From Blank Canvas To Dream Home

22nd August 2014

Turning a sad shell of a property into a home that people covet and want to live in is a huge challenge. Jill Glenn meets father and son Stephen and Gordon Wax – a Stanmore-based architect and a Radlett-based interior designer – who have just finished a demanding project for a client in Friern Barnet.

It’s unusual to have the opportunity to completely transform a property that’s barely five years old, but this house was, in Stephen Wax’s words, ‘just a stock development… not well put together’. Stephen has been working with this particular client on different homes for 15 years, and the mutual trust and understanding that they have established was crucial in making a project with so many major changes run smoothly. It took ten months from start to finish; when I meet the Waxes on site the client has just moved back in a few days previously, and the place still has a new and slightly naked air ­­– although it’s evident that all the work has been impeccably planned and implemented. The art is still to be specified, so the walls are plain… but that just allows us to appreciate the bare bones of the reconstruction.

Stephen focused on three main areas: to maximise the light (a tip that all home owners can benefit from) and to make the most of the entrance hall – and to ensure, of course, that the refurbishment and interior design achieved the high standard that the client was looking for. There’s plenty of natural light – “an architect’s dream” – and as the house overlooks open land, a real opportunity to bring the outside in.

Along with a wraparound extension that has created a vast kitchen and dining area segueing beautifully along the back of the house into an impressive living space, there are full width bifold doors that deliver that magic sense of openness.

The hall, which was formerly small, narrow and dark has stolen space from the garage, creating a wide, light space perhaps 3m x 4m, “to set the tone of the house”. There are glass doors all around, leading to the former dining room, now reborn as a study (“dedicated rooms for dining are no longer in fashion”, Stephen explains), and to both the kitchen and living room – which also interconnect via double doors part way down and by that open space at the far end. The study has glass doors giving onto the living room, creating an imponderable number of permutations for routes around the ground floor. Small children would love it.

They’d probably love the technology, too. The house now has a “moderately sophisticated” home automation system. which controls air conditioning, heating, lighting, security/ cctv and all the audio-visual equipment. There are speakers everywhere, and Apple TV. “You can control it all from anywhere in the house, from outside, even from abroad.” The client confesses he’s still getting used to the technology and Stephen encourages him to have fun with it. Find a teenager, or even a toddler, to help, I suggest.

Upstairs, where once there were four bedrooms and three bathrooms, a front extension has delivered four bedrooms each with its own ensuite (three with showers, one with shower and bath). It’s a very high class family home, with an air of boutique hotel about it: quite a masculine, formal style, each room roughly similar, but lifted with a dark jewelly colour. The vanity units in each ensuite match the curtains in the bedroom, and the inside of the soft-close bathroom cabinet doors are finished in the same shade. The cushions match the headboards; the paint all custom-mixed. Even the grout for the bathroom tiles is bespoke.

Gordon, the interior design half of the family partnership behind the reconstruction, was flattered to be given free rein in specifying the interior contents and finishes. The interplay of colour and texture, in a palette of mainly muted tones, creates a feeling of restrained, simple opulence…
“The scheme was sorted out in two meetings,” he tells me. “It’s unheard of.” The kitchen cupboards, fashionably high gloss, are finished in a shade I feel deserves a more elaborate description than ‘grey’, which really doesn’t do its subtlety justice. “Call it donkey,” suggests Gordon. The fittings are all stainless steel, all integrated: in the centre of the island worksurface (less of an island and more of a continent, to be accurate) there’s a steel circle, for example. “What’s that?” I ask, and Gordon presses on it lightly to reveal a pull-up block of electrical sockets, instantly at hand to provide power for Kitchen Aid or Kenwood Chef. It’s very pleasing.

The attention to detail doesn’t stop there, of course. In the living room, for example, feature lighting above the the sofas helps with zoning, so that the room feels intimate rather than huge and soulless. A wing chair, designed by Gordon (much of the furniture here is bespoke) sits near the big windows, creating a space in which to relax, away from the grandeur of the overall idea. “I chose to get large with the furniture,” he explains, “to give the illusion of space without putting things in for no reason.” It sounds counter-intuitive to me, but it works.

Overall, everything is angular with clean, straight lines. There’s a semi-industrial vibe here, Gordon explains, with a square theme, neutrals enlivened with oranges and tangerines and some clever accessories. Gordon’s not ashamed to admit that he has an eye for a neat bargains. While the wall lights were £2,000 each, the polished horns on the glass coffee table were picked up for a song from TX Maxx. They help offset the hard edges, as do the rug, designed by Gordon and made in Nepal, and the soft furnishings, for which he is keen to credit his supplier, Simone Mire, of Very Well Hung Curtains in Edgware, responsible for the many cushions and for the grey velvet curtains that will create a wonderful warmth in this big room in winter. “She can do anything,” he enthuses. He mentions another of his ‘trade secrets’, too: Tamara Mattingly, of Fabulous Finishes in Harrow, who has produced stunning bespoke painted effects for the hall, stairs and landings.

It’s generous of him to acknowledge his colleagues, because it's clear that he’s put a huge amount of work into this himself, and has a great deal emotionally invested in the project, his biggest of the year so far. Despite the scale he describes it as “quite a straightforward project, really…” and I sense he’s sad to see it come to an end. “It’s weird being an interior designer,” he says. “I know this house better than the clients do. It’s not my home… but it’s my baby.”

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