Cool Eclecticism Among Luxury Knightsbridge Apartments
GDC interiors – a renowned UK based interior design practice – recently faced an interesting challenge: how to turn a once busy laboratory into a luxurious and sophisticated Knightsbridge apartment.
There were of course never any bespectacled scientists in white coats, crusty Petri dishes or hazchem signs – hardly appropriate in a grand 19th century part-stucco Knightsbridge building on Harrods’ doorstep. This was in fact an interior design lab where the designers experimented and tested ideas of light, materials, and furnishings.
After years of faithful service it was time to say goodbye to the lab, which was to be kitted out for the owners of GDC Interiors as a home and occasionally rented out. The root-and-branch refurbishment was relatively straightforward and included new bathrooms, new kitchen, new wiring and plumbing and the insertion of a large roof lantern to create another reception room and bathroom. Designing for yourself is one thing, but if you’re hoping to rent your home out to others then you have quite a challenge. The hazards and many pitfalls of run-of-the-mill ‘show flats’ was ever present in the minds of the designers as they embarked on this project. We all know the kind of thing – the universal cookie-cutter blandness with exactly the same furniture and ‘art works’, all rented from the same hire company; the scheme plucked from the developers handbook. There they are in their legions, plastered all over estate agent windows and weighing down the property pages – all emblazoned with the word ‘Luxury’.
The developer’s show apartment may be dull – but its anti-christ of ‘express yourself’ individualism is positively fearsome: walls awash in lurid alien-blood purple, art works better suited to the set of Game of Thrones and over ostentatious furnishings that scream ‘Luxury’ to some and Halloween to others. Walking the design tightrope between Scylla and Charybdis is of course the daunting task.
The point is that in essence interior design is a totemic expression of the personality of the end user, with its bringing together of a selection of highly revealing choices. Whether we like it or not, the way we dress and decorate our homes can be as revealing as an autobiography or self-portrait – sometimes more so.
Moreover this theatre set of our lives acts like a kind of branded mission statement to the world, and the canny have often been quick to exploit its potential. The GDC interiors team were therefore aware that their task was to project a kind of generic ‘personality’ – and one which many of us can identify with. This they achieved by tapping into cultural currents on the centre ground. Of course they also needed to be sensitive to both architectural context and location.
Whether we like it or not, the way we dress and decorate our homes can be as revealing as an autobiography or self-portrait – sometimes more so
21st Century Modernist Metropolitanism
The first of four main themes the designers opted for – is of a cool 21st century modernist metropolitanism. And this is immediately visible on entering the apartment directly from the tree-lined setting via its own front door. There it is with the clean lines and muted colour scheme of whites, greys and up-lifting greens – like the glossy white lacquer kitchen units, chunky white stone worktops, white oak floors and grey-green sofa; the use of over-sized and natural materials – like the huge stone tiles and worktops, with fewer breaks for the brain to dwell on; and reflective surfaces to expand rather than confine.
Powerfully enlivening GDC interiors’ drawing room scheme like a big jolt of electricity, is a striking arrangement of digital works by self-trained contemporary artist Lawrie Hutcheon – that certainly passes the crude Ten-Second Test. If any work of art engages your attention for at least ten seconds – it has some value. Not only does this work command your attention, but grouped together these bold and mesmerising digital works, with their mind-bogglingly detailed forms have a deceptively 3-D architectural impact.
Hutcheon – who has a science/mathematical background – started off as a ceramicist working in the muted hues of wheel-thrown stoneware, before graduating to 2-D. “Along with the obvious changes brought about by the move to two dimensions, perhaps the bigger change is the move from subdued colour palettes, (typical of stoneware glazes fired to 1270 degrees celsius) to the expanded range of colour available to me now, in a way, colour has hit me like a train!” Says Hutcheon, “My experience reminds me of an interview with David Hockney when he described his revelation of light and colour after moving from an often overcast, grey England to the intense, sun filled, blue skies of California in the 60’s.”
Picking up on some of the colours and mind-altering character of Hutcheon’s work is an exceptionally beautiful one meter diameter rose-tinted convex mirror. Designed by Collier Webb – who design and make the highest quality metalwork, lighting and furniture – this magical object that is framed in bronze, creates a strong focal point above a geometric stepped limestone fireplace. Convex mirrors may traditionally be associated with period designs, but the subtle and unusual tinting creates a timeless playfulness that could work in any interior. Seeing your world optimistically reflected back at you through the soft pink glow of a giant rose tinted lens, is of course a very seductive prospect – and everybody should have one.
As your eye scans the drawing room, the confident modernist forms of Sotis Filippides’s two ceramic sculptures jump out at you. The first is a large abstract series of concentric circular bowls, with subtle glazing and partly highlighted in platinum. The other is a black and white textured raised bowl – both are distinctly redolent of an Oscar Niemeyer masterpiece. Greek born Sotis – who is undoubtedly one of London’s most brilliant ceramicists – has received much recognition for his expertly thrown and crafted work. But reach out to pick one up and you find your eyes have deceived you. They may look weighty, but turn out to be remarkably light. “While I try to make my work as light and fine as possible” he says, “I want it to appear heavy, as if it were made from another material, such as wood or stone.”
