Du Cane Court, Balham SW12

Du Cane Court, Balham SW12
Art Deco apartment block
Architect: G. Kay Green
Year built: 1935-1938

Du Cane Court is a distinctive 1930s Art Deco block on Balham High Road. Reportedly the largest privately owned block of flats under one roof in Europe, its distinctive footprint was used as a navigational landmark by German pilots bombing London during the Second World War and was also a popular place to live for many music hall stars in the 1930s and 1940s.

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I’ve never been a huge fan of Art Deco as I find the aesthetic a bit too fussy and vintagey but Du Cane Court is such an iconic block in such a convenient location that when two flats came up for sale in my price range last year, I was intrigued enough to want to view them.

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First impressions were good. The block, vast and uniform, looked imposing from the road and was complemented by some attractive Japanese-style landscaping. The glamorous if slightly kitschy communal lobby was like something out of a Agatha Christie novel set in the 1930s with period furnishings, a lot of curved surfaces, pillars and gold accents.

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The flats themselves were rather less impressive. The first was a 2 bedroom flat on one of the lower floors of the building, accessed via a very long, drably carpeted corridor. Like a lot of flats from this era, it had a lateral layout with all of the rooms lined up in a row, accessed via one long corridor down the side.

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The combination of layout and the fact it was on a low floor gave the flat a slightly oppressive, gloomy feel. Looking out of the windows into the internal courtyard and the hundreds of other flats in the block (all of the rooms had the same outlook given the lateral layout) was a bit prison-like.

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The other flat was a self contained split-level maisonette with its own front door accessed via the side of the block. This was marginally better but there was something strange about the way it had been converted and renovated, particularly the downstairs kitchen and living area which was sort of open plan but sort of not. The existing owner had tried to decorate in a way that was sympathetic to the era but the aesthetic wasn’t quite to my taste.

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Although both flats were reasonably affordable and in a really convenient location from my perspective, I didn’t like either of them enough to put in an offer.

I’ve since seen a really nice example of a one bedroom flat in the block on the Modern House website. The vendor had done a very high-spec all-white renovation job, which gave the place a far more contemporary (yet still fitting) look compared to the slightly dodgy ones that I saw. Anyone seeking to renovate their Du Cane Court flat should take note!

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Mid-century dining table

After ten years of daily use, the faux-tulip Docksta table in my living room was starting to resemble a slightly grubby and scuffed piece of garden furniture (Ikea furniture isn’t generally built to last) so I thought it was time to invest in a replacement.

I’d long admired and lusted over that Hans Olsen dining set with the triangular-shaped chairs that slot neatly under the table, especially after having seen a beautiful white topped version in a flat in Stoneleigh Terrace on an Open House tour. However, I recall sitting on one of the chairs at a furniture fair and finding it really uncomfortable, especially across the back. I also thought that the combination of wooden Royal system and wooden dining set in my living room might be a bit much.

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The other option was to upgrade my faux-tulip table to the genuine article in Arabescato marble, another design item that I’ve been lusting after for a long time, which would allow me to keep my hotch potch of dining chairs.

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It so happened that a really nice example of both a white-topped Hans Olsen dining set and a genuine Knoll marble-topped tulip table in exactly the right size appeared on eBay at the same time.

After a bit of pondering, I decided to maintain my current living room aesthetic and went for the tulip table, which as luck would have it, ended up being a bit of a bargain. As you can see, it looks almost exactly the same as the old one, just a bit nicer.

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At the time of writing, the Hans Olsen set is still available to buy on eBay.

Photos of Hans Olsen table above courtesy of retroliving.co.uk

Mid-century shelving systems

When it comes to interiors, there’s nothing I like more than a good mid century-inspired wall-mounted shelving system.

I’m a bit obsessed – even though I already have that overbearing Poul Cadovius royal system and various other bits and pieces hanging up in the flat, I’m constantly on the lookout for more and have amassed a useless collection of random String brackets and shelves from sample sales over the years as a result (this will all of course go up in the mid century house that I will probably never live in).

