Making a Victorian home work for the 21st Century home

The brief that Irish architect Michael Drain received from swimwear designer Alexandra Miro was simple: “I just want the wow factor.”

Alexandra’s home is a Victorian terraced townhouse in sought-after Hampstead in North London. It’s a leafy spot that boasts residents such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Capaldi, Alan Bennett and Abby Clancy.

“It’s really expensive real estate but they all feel very much the same when you get inside,” says Michael. “You don’t get your floor area. You just pay to be there so the area inside your house has to be really special.”

Even though the house runs over five floors, it had essentially one function per floor. Alexandra also wanted to extend the kitchen and dining area on the lower ground floor, rejig the bedrooms on the upper floors but not lose any floor space.

In mood, she was after something very specific. “We wanted something quite clean, quite minimalist, something that was quite serene,” says Alex.

Michael and his company Michael Drain Architects had completed a series of art galleries over the years. “I’d seen Michael’s work before because he had designed my mother’s gallery,” says Alexandra.

Her mother is Victoria Miro, who is well-known on the contemporary art scene with galleries in London and Venice as well as an office in New York.

Michael had also designed her mother’s apartment, so Alexandra was confident he could translate the scaled-back look to a home.

“People say it’s all very hard and severe to have a minimalist aesthetic, but I find it very calm and relaxing, and if you’ve been out and about like Alex, flying about the world, it’s nice to come back to somewhere that’s like a little oasis.”

“I’ve grown up surrounded by art and artists so I would imagine that has some bearing on my design and my creative eye,” says Alexandra of her style. “I didn’t study design but have in effect become a designer so I would definitely imagine it has some bearing.”

The resort wear label Alexandra Miro (alexandramiro.com) is just two years old. Already, though, her swimwear has featured in glossies such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and her collection has evolved to include sheer floaty skirts, kaftans and palazzo pants available at Selfridges and mytheresa.com.

What Michael did

Top of the design list was how to achieve that wow factor. Michael reached back to his childhood. While he grew up in Hollywood, Co Down, “a place famous,” he says, “for being perfectly ordinary”, he often visited Dublin. And he credits a terrace of houses overlooking the sea on Coliemore Road in Dalkey as being a big influence on his architectural style. “I strongly remember the way in which the whole house was a celebration of the staircase with rooms off each half landing as it cascaded down to the cliff edge.”

He also borrowed ideas from the medieval tower houses that used to dot the Irish countryside. A spiral-like turn on the stairs, slotted windows, even the rope-like handrail.

“As an architect,” he says, “you can take yourself very seriously or you can choose to be a bit playful. I like to imagine what it would be like if you were a kid so the idea that you’re living in a castle is really nice, hence the big slot windows.”

The redesigned timber stairs sits in a rectangular space but has curved walls on the turns. “The toughest bit was just getting that ease of ascent so it doesn’t feel like a terraced house, so it feels like you’re in something grand,” says Michael.

Space saver

The new stairs were also more compact so each floor has gained space. In addition, the basement or ground floor has been extended to the rear into a courtyard garden. “We’ve taken out most of the walls in the house. So if you’re in the lower ground floor, the kitchen and dining room runs front to back and the staircase is on the side.”

“He opened up all the spaces,” says Alex. He also dug down to give extra ceiling height. “With the kitchen he extended into what was already a small garden trying to get as much light and space and open these very small rooms up.”

In fact, the kitchen looks like a gallery. Everything is hidden away behind floor-to-ceiling storage that looks like a flat wall. There are no visible handles. And there is that enormous island.

“We wanted quite a monolithic island,” says Alex of her 4.65m countertop. “All the detail is in that really long island. It’s the central feature and we didn’t want to see any clutter – fridges, etc. We wanted something really clean but impactful.”

“Alex likes cooking,” points out Michael, “and therefore the kitchen has to be fully functional. And if you’re going to stick an island in – the issue is it’s not very ergonomic if you’re trying to work in a kitchen and you’re on one side and some of the stuff you want is on the other. But it’s cool and it makes the space feel better.”

The stone was sourced in Verona, Italy. “It’s a quartzite so slightly more durable than a marble so you get an incredible graining and texture on it,” says Alex. “I think if you’re having a minimalist design, you have to look at all the details. I think that island is very peaceful and I think as it gets older it will become more beautiful and more complex.”

“You just can’t help but stroke it on the way past,” says Michael, “It’s tactile, it’s not a flat piece of stone.”

While Alex’s work takes her around the world, she likes, when possible, to work from home. “I have a small team and we tend to work at the kitchen table.”

The upper ground floor has an entrance hall, sitting room, and a guest WC tucked into the rear where the old staircase used to be, while the first floor has become the master bedroom with en suite. The second floor houses the bedroom and bathroom of Alexandra’s 10-year-old daughter, and has the potential to be divided into two bedrooms. The third floor comprises a big guest bedroom, bathroom and a terrace.

Living like Marie Kondo

In a minimalist house, Alex and Michael both agree, storage is everything. Especially as Alex admits that she is no Marie Kondo. “I’d like to say I am but I’m extremely messy. I hide everything behind the cupboards. I try to be mindful but I’m not. I’ve got a young daughter and it’s very difficult – as everyone will tell you – when you’re trying to live in a minimalist place.”

Art house

In such a pared-back project the details become crucial. “The bit I like the most is the timber detailing on the stairs as they curve around the corner where we’ve mitred them,” says Michael. “It just looks like a bit of cabinetry. I really like that and I really like the little vertical windows on the staircase. Alex added one of them, which I think made a complete transformation.”

There are other elements adapted from a gallery – the shadow detailing where the walls meet the ceiling and floor. The lack of frames on doors and windows. The translucent blinds instead of curtains on all the windows that make the rooms seem to float. And the fact that all of what Michael calls ‘the architectural jewellery’ is hidden – “the geeky stuff that ages a property, all the hi-fi stuff and the door handles”.

Michael used gallery-style lighting that is recessed to allow Alex to hang her art wherever she likes. “There is a plus to having your mother own a gallery,” laughs Alex. “A lot of the art is on loan. It is really nice to live with those pieces. I really love the Secundino Hernandez in the living room,” she says of the large abstract work by the Spanish artist.

It’s all deceptively simple, which is of course the plan. “Ten or 15 years ago, the British ideal in architecture was to show these architectonic engineering type details – architects like Grimshaw, Hopkins, Richard Rogers [who designed the Pompidou centre and the Millennium Dome], etc, show you how it’s all built – look how clever I’ve been. We’d actually prefer for you to have no idea at all how it’s built so it becomes a little more abstract.”

All that contained behind a traditional Victorian facade. “We didn’t nudge around the exterior,” Michael adds. “When you’re in a gentrified part of the world, you keep your public face nice and clean. So it’s just the inside that’s playful.”

Alexandra is thrilled, “it’s everything that I wanted. Michael did a fantastic job to create a space and it was challenging because these houses are not naturally spacious and bright but he has done something very innovative and has definitely given me the wow factor.”

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