Making a case for the return of the snug

Every house should have a snug, as a place to retreat from the world and be surrounded by simply what we love most

Emma Burns' annexe is a book-filled snug

Paul Massey

As we fall out of love with open plan living, the snug is resurfacing on floorplans. Invariably the smallest room in the house, the snug can serve different purposes; library, den, study, music room – what they all have in common is privacy. Snug, just say it; even the word itself – the gentle curve of the ‘u’ embraced by the clasp of the ‘g’ – suggests an all-enveloping solitude.

With privacy comes the scope for self expression. The premise of open plan living is sharing and connectivity, all very contemporary. The snug is its old-fashioned opposite; tucked behind kitchens or sitting rooms, it is a highly personal space where we can, within reason, do what we want. It is the grown up version of our teenage bedroom. A solipsistic domain in which to surround ourselves with private – and meaningful – paraphernalia, even if might be of questionable taste.

‘It is a luxury, but to quote Virginia Woolf everyone should have a room of their own. Somewhere that reflects all sides of who you are. Because you don’t have to share it, you can fill it with all the stuff that you can’t bear to part with. It’s like a comfort blanket,’ says Emma Burns, a Managing Director of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler. She cites a politician friend’s retreat where the walls bristle with US Democrat party paraphernalia. Or the ‘tiny’ music room designed for a Georgian townhouse, soundproofed and plumply lined with fabric so that her client can crank up the volume, without annoying the neighbours. Another rural client specified three snugs, based on her different collections; in one, antiquarian books are stacked lengthways, their spine facing inwards to show off the gold-edged pages which gleam by firelight, like buried treasure.

In what was a bathroom, Sarah Fuller has built a cosy reading nook in her house in Bath. Practically every inch of space has been used to house the wrap-around sofa.

Owen Gale

Emma’s own snug is the book room of her country cottage. Although it is a double-height space, the book-lined walls, deep armchairs and low lighting lend it a den-like allure. A ladder leads to her study on the mezzanine above. ‘It makes a good vantage point, where I can gaze down at my collection, like being in a treehouse.’ Nothing here is too precious, but everything is personal. The sofa, recovered in corduroy, belonged to her grandparents; Emma rescued the desk before it was thrown out by an office colleague; a set of engravings was found during a happy Saturday pre-sale browsing at Christie’s.

Snugs originated as quiet nooks in British pubs. In country houses, they were shadowy closets, tucked behind grander reception rooms which had all the windows – and natural light. Less draughty and more convivial than those communal spaces, the snug was a place to sew, play cards or instruments by a fire. It is where the real life of a house happened.

It also was the first room to be sacrificed to the noughties knock throughs, when the backs of our homes were reconfigured to include eat-cook-live spaces. But tastes are changing. ‘You can feel lost in a big space. It is why Brutalism has never really worked. Smaller rooms invoke a sense of intimacy, they feel human,’ says Emma.

Rachel Chudley agrees: ‘with a pull back to individualism, people no longer want to blast out all the walls: they are more inclined to want to exploit cosy areas of a house, expanding eccentricities rather than unifying the space completely,’ she says, citing one scheme with deep terracotta walls, a fecund houseplant, Chinese pottery and a leopard-print sofa pulled up close to the fire sealing the eclectic but convivial atmosphere.

Snugs of the famous have a particular fascination because they offer a window in to the private whims of their owners. Think of ‘Debo’ the late Duchess of Devonshire’s study – green moire-silk wrapped walls, piles of books and chintzy sofas -–where you might encounter the cardboard cutout of her beloved Elvis. Or Vita Sackville-West’s writing eyrie in a tower, ‘tall and damask as a summer flower’ as she described it, at Sissinghurst. Then there is the oft-shared portrait of Jackie Onassis’s sister Lee Radziwill, reclining on the cushion-strewn divan of her Turkish-esque den, the soukish layers conveying its owner’s cosmopolitan character.

Octavia Dickinson has fond memories of her aunt’s dressing room-cum-snug. ‘It was filled with sketches and photographs, hundreds of enamelled trinket boxes, some of them veering on the kitsch.’

In an age where you can access work emails anywhere in the house, Octavia encourages clients to reserve snugs for more analogue pursuits: ‘to write thank you cards, sew a tapestry, put paintings out to dry, wrap presents. It can also be a place to sit and do nothing.’ A ‘squishy sofa’ is a pre-requisite, but the cushions ‘need never be plumped.’ The snug is not about perfection.

For Nicola Harding, it is the decorative equivalent of shrugging off your workclothes – and slipping in to a tracksuit. ‘Dogs on sofas, feet on coffee tables, supper on laps. It’s where you can be your most relaxed version of yourself. It should cater for a lot of cuddling – children, husbands and especially dogs. There should be as much fabric as humanly possible, piles of blankets for nesting in and generous curtains for hiding behind. One wants to feel enveloped, held, completely immersed in comfort.’

After restoring the Georgian details to this Marylebone flat, its interior-decorator owner, Douglas Mackie, added furniture with a French bias and twentieth-century art to create an elegant, sophisticated ensemble.

Simon Upton

The science has yet to be proved, but designer Tamsin Saunders thinks that snugs may enhance our wellbeing. ‘They are where the nicest times are had. You feel grounded, and comfortable. The way a space makes us feel is just as important as having the light sockets in the right place or a work top at the right height.’

As it is a private domain, there are no rules. Fellow designer and antiques dealer Max Rollitt likes to incorporate panelling in to snugs – ‘it adds architectural texture and inevitably creates shadow and so depth to a room. There’s no need to be frightened of hanging paintings on panelling.  Likewise, brackets are an interesting way to display one’s favourite things, which is part of what makes a snug feel reassuringly familiar.’

In a conventional townhouse, a snug can also be designed to forge a link between inside and out.
Kate Guinness points to the ‘light, bright garden room’ at the back of a West London family house.
‘We had a bespoke corner sofa made to fill this relatively small room and painted the entire space – including ceiling and woodwork – in a pale green. It helps to cement the indoor-outdoor feel.’

Adam Bray finds that many of his snug requests are from clients whose children have left home. ‘Instead of having a guest room they would rather turn it into something more fun and individual,’ he says. For an artist and writer living in the country, he is converting a bedroom in to a decorative bolthole, filled with family photos, personal books and ‘extremely comfortable’ upholstery. There will be room for a television. ‘But this won’t be a place for catching up with WhatsApps. It will be papered – and highly personal.’

James Mackie's book room

James McDonald

Designer James Mackie’s hideaway is the book room of his 17th-century cottage in Oxfordshire, close to William Morris’s Kelmscott. James had the 19th-century designer and thinker in mind when he designed the tome-filled retreat, which is housed in a new extension. ‘I came up for a narrative for the room; and imagined that it was an arts and crafts addition.’ The panelling and reclaimed oak beam might have always been there; the books add to the ‘sense of escape.’

‘Even in a small house, the snug represents the difference between the public and private sphere, where you can draw a heavy curtain, light a fire, and shut out the world,’ says James. ‘Perhaps it has something to do with the times we live in. But there’s something very appealing about that.’