How a Barbican-inspired extension added a multi-functional kitchen/art gallery to this Victorian terrace home

Katherine Oliver in her extension  (Juliet Murphy)
Katherine Oliver in her extension (Juliet Murphy)

Needing a new extension to her modest Victorian terrace that would double as a contemporary art gallery and high-traffic kitchen-dining-living space for her family of four, Katherine Oliver called on local architecture practice Delve to bring her Mediterranean/brutalist vision to life.

After working with emerging and established artists at the Royal Academy for 15 years, first on the RA’s Summer Exhibition, then as curator of its art sales programme, Oliver decided to go it alone in 2019.

She established own nomadic art gallery, Oliver Projects, specialising in works on paper and ceramics, with an emphasis on south-east London artists.

“I’ve had pop-up shows in many different places — an architect’s house, an empty shop and gallery spaces — but they’ve all had a domestic aspect. I don’t think art works as well in cold, white boxes; I prefer a warmer, more welcoming setting.”

 (Juliet Murphy)
(Juliet Murphy)

In the meantime, Oliver and her husband felt that they were outgrowing the Camberwell house they had lived in since 2007.

She was already showing Oliver Projects’ work in her living room when the couple decided to create some extra space by extending into the side return and out to the rear: “I knew from the start that it would have to work as a gallery, too.”

Space out

The first architect she spoke to was Ed Martin at Delve. “I like to work with local people whenever possible as there’s so much talent in south-east London. Ed really engaged and understood what we wanted and seemed excited about the idea,” says Oliver.

 (Juliet Murphy)
(Juliet Murphy)

Perhaps the clue is in the practice name, as Martin explains: “Delve means explore and investigate, which is what we do in order to create each client’s dream space.”

The pair brought a selection of inspirational images to their first meeting with Delve, including Mediterranean courtyards full of herbs and flowers and brutalist architecture, in particular from the Barbican arts centre and housing estate. “My first gallery job was there and we have always loved the architecture,” says Oliver.

On projects like this in which party walls are involved, Martin urges clients to talk to their neighbours early on, as Oliver did.

“It avoids the shock of a letter from the council and in this case we found out that the neighbours planned to infill their side return, too, so we were able to ensure that they could build up against our design.”

 (Juliet Murphy)
(Juliet Murphy)

The extension bought the family 20 square metres of extra space, with a whole wall of sliding glass opening on to the garden and the railway line wildlife corridor beyond. “It’s such an unusual view in London, I think that’s why we’ve stayed here so long,” says Oliver.

Modest but multifunctional

While others opt for huge statement kitchens, Oliver was adamant that this area should be relatively modest.

“I didn’t want it to dominate the room or interfere with the exhibition space.” The cabinets are by Pluck, another example of local talent, based in nearby Brixton.

 (Juliet Murphy)
(Juliet Murphy)

In order to ensure that the space could successfully double as a gallery, the priority was generous storage, enough for all the paraphernalia of family life to be quickly and easily put away.

The tall bank of sweet chestnut cupboards has provided plenty of space for coats and outdoor stuff, as well as a fridge-freezer and a good-sized larder.

The adjoining bank of low-level cupboards has room for all the children’s things. This bank of storage also plays a secret role disguising the angled wall that previously spoiled the clean lines of the room.

“The house was on a diagonal but we wanted everything to be flush and perfectly square,” says Martin with evident satisfaction.

 (Juliet Murphy)
(Juliet Murphy)

As well as display shelves that can be adjusted easily, the plastered ceiling houses a concealed picture hanging system, allowing Oliver to configure any display of art without visible fixings. There is also versatile lighting to show each piece best.

Similar low-key ingenuity was applied to the problem of privacy. A large roof light was essential to brighten the depths of the new room, but Oliver’s husband was concerned at the prospect of being overlooked.

The solution was to punctuate the opening with birch ply “fins” that screen that space, just as a slatted blind would, and the void was lined in the same warm-hued ply.

“Birch ply is hard to get at the moment because it comes from Siberia but oak, Douglas fir and veneers are good alternatives,” advises Martin.

Warm finish

“It was a bold decision to go for brick, but Ed encouraged us to use it on both walls and the terrace, too, rather than watering it down to one feature wall,” says Oliver. While the brick feels like an ultra-simple idea, Martin flags up the need for careful planning.

 (Juliet Oliver)
(Juliet Oliver)

“Often minimalism is the hardest thing to create, but behind the scenes there are pipes, cables and a boiler flue — all of which has to be thought out in advance,” he says.

If the walls nod to the Barbican influence, the floor, with its large terrazzo tiles, references the Mediterranean side of the clients’ wish list. “We looked at poured concrete but it’s expensive and these tiles bring in colour in a subtle way that doesn’t fight with the art,” says Martin.

With the whole project coming in at £175,000 plus VAT, and taking just a little over six months to complete, the family are delighted with the sense of light and space.

“It has been really transformative, particularly on hectic school mornings, which suddenly feel so much more calm,” says Oliver.

And her clients can view art in the more conventional living room and then be wowed as they move through to the back of the house. “It opens up and feels like a real surprise,” she says.

Best of all is the way the space quickly adapts between its two roles. “I only have to do a quick sweep of the surfaces, pick some flowers from the garden, and the gallery is ready to go.”

@delvearchitects; @oliverprojectslondon

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