On a long, winding road in south-east London lies an enclave of design enthusiasts.
An artist and jeweller live cheek-by-jowl with an actor, architects and a mid-century furniture dealer in a row of eight houses, set behind courtyard gardens and shaded by trees, designed in 1964 by architect Norman Starrett.
Product designer Stephanie Whelan and her graphic designer husband, David McFarline, joined them three years ago when they moved into the three-bedroom house in Forest Hill.
The previous owner had gutted the place, stripping it of its mid-century character, so the couple resolved to restore as much as possible of its Sixties spirit. The first task they tackled was the downstairs, a space that had originally been broken up into zones but had been turned into a lacklustre open space by a previous owner.
“We’re not into fancy designer kitchens, and an Ikea kitchen, even with some nice fronts, didn’t feel right to define the space,” says McFarline, who came across Uncommon Projects on Instagram. Faced with something of a blank canvas, the couple enlisted the studio specialising in plywood to help them make a kitchen that wasn’t too “kitchen-y”.
“I’d roughed up some sketches but they were almost immediately thrown out,” says Whelan. Instead, the company’s co-founder, Alan Drumm, a former architect, suggested a more defined and economical use of the space.
The kitchen was placed in the middle of the floorplan, sectioned off from the living room with floor-to-ceiling cupboards, which function as shelves for the couple’s record collection on the living-room side. There’s also a nook that will one day be a bar, but these plans are on hold for now (not worth the mess or stress with their two-year-old son, Fionn).
Uncommon Projects was keen to use the space’s footprint to the max with an emphasis on clever storage ideas. Cabinets are made from birch plywood covered in a black laminate, offset by bright white countertops. “They weren’t really doing dark kitchens [in 2019] — it was more lighter tones and painted finishes. But they took the black out and said, ‘Do you fancy this?’” says McFarline. Smart and sleek, they did indeed.
“When it became obvious that the kitchen was going to be a big part of how the downstairs would come together, we were prepared to throw a bit of money at it,” says McFarline. The couple spent about £35,000 on the kitchen design, not including the cost of appliances — they splashed out on a Miele oven and a near-cult hoodless Bora extractor fan, ideal for kitchen island cookers.
Parquet flooring reclaimed from a school runs through the entire downstairs. Although not the original five finger design (‘so delicate, it’s tricky to salvage and relay,’ says Whelan ), it gives the space a sumptuous depth.
In the lounge, a classic Eames leather chair and footstool is perched next to a grey boxy couch, while on vertiginous Vistoe shelves sits a library of heavyweight design books, a glossy black Snoopy lamp and a host of plants and ceramics. Beyond a specially commissioned staircase that nods to the original, made from Douglas fir, the parquet continues upstairs into all three bedrooms.
“The house feels quite compact but you do get a good clean bedroom. With no weird shapes or sloping bits, there’s no question where things go. It just works,” says McFarline. Minimalist and monochromatic, the master bedroom has a Scandinavian feel. A wall of wardrobes — Pax from Ikea, upgraded with doors from facade company Holt — offer stylish storage. A pair of wall-mounted Vitsoe shelves serve as bedside tables.
The light-flooded bathroom was last to be finished. “Originally [it] was two rooms, but one of the good things they did in 2011 was to knock through to make it one, and put in a bigger skylight,” says Whelan. Mosaic tiles cover the floor, while lush plants take the walls. The joinery, a mirrored cabinet and unit for the pink concrete sink (from Kast), was also done by Uncommon Projects.
The garden was a lockdown project undertaken with the heft of a landscaper (McCormack Noble) and the eye of a designer (Bulb + Branch). It’s now a layered and wild space featuring a flight of concrete steps softened by shrubbery planted in beds behind each slab, with different elements — a giant fern, a rusted water feature and a seating area — at varying levels as you ascend.
The couple funded the renovation with money made on the sale of their former home, a 1930s flat also in Forest Hill, which they bought in 2013 for close to £275,000 and sold for £425,000.
They also got a good deal on their new house, which they bought for £575,000, a £75,000 discount on the original asking price, which they had budgeted for.
Now they feel they’ve given the house the treatment it deserves, with a blend of old and new. “We’d do very little, if anything, differently except maybe just tidying up the courtyard out front,” says McFarline. Judging by the couple’s commitment to good design, it’s unlikely to be long before it’s done.