There is something strangely portentous about Sotis’ pieces. Perhaps it’s the gravitas of his futuristic and planetary forms that are unexpectedly made from such a low-tech and humble material as clay – displaying with pride and honesty their origins with their rustic textures and muddy hues. Perhaps it’s also the nobility of a craft and art form – that goes back to the earliest of human civilisations – fashioning our future out of mud, just as God the master potter, is said to have created us. The circularity of making futures out of pasts – as clay is composed of everything that ever lived and died – is also compelling. This a kind of futurism we can all sign up to.
these bold and mesmerising digital works have a deceptively 3-D architectural impact
‘Eclecticism’ is another distinct design theme – reflecting the increasingly broad preferences of tastemakers, collectors and fairs like PAD and Masterpiece. Gone are the days when interiors were historicist period pieces – whether 18th century maximalism or nothing-in-sight minimalism. Eclecticism really is a modern expression of individualism – entirely free of the tyranny of other people’s ideas. GDC interiors’ striking display of art works and decorative objects from all over the world best demonstrates this eclectic principle. For their Knightsbridge project the designers have brought together paintings, sculpture and photography from North and South America, Russia, France and the UK; decorative objects and furniture from Croatia, Morocco, Mexico and Africa.
A fine 19th century plaster head of Hermes is juxtaposed with a midcentury sideboard and abstract silkscreen prints. In another room a witty Soviet cut-out portrait of Lenin from the 60s is arranged with an original still-life photograph by Horst, a Bloomsbury era painting, and a vintage Bakelite and brass electric fan from the 40s. No priceless treasures here – but each piece is nevertheless superbly crafted and a fine example of its category. It certainly doesn’t need to be a Picasso – and money doesn’t guarantee ‘good taste’ – but the quality of the object should effortlessly radiate – and here it assuredly does.
Positioned at eye level within a conservatory roofed space and giving the calming illusion of a well-stocked hothouse, are a pair of large ‘foliage mirrors’ designed by Ben Dray of Saligo Design. Rear painted mirrors have for centuries been used to great effect in creating attractive theatrical illusions in decorative schemes. Ben Dray’s foliage mirrors work on the same underlying principle of creating the impression of non-existent exotic plants, whose lingering reflections have been captured by the mirror, long after the plants have gone.
Ben’s interest in mirror art developed following some work on a baroque interior for television in 2006. “The mirror works particularly well with foliage, giving the impression of looking out of a window through dark silhouetted leaves”, explains Ben, “In this way the image is striking and dramatic but not confrontational, adding to the sense of space by appearing to draw the outside in.”
At first sight Brixton-based artist John Workman’s moonlit landscape appears to be a depiction of a charming Romantic Claudian scene. The work is however as multilayered in its construction – bitumen on various layers of glass – as it is in meaning. The Oxford educated artist who has also variously been employed as a decorator and mower of graves, likes to quote David Lynch: “Black has depth … you can go into it … and you start seeing what you’re afraid of. You start seeing what you love, and it becomes like a dream.”
The many midcentury modern pieces – both original and contemporary reworkings – are a clue to the third design theme. It wasn’t that long ago that midcentury style was scoffed at, and many of granny’s ‘vintage’ pieces ended up in skips and junk shops. In the last 15-20 years it has become so uber cool that its powerful silhouettes have come to dominate nearly every corner of the retail market – and values are rising faster than a speeding ticket. Design trends come and go, but midcentury modern – which after 20 years has surely earned the title ‘classic’ – seems here to stay.
GDC interiors’ eclectic and seamless blending of a few key midcentury pieces with both antique and contemporary, immediately creates an atmosphere of cool sophistication. Acting as a focal point in amongst the banana tree foliage of the conservatory-roofed study for example, is an extremely fine set of 1960’s Croatian wicker chairs and table – all perched on slender hairpin legs. It really is all in the silhouette. Those highly distinctive hairpin legs reappear to great effect on the low but long sideboard by Tracy Bourne in the drawing room; and is perfectly complimented by the evocative Damon Roberts silkscreen prints – reminiscent of the cool Spirograph patterned 60s and 70s album covers and posters.
But midcentury is unexpectedly diverse. It’s not just the modernist simplicities of Eames, Saarinen and Florence Knoll. Whether the midcentury purists like it or not, the midcentury label also applies – at least chronologically – to a highly decorative synthesis of old and new.
An excellent example of this is the stunning triffid-like brass sculpture of a plant positioned to the side of the fireplace, that is a 60’s creation by the famous Maison Jansen. Its otherworldly lotus-like flowers light up, casting a forest of shadowy forms around the room. Founded in 1880, Maison Jansen was the first truly global and phenomenally successful interior design company. To cope with the monumental number of bespoke furnishings needed to equip mega commissions for European royalty as well as the White House, Maison Jansen soon evolved from designer to designer-maker.
