Lee Unwin and the redesign of his apartment in Bishopstoke Manor
PUBLISHED: 15:26 27 February 2014 | UPDATED: 11:18 10 March 2014
An interiors business seems an unlikely direction for someone with a background in law, management and civil engineering… Emma Caulton admires Lee Unwin’s style
Lee Unwin has a knack for creating business opportunities from life experiences. The latest was the refurbishment of his new apartment becoming the basis for establishing a company, Inspired Interiors. He was so impressed with the team of professionals he gathered together for the redesign of his apartment in Grade II listed Bishopstoke Manor, that he decided to form a company with them; and he is already planning his next business project: investing in more of the Manor’s apartments.
Lee is a local boy from Eastleigh made good. He attended Shakespeare Junior School and Toynbee School before going on to study law and become a company director by the age of 28. He was already on the road to success when he was headhunted to run a company in Sydney, Australia - an offer he found too good to miss. Lee recalls: “It was the middle of January and I was watching Cold Feet on television at the time, something that I knew I couldn’t get when it came to moving. After committing myself to the new role, I moved out to Australia and wound up my initial company.”
He planned to return to the UK, but in the interim took over a couple of the company’s outstanding jobs himself (with a view to them helping towards the cost of returning home). But he never came back. Those jobs turned into an opportunity for Lee to start up and build up a couple of very successful businesses, HMS Civils and HMS Traffic, which he went on to sell for the sort of sums that would see most of us putting our feet up for the rest of our working days. But not Lee. As he relates his story he adds that he has to pinch himself that he’s telling his own tale and not talking about someone else
The theory is that after selling his businesses Lee retired at just 38. The reality is that he has too much energy to slow down.
Since ‘retirement’ Lee has studied for three years for his Professional Golf Association diploma and now coaches as a hobby. He has been retained as a consultant for HMS Civils and continues to keep a home near Sydney. Lee has also been trying to buy a couple of businesses in Hampshire, and Inspired Interiors was partly born out of the disappointment of being gazumped on both.
That disappointment coincided with Lee, who usually pitches up at his father’s when he is in the UK, deciding to find his own base in the county. Initially he had been looking for a four or five bedroom detached house, but was wondering if he really needed a property that size when, in January last year, he found Bishopstoke Manor, built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and divided into a dozen apartments about 25 years ago.
Lee was attracted by the extensive grounds and the sense of space and peace and quiet. These qualities are not dissimilar from his home in Australia which has extensive gardens backing onto a nature reserve, although without the kangaroos. Instead Bishopstoke Manor is visited by wild deer. And rather than a swimming pool, the Manor’s acres of grounds include lakes and streams, sweeping lawns and parkland bordered on one side by the River Itchen and on the other by The Itchen Navigation.
It’s hard to believe that this delightful, picturesque, hidden retreat in the conservation area of Old Bishopstoke is only a mile or so away from the convenience of Southampton International airport and Parkway mainline station.
Another attraction was that this would be an easy move. Lee hadn’t anticipated doing anything to the property; he didn’t even intend on changing the carpets.
But there was a problem. Lee discovered that the original sash windows were rotten, and the need to replace them encouraged him to strip the apartment back to its shell and create the precision-perfect space Lee prefers (all under the stern gaze of the local compliance officer who oversees work undertaken on listed buildings).
Out went the country-style wood kitchen, even though it was fairly new as it was not Lee’s “cup of tea”. He recalls: “A friend of mine, doing a barn conversion in France, said ‘I’ll have it’, so I stuck it on a truck and shipped it off to him.”
In came a contemporary shaker kitchen in glossy cream from Wren Living with wine chiller and textured worktop. Cupboards have been arranged symmetrically while glass splashbacks, sourced from ABC Glass in Portsmouth, pick out a shade of the stone floor tiles and have been cut to fit exactly.
This level of attention to detail has been achieved throughout the apartment: cabling is hidden behind coving, pipework is boxed in, sockets have been repositioned where needed and power points hidden in cupboards. Every ceiling has been replastered and the original kitchen floor, which sloped, has been levelled. Lee smiles: “To get that floor flat is an amazing achievement, believe me!”
Out, too, went the old-fashioned, badly laid out bathroom. In came a shower room with rain shower head, a custom built, full-height shelf unit to utilise the space efficiently, distinctive mosaic tiling, sink unit raised off the floor and LED mirror. Lee smiles: “The mirror lights are all different colours; friends have remarked that you can have a disco in there.”
The living room had been two separate rooms, but Lee opened them up and ordered low cream leather sofas that wouldn’t obstruct the views of the gardens from the windows, and subtly curving furniture in pale wood from Denmark; all through Peter Green in Chandler’s Ford. A study area features a stylish cross-frame desk and tub-shaped office chair in glossy black and rich wood, also bought from Peter Green.
Reflections of the local landscape have been introduced into the colour scheme with feature wallpaper in a retro leaf pattern in soft greens and blues. These colours are also picked up in cushions, a thick rug and Roman blinds in the kitchen.
In the hallway glass artworks are reminiscent of the multicoloured sands of Alum Bay while an atmospheric photograph in the master bedroom is suggestive of Durdle Door on the Dorset coat, Lee’s father’s favourite place.
Lee spent time sourcing the European oak used for the hall flooring, and for the skirting and door architraves. He took similar care choosing the light fittings and even the radiators were sourced from a specialist stockist found in Portsmouth. The carpet underlay is thicker than usual so you sink into the carpet as you walk. “It makes all the difference, everyone comments on it,” adds Lee. Even the heavy oak doors and the door hinges have a fire rating. “People won’t notice these things,” says Lee, “but I do.”
The attention to detail impresses. I attribute it to Lee’s expectation of high standards, but Lee credits the team that he and Barry, friend and plasterer, have handpicked, from plumbers to painters.
Through his years in business, Lee has learned the value of employing the best: “The best people create quality…Once we got this team together and saw what the gang were doing here, I said ‘let’s stay together’. The quality shines through.”
Lee estimates they have something like 300 years’ experience between them. “We put together this operation like a jigsaw and it ran seamlessly,” says Lee.
As for the windows that kick-started the entire refurbishment, double-glazed units from a specialist company look like the original sash windows. The compliance officer was happy, too. Perfect.
If you want to steal Lee’s style then contact him on 07919 610565 or 07786 446960 or visit www.inspiredinteriors.org.uk