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Not content with clogging up my own flat with this rubbish, I have taken to persuading any friend who asks me for interior decorating/furniture advice that their living room/study/bedroom/kitchen would greatly benefit from installing a wall mounted shelving system somewhere. Happily, there’s loads of choice these days – from Vitsoe to Ikea, there’s an option to suit every budget.

Here are some of my picks:

1. DK3 Royal System (from £160 for a rail to £2,200 for a workstation unit)

While I prefer the original, chunkier version of the Cado royal system, the modern slimline version reissued by dk3 is also pretty gorgeous, if eye-waveringly expensive. It comes in oak and walnut but unfortunately not rosewood.

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2. String shelving system (from £40 for a rail to £330 for a drawer unit)

Ok it’s totally ubiquitous and a bit of a Scandi cliche these days but I still think a bit of string shelving elevates any room. Having put some up in my study, I would say it looks great but it’s a little flimsy – I don’t think I would rely on the wall-mounted version to bear the weight of anything heavier than a few ornaments and paperback books.

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3. Vitsoe 606 system (prices unclear on website so I assume very expensive)

These are a tad officey-looking but I’ve seen them in various high-end homes and they always look great. If I ever decide to downsize to a studio flat in the Barbican, I would totally use a Vitsoe system to divide up the room like this guy has.

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4. La Redoute Taktik system (from £10 for the brackets to £500 for a large cupboard unit)

I have no idea what this system looks like in person but based on the photos on the website, it looks really high end and sophisticated-looking for the price. Something about it, perhaps the finish or the fact that the rails are made of metal rather than wood, gives it more of a modern than mid century appearance, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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5. Maisons du Monde Sheffield tv and shelving unit (£804)

This isn’t quite like the others as it isn’t modular/configurable and instead all comes in one piece but I do like the rails and the cabinetry going on at the bottom. It’s been styled horribly (very “show-flat-in-a-new-build-development”) in the in situ photo on the website though I’m sure it’d look alright surrounded by the right stuff.

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6. Ikea Svalnas system (from £20 for a shelf to £60 for a cabinet)

I’m actually surprised it has taken Ikea so long to bring out something like this. For the price, I think it looks amazing. I particularly like the range of accessories (desk, sliding cabinet, drawers), which are definitely String-inspired. I’m not entirely sure about the colour and grain of the wood – it’s a little orange-looking in some pictures – but I will reserve judgment until I see it in person.

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Photos courtesy of brand websites

The Homewood, Esher, KT10

The Homewood
National Trust modernist country house and garden
Architect: Patrick Gwynne
Year built: 1938

Built in the 1930s by architect Patrick Gwynne, the Homewood is a modernist masterpiece of a house surrounded by a picturesque woodland garden in affluent Esher, Surrey. The architect lived there on and off from its completion until his death in 2003 – his friends described the house as the great love of his life, presumably over and above his actual human partners. Sometime before he died, he bequeathed it to the National Trust on the condition that a family would live in it and that it would be open to the public for one day a week for six months of the year.

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I’d wanted to visit for ages so I felt particularly aggrieved when I was struck down with some kind of mystery illness on the day of my pre-booked National Trust tour. Determined not to let a bit of nausea get in the way of my visit, I somehow managed to haul myself there and get through the majority of the very informative if rather militantly run house tour (no photography, no shoes and unfortunately for me on the day, absolutely no sitting down anywhere). Despite seeing everything through a fug of sickness, I found the house and the gardens to be absolutely breathtaking.

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Like all great modernist architecture and design from the 1930s, the house and its furnishings seemed incredibly contemporary. The exterior was all modernist lines (the upper floor was partially supported by stilts – one of my favourite modernist design features), industrial materials and lots of glazing.

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Inside, the space felt largely open plan, with living areas marked out by sliding partitions and furniture arrangement. The obvious highlight of the house was the spectacular living area on the first floor, spanning the entire length of the house and featuring floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto that woodland garden.

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At one point during the visit, we encountered the tenant currently living in the house, as per the architect’s wishes. Though the tenant was clearly grateful for the opportunity to live somewhere so spectacular, some of his comments suggested that living in a National Trust period piece of a house had its disadvantages, namely having to keep everything exactly as is, no mod-cons, poor insulation during the winter and having complete strangers trample through your home every other weekend for a couple of months of the year.

