Is there a London interior design style?
Edwin Alexander Heathcote is an English architect and designer. He has been the architecture and design critic of The Financial Times since 1999, and is the author of books on architecture and design.
There is such a thing as new London architecture. Characterised by brick facades laid as skins over steel frames and carefully detailed in a manner that somehow blends a bit of early modernist Chicago and a bit of contemporary Flemish design, it seems that the thing that makes it ‘London’ is its material. Brick, and particularly London stock brick, is the default structure of the Post-Great Fire city. It is clay, extruded from the earth itself that is the inevitable manifestation of the city’s geology and an infinitely flexible thing which breaks down into hand-sized units. Brick reduces the scale of even the tallest tower into a comprehensible unit, a block which we can relate to our bodies. And its ubiquity, from Georgian terraces to Victorian warehouses, council houses and power stations makes it a familiar, if not unique, motif of our city. But is there such a thing as a London interior design? It might once have been possible, perhaps in the mid-eighteenth century, to define a London interior. Tall sash windows made for light rooms which were often rather austere. Unlike continental interiors where apartments were laid out as sets of enfilade rooms – leading into one another, London rooms were piled up in tall, narrow house (rather than broad apartments) and separated by corridors and stairs. The result is a series of discreet spaces each with a discernible character and usually one defined by its windows. The individuality of the rooms led to a particular sense of use, with dedicated living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, studies, libraries and so on. In part these designations represented a microcosm of the country house with its endless series of rooms and chambers devoted to everything from billiards and cards to hunting guns and game hanging but in part it also represented a sense of decorum, of each function having its place in the house. This was not necessarily the case elsewhere. In continental Europe even grand apartments often featured multi-functional spaces and many of the finest still feature enfilade rooms making privacy almost impossible and often making bedrooms and more seemingly intimate spaces a part of the grand gesture of spatial effect.
The other side of the coin was scale. The residents of British houses sacrificed scale for decorum, numbers of bedrooms for actual space. Houses are sold not by the square foot but by the amount of bedrooms and bathrooms which makes it worth the developer’s while to split them up into the tiniest possible units.
The effect has been that at one level of the scale, British interior design has been defined by a mission to make those reduced spaces look as generous as possible. This might manifest itself in knocking through, in the curious and ubiquitous practice of taking a house designed for one way of living and smashing holes in it until it becomes an approximation of another kind of open plan living.
The rest of design is then the art of making that radical remodelling look deliberate rather than the necessary compromise it always is.
Of course, things are changing. Now even those houses built to resemble a notion of Victorian terraces come with features more redolent of lower Manhattan lofts – the sprawling kitchen/diners, the breakfast bars and bare brick feature walls. And in the cities the biggest change has been precisely the advent of loft-style apartments which present a different idea of everyday life, more fluid spaces, bigger rooms, higher ceilings and so on.
But, as ever in old cities, the ghosts of the past come back to haunt us. And London is a city of layers in design just as it is in archaeology. Those flat-fronted Georgian terraces which still seem to be the indelible image of a classical London landscape had rooms scaled by plot size, by the volume it was easy to heat with a single fireplace and, crucially, by the depth that natural light from those sash windows was able to penetrate. If you were reading or sewing into the early evening on a Spring or Autumn day you might need to move your chair and sewing table cover to the window as the light faded, or move as the sun traced across the sky.
As a result Georgian furniture was often surprisingly lightweight and delicate. Its finesse was in its fineness and the veneers and detail were subtle and often barely-perceptible. While in continental apartments there may have been much chunkier pieces of furniture – dining tables, armoires, writing desks, English design tended to maintain a sense of lightness and mobility – as if a floor might be needed to cleared for dancing at any moment. Or at least cleaning.
What has been fascinating in recent years is to see how the revival in a mid-century aesthetic – whether in antique pieces or contemporary designs influenced by 50s and 60s classics – has become ubiquitous in London design. Slender legs, pieces that appear to float on impossibly slim frames yet which are expressed in the fine timbers that might have been familiar to a furniture maker of three centuries ago. These pieces have filled the space once populated by Chippendales and Sheratons as those have moved into museums.
The modernist agenda, which relied on the minimisation of structure, the clear expression of forces and the elimination of weight and dark shadows beneath bulky fittings seems to sit perfectly comfortably across Georgian terraces and London lofts. Real estate in this city is inordinately expensive so rooms have remained relatively small. Status here is accrued more through location than size, unlike perhaps some of the newer property hotspots in Dubai or Florida where space might be at less of a premium. In those settings furniture has to inflate to fill the excess space, its role becomes one of population of space rather than, necessarily, providing comfort. The same effect is visible in the classic shoots of classical palazzi, chairs in these awesome renaissance spaces need to work hard this is where huge L-shaped sofas come from or Post Modernist statement pieces. Or those beds sitting in the middle of a vast chamber with a frescoed ceiling. Appealing as they may be these are not, frankly, London situations.
The London interior, it seems, is characterised instead by a series of responses and reactions. Responses to scale and intimacy and a certain respect for material and making and retain to the overstuffed aesthetic of our childhoods, the suburban lounge with its three-piece suite, coffee tables, side-tables and standard lamps. It is a reaction to a world of clutter through a streamlining of stuff, which is itself a response to technology and the slow disappearance of books for reading and records for listening and their reappearance as status objects to display taste.
But perhaps the most London thing of all is an ad hoc eclecticism which keeps the interior from becoming too precious of pleased with itself. London designers are characterised by a historical literacy combined with a visual wit and an improvised spirit of adaptation, reuse and reinvention. It’s precisely in the combination of the recycling of intriguing objects and their transition into narrative complexity and the subsequent layer of absorption into new designs that the city maintains its difference. The beauty of a tool or an item from a workshop is of the same order as the material that emerges from it and, in the combination of making, thinking and applying intelligence and stories, the London interior survives somewhere between a genteel Georgian terrace, a shabby back-alley workshop and a museum of interesting things.