When it was purchased by our clients as a London pied-à-terre, this Knightsbridge apartment was in a dilapidated state with a somewhat sordid history. Apparently the previous owner had housed his mistress there for many years, and it was something of a 1980s chintz time-warp horror, with antiquated plumbing and non-existent heating. But the location was excellent. The apartment is on the sixth floor of a purpose-built Edwardian mansion block, overlooking London’s famous Hyde Park. The views are spectacular, and Harrods is just a five-minute walk away.
Our clients are a young couple with three small children. Their main house was in the countryside west of London, and they needed somewhere for the husband to live a few nights a week when he was working in town, where his wife and children could join him during school holidays. The couple also wanted to be able to entertain and to use the apartment as a base for going to the theatre and heading out to dinner with friends.
‘Mansion Flats’ were constructed in London from the 1870s until the outbreak of World War I. They were typically built with two or three formal, high-ceilinged reception rooms of the type that would have been found in the Georgian townhouses they were intended to replace, and would usually have three or more bedrooms and the latest in ‘modern’, plumbed-in bathrooms and WCs. Maids’ rooms and storage rooms were located in the attics under the roof of the building, not in the flats themselves. That way domestic staff could be ‘on tap, but not on top’.
They were designed to meet the demands of wealthy people who wanted to live in the smartest parts of London at a time when there was limited land left for building, and town houses were becoming harder and harder to find. Passenger lifts and more modern building materials meant that they could be easily constructed to six or seven storeys in height. They were practical and compact, providing luxury and grandeur with convenience right in the heart of the city. Famous Mansion block residents include fictional Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves who lived in Berkeley Mansions at the southern end of Berkeley Square, and fashion photographer Cecil Beaton who lived at Rutland Court in the apartment right next door to the one we were renovating. Rutland Court is a textbook example of the mansion block style. It was built in 1903 for the princely sum of £120,000 (approximately AUD$202,000), and is a handsome red brick and Portland stone building with French rococo detailing, topped off with an ornate Baroque dome and cupola.
Untouched for decades, the apartment retained its Edwardian layout with two potentially fabulous reception rooms facing south across Hyde Park, a series of three small, awkwardly shaped bedrooms, bathrooms in all the wrong places, and a tiny impractical kitchen. The layout wasn’t suitable for a busy modern family and our clients’ brief was challenging, as the property needed to work for them in a long list of specific ways.
We started by removing the wall between the two reception rooms to make one enormous open plan living and dining room, blocking up one door opening in the process to create a space in the entrance hall for a family and guest coat cupboard. London’s famously inclement weather makes having a place for coats essential in any home.
There had been a fireplace in each reception room, but only the one at the living room end of the space was usable. The over-sized chimney breast in the dining room remained an ugly lump, with an awkward, narrow recess on each side. It couldn’t be removed because it contained flues from the fireplaces of the apartments on all five below us. Originally the clients had intended to just block these recesses off and make it a straight section of wall, but we managed to convince them there was an opportunity here for an opulent, decorative treatment that would make a real focal point in the room.
We commissioned de Gournay to produce a chinoiserie design of birds and flowers, which was hand-painted onto silvered silk, to create a feature wall spanning the chimney breast, and then framed out the alcoves, lining them with plain silver silk. The addition of glass display shelves and concealed LED lighting provided places for the client to showcase her collected treasures. At the other end of the room, we installed an exquisitely carved antique marble Pompadour fireplace, which we flanked with panels of silvered antiqued mirror for a more contemporary touch.
In keeping with the materials that would have been originally used in the building, we used a French oak parquet for the flooring in the reception room and entrance hall, but updated it in a large-format herringbone pattern.
We were unable to relocate the kitchen, but improved access by moving the door so that it opened directly opposite the dining room, and changed the type of door from hinged to sliding pocket. This simple fix maximised the space available for kitchen units and enabled us to design a galley-style kitchen with a tight work triangle and plenty of working space.
One of the biggest design challenges was working out how to accommodate parents, three children, and frequent guests with only three available bedrooms. The solution was to configure the smallest of the bedrooms, which was too narrow to take a double bed, so that it could sleep all three children. We achieved this with clever joinery.
We designed couchette-style bunk beds for the two older children, and a built-in truckle bed under the window for the youngest. We incorporated storage drawers below each bed with leather pull handles reminiscent of vintage luggage, to keep the whole sleeper train theme going. Each bed was curtained with embroidered linen and came complete with its own niche and compact reading light. The children could snuggle in and feel as though they each had their own private cubby house.
The master bedroom also presented a spatial challenge. Using another sliding pocket door, we sectioned off the right-angle dogleg in the room to form a separate dressing room with access into the master bathroom beyond. By adding in this section of wall we created an area generous enough to take a king size bed and bedside tables, which the room had previously lacked.
The bedroom itself was transformed with more de Gournay hand-painted silk wallpaper, this time with a design of trailing wisteria. We then arranged for the same design to be printed onto silk organza window panels to provide screening from the adjacent buildings. In the dressing room, specialist built-in drawer units and wardrobes with antique mirrored doors were designed to fit the space including extra high-level storage over the door.
One of the clients’ trickiest requests was the installation of air conditioning into the property. Six floors up we had no access to any outside space so we had to find a location for the condenser and all the other equipment (lighting control racks, boiler, and hot water cylinder, etc.) within the apartment itself.
Luckily, the bedroom corridor widened as it reached the master suite, affording us the opportunity to create a discrete plant room. We were able to remove the glass from one
of the windows in this area and replace it with louvred panels, which solved the problem of the supply air to the condenser, effectively making one small corner of the inside, outside. Internally, we concealed the cassette units in the tops of built-in joinery, but where this was not possible in the reception rooms, we designed ornate sideboards with mirrored and paneled doors to conceal floor standing units and provide a place for storing wine glasses and other items.
The clients wanted to return the flat to its former grandeur and elegance, while creating something truly unique, and practically every decorative element was designed to their specific requirements. As well as the specialist joinery for each room, we designed and commissioned the chandeliers for the reception rooms and the dining room table. Fabrics and trims were embroidered, printed, and woven to order. Even the floral paintings in the dining and living rooms were commissioned to blend seamlessly with the palette of soft pinks, greys and greens that were used throughout. Only the galley kitchen with its olive green high gloss doors, porcelain tiled floor and Corian worksurface strikes a distinctively modern note. The result is a layered, decorative scheme of subtle complexity and great beauty.
It was such a privilege to be able to work on a project like this. The clients were delighted and, frankly, so were we.