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Unfortunately, that was the point that I had to bail, my nausea depriving me of the opportunity to poke around the upstairs bedrooms, bathrooms and gardens: I will certainly be returning to complete my visit before the summer is over.

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Interior photos courtesy of Dennis Gilbert/The National Trust and midcenturyhome.com

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, Barbican art gallery

I love a good exhibition at the Barbican. The brutalist gallery space with its unusual yet logical layout has played host to a run of excellent, sometimes outlandish shows over the years – the sex one and the Viktor and Rolf one with all of the creepy dollies spring to mind as being particularly memorable.

The current exhibition, a Japanese-themed extravaganza focusing on architecture and Life after 1945, was just as good as its predecessors and is likely to be remembered as the one with the Japanese house in the middle of it.

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Said house was a fully furnished 1:1 scale replica of the Moriyama House by Pritzker-prize winning architect Ryue Nishizawa from 2005. The house consisted of ten white-coloured individual units, strikingly intertwined with the brutalist architecture of the Barbican gallery space. Where the gallery obstructed the architecture of the house, the structure was sliced open to expose the domestic interior in section.

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Most of the house was fully accessible: you could amble in and out of the units and garden and the lighting of the gallery was adjusted every hour to quite convincingly mimic dawn to dusk.

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As well as the house, there were loads of interesting images, smaller scale models and videos of equally striking postwar Japanese architecture and design on display. The exhibition is on until 25 June 2017 and is well worth a visit.

 

Hyndewood, Forest Hill, SE23 

Hyndewood, Forest Hill, SE23
Mid-century extended end of terrace house
Architect: Norman Starrett
Year built: 1950s-1960s

Due to a happy change of circumstances, I’ve changed the focus of my longstanding property search from a modernist property for one to a modernist property for two.

I’ve always quite liked Forest Hill as an area – it’s commutable into the city, it has nice green spaces (including the Horniman Museum gardens with that fantastic view across to the city and Dawsons Heights), the amenities are decent with a nice mix of pointless artisan and essential shops and most importantly, it has a fair amount of nice mid century modern housing stock, including one of those Austin Vernon and partners blocks that I went to see last year and rows of less well known but still interesting-looking terraced houses.

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This house was at the end of a Norman Starrett-designed terrace down a very quiet little close containing a cluster of mid century houses and flats. It looked enormous from the floorplan due to a ground floor extension on the side of the house and appeared to have retained a lot of original 1960s features, including a very stylised kitchen and a lot of wood panelling.

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In person, the house was even perhaps bigger than I was expecting it to be. The amount of floor space on the ground floor alone was probably bigger than a lot of two bedroom flats in London that I’ve seen, containing two adjoining reception rooms (both with original parquet flooring), that very retro kitchen, a utility room and a downstairs bathroom. Patio doors led out onto a small paved garden.

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Upstairs were three bedrooms (two double, one single) and a further bathroom (this one with a very period avocado suite) and another bedroom up a further flight of stairs at the top of the house.

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The seller was an elderly lady who had lived in the flat for over thirty years and while she clearly hadn’t updated anything during that period, she had maintained everything pretty well, which meant that the house was a nicely preserved time capsule. With a small amount of cosmetic updating (repainting the walls, replacing the carpets upstairs and probably that avocado bathroom) and a bit of good mid century furniture, the house would have been absolutely beautiful.

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The house was also quite keenly priced at £600k, a decision on the seller and agent’s part to get as many offers as possible (most likely over the asking price), allowing for the property to be sold as soon as possible. We didn’t end up putting in an offer as the timing wasn’t quite right (and we had a fair amount of competition from other buyers) but this house will certainly serve as a benchmark for the purposes of our property search going forward.

Modernist makeover of Clapham flat – the results

More than eight months after posting this blog entry about my plan to give the living room in my friend’s flat a makeover, it’s finally done! I’m pleased with the finished result but then I would be: it looks like a slightly more muted and less cluttered version of my own living room. The only thing missing is some kind of wall-mounted retro shelving unit, which I would totally have snuck in if I could have.

