was a present from Pavarotti, a cello, guitars, double basses and electric basses - Sting gets good music out of whatever he picks up. He is a genuine musician, which may come as a surprise to those who don't know his music. His songs are admired by academics and serious musicians, yet he is modest and considers the accolades a burden. He insists he is not a virtuoso instrumentalist. "I am very musical, but it all ends at the wrists. I need other musicians to interpret my music. I give it structure. They give it colour. What I get paid for is being famous."
Part of that fame comes from the work that Sting and Trudie do with the Rainforest Foundation and their concern for the environment. At Lake House, they grow as much of their own food as they can. Organic vegetables, bee-hives, cows and goats mean they could almost be self-sufficient. "That's important," says Sting. "Being able to feed yourself is real wealth."
They both speak of the "wholeness" and a "permanence" that the house gives them. "We have a view of a tenth-century church, says Sting, "and although it's not something we've ever thought about before, we both feel that this is the place we'd like to be buried. But not too soon."
The house gives them, quite simply, a sense of home. "More than anything, we wanted the children to feel safe here," says Styler. "Big houses can be intimidating. The kids never loved our big house in London. Our elder daughter would ask, 'Why can't we have a lovely little dolly's house?' and I could understand that. She wanted to feel bigger than the house.
"It was important when we moved here that the children never fell threatened. We've done that with golden colours in the kitchen and pinks in the rugs in the sitting room. There's nothing out of bounds, no feeling that anything is Mummy's best furniture - and plenty of heating. I think we could heat the entire hamlet with what we've put in here."
It's along way to the top of the house, but even Coco goes off by herself, never worried that it seems dark and lonely up there. "If we've accomplished that in a house this size," says Styler, "we've really done the job."
© Architectural Digest magazine