If you’re looking to add a little joy to your home, Paula Sutton is the woman to turn to. The interiors influencer’s unapologetically cheerful approach to life has seen her amass almost half a million followers on Instagram, who tune in to her account @hillhousevintage for the uplifting chronicles of life at her Georgian home in Norfolk, as well as her latest brightly-coloured retro dress or newest addition to the garden. Here, we speak to her about personal style, positivity and why she finds pleasure in imperfection.
At one point during our Zoom interview, Paula Sutton springs up from the desk in her garden office to do a twirl to show off her checked and colourful swishy skirt by Italian brand Dado D. Her hair is neatly tied in a ponytail with a simple ribbon and her shirt is white and crisp. “My clothes are for being worn,” she explains unapologetically. “I turn 52 this year, if I don’t wear all my clothes now, when is this supposedly golden time meant to come?”
Sutton doesn’t live quite like the rest of us (that is to say, hiding in the comfort of joggers for video calls and peacocking purely for Instagram), and it’s this unique, joyful filter on life that has won her a devoted audience of half a million Instagram followers.
If you’re not already following @hillhousevintage then here’s a quick recap: Sutton moved to a Georgian country house in Norfolk from south London with her husband and their three children 11 years ago. Headed for burnout, she left behind a fast-paced career working as a bookings editor on a fashion magazine, swapping business travel for dog walks with the aim of focussing on motherhood. After losing out on a series of what she and her husband initially believed were their dream properties – “I thought I wanted acres of land but in hindsight we were saved from ourselves” – they bought Hill House.
“I fell for its original features, the height of the ceilings and, of course, the symmetry,” she says. “I am a great fan of Georgian architecture as I find it so pleasing on the eye.” She is equally enamoured with the surrounding countryside – “I love the vast open spaces of Norfolk and the big skies. It’s very much a working county, agricultural and unpretentious. And we have the best sunsets.”
Paula originally entertained launching an interiors business but found solace in writing, documenting craft projects and vintage discoveries on her blog as she adapted to life in the countryside. Her Instagram account followed in 2014 as another creative outlet and this October sees the release of her first book: Hill House Living: The Art of Creating a Joyful Life.
“A personal take on traditional country house style – but with brighter pops of colour and a bit more humour,” is how Sutton describes her taste in interiors. “I mix period pieces and antiques with things that have a vintage flavour – faded chintz, ticking stripes and checks, and anything with a button back and wooden furniture with scallops and curves. There’s a lot of femininity in the things I love, but it’s counteracted to stop it being too saccharine. I prefer things to be slightly imperfect.”
And it has proved to be Instagram catnip – long before cottagecore became a liberally applied hashtag. One can only dream of having the problem of decking out a picturesque home that looks like a doll’s house – and the ensuing outbuildings (the newest of which is a potting shed) – with vintage treasures. But her gift is taking everyone on the journey and transporting you back in time.
Her taste never shocks but delights; “I love things with history and objects that have a story. I studied art history and am drawn to timeless things,” she explains. “I also think that if a piece of furniture has lasted many years, it shows its quality and craftsmanship and that should be celebrated and supported.”
“It’s also an incredibly economical way of furnishing a house, which is really what propelled my passion for buying vintage furniture in the first place,” she continues. She name-checks Portobello Road, Lots Road Auctions, the pre-loved sections in Liberty and The Old Cinema on Chiswick High Road as her go-tos in the capital, but has long embraced buying directly from Instagram sellers like Reclectic Vintage Interiors. Other independent brands she favours include Nordic home textiles label Projekti Tyyny, Flora Soames, Barneby Gates and Our Lovely Goods. Her advice is simple: “Buy what you love, your space should be uniquely you. Don’t follow fashion or trends.”
Almost daily you’ll find her on Instagram in semi-staged scenarios emulating Alice in Wonderland drinking tea on her lawn, or sharing a Reels showing the transformation of a patch of land into a kitchen garden. It sounds like it should be terribly smug, but through Sutton’s unique blend of the genuine (her content is her real life, eg. pulling up lettuces for lunch) and the tongue-in-cheek, the effect is uplifting, humorous and the much-needed burst of escapism that many have relished since the start of the pandemic. “I do have occasional wobbles, thinking: ‘Is this whole Pollyanna, always-happy-state awful for people to just see constantly?’ But I get floods of messages from people going through real-life trauma saying: ‘I look forward to seeing your posts because I know it’s going to make me smile.’ I think I’m like a comforting mug of cocoa at the end of an evening for some people.”
Her success also feeds hope for others considering an unlikely career U-turn: “I have this amazing new life which started post-50, which is just wonderful,” she says of the brand partnerships and opportunities coming her way.
Sutton’s own personal style echoes her home. “I like it to have a feel of another time, even if everything isn’t strictly vintage. I wear lots of full skirts and I love the 1940s and ‘50s aesthetic.” Dresses by Son de Flor are an easy way to tap into Sutton’s cheery, nostalgic outlook, and she is partial to dresses by Emilia Wickstead as a “real treat”.
But she wasn’t always so confident; when Sutton first moved to Norfolk, she felt her look was “too flash for living opposite a field, so I started dressing down wearing my husband’s old jumpers and waxed jackets and jeans and I found myself becoming very miserable. I realised that cutting off the part of me that loved fashion wasn’t good for my mental health or happiness, so I found a way of rediscovering my love of clothes and fashion to make it work with my new life and my surroundings. I went back to pieces that were joyful and colourful but with boots and brogues – I can’t do heels anymore!”
It’s this understanding of not always being comfortable in your own skin that helps her bat away any occasional negativity on social media. “A negative comment is almost always a sign of someone’s own unhappiness and discontent, and I can’t be upset by that. I know what it’s like to feel miserable, so I am totally sympathetic. But if someone thinks I’m oblivious to what’s going in the world, then often I’ll have a conversation about that, and say that the two can live side by side – that you can enjoy your life and have empathy with what’s going on in the rest of the world.”
The flipside of building such a huge following means she is now unable to reply to every comment – something she used to pride herself on doing. But she has dialogue – often daily – with people DMing her with their personal problems. “There’s a lot of hats that you take on when you get into social media, and a therapist is definitely one of them. Who knew? People spill their hearts to me and I try to help where I can. I’m not medically trained obviously but if it’s something that seems serious that needs a voice back then I will reply. This is a community which I’ve grown and nurtured so I can’t turn my back on it – people feel like they know me.”
Next on Sutton’s to-do list is kitting out a small extension – “I’m enjoying finding accessories for that,” and creating more footage for her YouTube channel. A thoroughly modern woman, we can expect more playful Reels to brighten up our feeds regularly too. “My daughter or husband captures them for me and they don’t like hanging around for long, so I’ve got them down to a fine art. I see them as little comedy clips,” she laughs. One big digital love letter to her home, we’ll be sure to tune in.
Hill House Living: The Art of Creating a Joyful Life is out 14 October (Ebury Press, £22)
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