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As I mentioned in my original post, the room is a bit of a restrictive L-shape with a very narrow section due to the way that the flat was converted (this is exactly why I prefer modernist purpose built flats to higgledy piggledy period conversions!).

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This made it a bit of a challenge to accommodate a sofa, dining table and tv in a way that made sense. The way it was arranged before didn’t work, with that massive rectangular dining table and four high backed dining chairs squashed into the narrow section of the room, the tv on a stand in the corner and not one but two humongous cuboid-shaped sofas taking up the rest of the space.

To make it feel less crowded and free up more floor space, I decided to position the sofa and tv facing each other at each end of the room and a drop-leaf circular table in between them, to be pulled out and extended as needed.

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Of the options available, I chose the Suki table from Habitat with the laminate top (it comes in black or white) as it vaguely reminded me of those Aalto 90 Series tables, which I would totally buy for my own living room if it weren’t for the fact they are only made in pale birch which would clash horribly with the rest of my furniture. As for the dining chairs, we probably could have been a bit more adventurous but we ended up going for a set of cheap and cheerful Eames DSW knock-offs.

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The sofa was a bit of a headache. We originally chose a grey version of the Mistral sofa from Heals (the same one as mine – as I said, this definitely was a case of recreating my own living room somewhere else due to my limited interior design ideas) but this wouldn’t fit up the incredibly narrow staircase leading to the flat (another reason that I prefer logically proportioned practical purpose built modernist purpose built flats to period conversions!) and neither did the hardly enormous Kotka from Made.com. We didn’t want to go for anything modular so we ended up getting the rather petite Peggy two-seater from West Elm, which the delivery men were only just about able to squeeze up those dratted stairs. Despite its size, it’s pretty comfortable especially when paired with the Strandmon footstool from Ikea though I concede it’s not quite as comfortable as the humongous blue cuboid that it replaced. The armchair is the ubiquitous but well-designed (and cheap) Ekenaset from Ikea.

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The rest of the furniture and accessories are mostly high street and internet finds: the Dansette-style record player is from Aldi of all places (credit to retrotogo.com for drawing my attention to it) and the Eames LTR side table and Poulsen Panthella lamp are pretty good knock offs from replica online stores that have now shut down due to the annoying but sort of understandable change in legislation.

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Is there anything else I would change? Probably those floating shelves in the corner – I would have replaced them with some string-style shelving but they’re actually sealed onto the wall on one side which would have created a bit of a mess of we’d tried to remove it. The walls could also do with being repainted to get rid of that slightly pinkish hue and I would ideally reposition the pendant lamp so that it hangs in the centre of the room rather than over where the old dining table used to be. These small niggles aside, I think that the newly configured room both looks and functions better than it did before and I’m grateful to my friend for indulging my amateur interior design project, which I’ve really enjoyed working on. I have my sights on the bedroom and hallway of the flat next…

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  1. Belid Felix Rise and Fall Ceiling Light, John Lewis
  2. Louis Poulsen Panthella lamp, replica bought from now defunct Voga.com but original available from Skandium
  3. Cushions, H&M Home
  4. Vince walnut sideboard, Habitat
  5. Suki round drop-leaf table, Habitat
  6. Eames DSW dining chairs, replicas bought from now defunct Vitainteriors.com but original available from Skandium
  7. Flashback coffee table, La Redoute
  8. Yves black tripod lamp, Habitat
  9. Peggy sofa, West Elm at John Lewis
  10. Strandmon footstool, IKEA
  11. Eames LTR side table, replica bought from now defunct Vitainteriors.com but original available from Skandium
  12. Ekenaset armchair, IKEA
  13. Kelim rug, Ferm Living

Modernist Pilgrimage to Las Vegas

I recently visited Las Vegas for the first time and was unsurprised to find that it wasn’t exactly overflowing with modernist architecture. That isn’t to say there was a complete absence of interesting sights. Every so often, you would see an occasional bit of fifties/sixties architecture that had somehow escaped being bulldozed in favour of yet another tacky themed hotel.