The firm forged a highly distinctive style known as Modern Regency or Hollywood Regency, by fusing traditional European design with Vienna Secession, Modernism and Art Deco. This plant sculpture/light in GDC interiors’ drawing room is an excellent example of this style, that became a huge hit particularly in America, and which is enjoying a universal revival today.
A burnished metal sculpture of a multi-leafed plant set onto a lump of rock on the right of the mantle, is a 60s brutalist American version of the style. While the brass parrot sculpture – by super cool Mexican artist Sergio Bustamente and silver porcupine mirror – in the master bedroom are more recent versions of it.
Modern Regency or Hollywood Regency – a huge hit in America and enjoying a universal revival today
Upcycled art, Upcycled furniture and Upcycled lives
Whilst ‘sustainability’ is only a buzzword on a checklist for many, it is of particular concern to the design team at GDC interiors, who actively promote sustainable business and creative practices. The team readily admit to being conflicted out of a concern for the wastefulness and pollution of both ends of the supply chain of their industry. It is universally acknowledged that the environmental impact of interior architecture and design practice is immense.
“Caught in a velvet lined and lucratively lubricated pincer between the depleting, polluting, biodiversity-extinguishing manufacturers on the one side; and the ever growing torrent of equally harmful waste into the atmosphere, landfill and the oceans on the other, the interior design industry – like every other industry – often seems resigned to the inevitable.” Explains Raci of GDC interiors. “We buy from sustainable suppliers and promote reclaimed, recycled and particularly ‘upcycled’ products wherever possible. But although we are happy not just to rearrange, but reupholster or even redesign the deck chairs – the ship however may still be sinking.”
You’d have to be Sleeping Beauty not to have heard of ‘Upcycling‘ – the reuse of discarded objects or materials in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original. One man’s rubbish is clearly another man’s treasure, and the upcycling market has not just expanded – it’s exploded. The number of products for example on the online market place Etsy tagged with the word “upcycled” has increased by about 1000% since January 2010.
Artists may prefer to call their practice ‘appropriation’, ‘ready mades’ or ‘transforming found materials’, but simply put – its ‘upcycling’, and it goes back to the early 20th century with Marcel Duchamp and his infamous urinal. Conceptualists like Damien Hirst with his shark, or Tracey Emin with her unmade bed, may have jumped onto this bandwagon, but African artists like El Anatsui and Romuald Hazoume have truly tapped into the medium in a convincing way. Very much in the tradition of the latter, Cleo Mussi – whose three exceptionally fine mosaic faces are displayed in the study – describes her work as “drawing with china”.
The slogan on Cleo Mussi’s website neatly hints at the circularity of her practice: “Without breakers, there are no makers; without makers, there are no breakers.” Mussi creates mosaic sculptures – some vast others quite small – of faces, chimeras, magical hybrids and a myriad of other fantastical objects. These are constructed from hundreds of pieces of carefully clipped crockery. The narrative within her work is reflected within the recycled ceramic that she incorporates: “Chinese ceramic meets Wedgewood, Poole sits next to Japanese porcelain and Staffordshire unites with Homebase to form a unique and motley collection of work.” – Mussi
Of course upcycling doesn’t just transform rubbish – it can also transform lives. An epiphany at a garden centre led Tracy Bourne to research restoration and decoupage techniques online. Looking on at some rather unlovely shabby chic furniture, the creative potential immediately dawned on her. Before long both she and her husband – a former prison officer – were happily at work in their new career and Boogaloo Boutique was born. Bourne is a furniture artist based on the South Coast of England in the seaside village of Southsea and specialises in upcycled and bespoke furniture. She takes a piece of well-made furniture, sourced at antique markets and auctions, and gives it a new and exciting twist.
The majority of her upcycled pieces are antique, retro or vintage, and as such come with a history of use which is reflected in their appearance. “I use traditional techniques to preserve the heritage and craftsmanship of the piece” explains Tracy, “and, where possible I use eco-products and materials from local independent suppliers.” For GDC interiors, Bourne has ingeniously worked her upcycling magic on a handsome midcentury modern sideboard. She has restored, repaired and cleverly decoupaged a strong smoky Ellie Cashman floral motif to its surface, reimagining this midcentury classic in a totally unique 21st century direction.
Like their high profile previous show flat project in Belgravia, the GDC interiors team have once again shown that there is nothing run-of-the-mill about their endeavours. You may be in the beating heart of Knightsbridge, but shut the door – and you are in your own private universe; one that is cool, calm, comfortable, and stylishly surrounded by carefully chosen pieces with their characterful narratives. Those laboratory experiments in interior possibilities have clearly been well rewarded. The apartment may not have been designed specifically with you in mind – but how easily it becomes you.