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The Neon Museum featured signs from old casinos and other businesses from Las Vegas’ past in a slightly surreal outdoor “boneyard” setting and had a spectacular restored lobby shell from the former 1950s La Concha Motel as its visitor centre (what a motel that must have been!). The boneyard stays open well into the night so you can see all of the vintage signs lit up in all of their neon glory.

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The El Cortez, one of the oldest casino-hotel properties in Las Vegas and one of the very few to have never changed its exterior facade since it was last modernised in 1952, had a slightly dodgy Spanish colonial theme going on. Whilst it wasn’t exactly typical mid century modern fare, the unmodernised facade and interiors made for an interestingly musty 1950s time capsule.

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We also came across a smattering of other interesting fifties/sixties buildings and a surprisingly good selection of retro shops, nestled in between tawdry looking chapels (including a drive-thru option apparently popular with celebrities).

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In short, if you venture away from the strip, it is possible to catch glimpses of the Las Vegas of yesteryear, which in my opinion appeared to be a more interesting and glamorous place than it is today.

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Church Garth, Pemberton Gardens N19

Church Garth, Pemberton Gardens N19
Mid-century apartment block
Architect: Unknown to me
Year built: 1960s

I have been intrigued by this 1960s apartment block in Archway ever since I saw it featured in an episode of Location, Location, Location a couple of years ago. The episode featured a nice thirty-something, creative couple seeking a 2 bedroom flat in London for about £300k (this must have been more than five years ago because that figure seems ridiculous now). The flat they ended up buying was really attractive with a good, logical layout (a nice big hall with decently proportioned rooms branching off it), parquet flooring, a balcony and lots of natural light.

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Five or so years down the line, a 2 bedroom flat came in the block came onto the market at £485k. Given the state of the ridiculously inflated market, I actually thought this was a very reasonable price for the area and went to have a look.

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The exterior of the building, the garden and thecommunal areas were exactly how I remembered them from the programme: 1960s-looking but not overly stylised. The location was also very good: about two minutes’ walk from the tube and on an attractive residential street opposite a church (probably how it got its name).

Unfortunately, the flat itself was not great. While it was very bright, with light coming in from two sides, it had a different layout to the one featured on Location, Location, Location, with an L-shaped corridor as a hall, a long narrow kitchen and a small second bedroom. The kitchen and bathroom needed replacing, everything needed repainting (and possibly replastering in places) and it was stuffed to the gills with the current tenants’ belongings (the living room was being used as a third bedroom).

I didn’t take any photos because it would have been too intrusive to do so but I did find some photos online of a recently renovated version of the same flat which sold for £515k:

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Looking at these photos, it’s difficult to believe it’s basically the same flat as the one I saw today – given the choice between the two, I think I would pay an extra 30k for all of that work to have been done by the time I moved in.

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I’m going to continue to keep an eye on the block to see if something slightly less decrepit than the one I saw comes onto the market.

 

Eames wire chair and bikini

I’ve wanted a black Eames wire chair ever since I saw this blog post on Door Sixteen so when I saw one (on a rolling base, no less!) at the annual SCP warehouse sale, I snapped it up.

SCP is known for stocking eames chairs manufactured by Modernica rather than the official licensors Vitra and Herman Miller. Although this means that Modernica chairs are not the official licensed versions, the build quality is generally considered to be better (their shell chairs are made of fibreglass rather than mounded plastic – image below courtesy of the Modernica blog) and there is more of a variety of shell and base combinations, including the combination of wire chair shell on a rolling base that I bought.

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I really liked the way my new wire chair looked uncovered but after two days of actually sitting on that unforgiving wiry seat, it became apparent that I’d need some kind of cushion. I considered various options but decided nothing would look as good as an eames-designed bikini seat pad. I found this US website which sells bikini seat pads in a variety of fabrics (I particularly liked this retro Eames pattern) but at USD$150 plus $30 shipping, it would have cost more than the price I paid for chair itself.

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I eventually bought a blue vinyl bikini pad from a very helpful eBay vendor who sells official Vitra bikini pads at a slightly less extortionate price (where he gets them from I do not know). It was a bit of a struggle to get the bikini pad on but I actually really like how it looks and the fact that the chair no longer leaves imprints on my thighs is a bonus.