An Irish architect reimagines his period family home in London with a modern attitude and a flair for finding fabulous furniture …
When remodelling his stunning 19th-century home in Kensington, Irish architect Alex Cochrane described his approach as “minimalism with colour”. “I favour a pared-down aesthetic. So, while I felt parts of the house, particularly the first floor entertaining rooms, needed to be preserved in their original state, other floors could be reimagined in a contemporary manner benefiting from the vast volumes and substantial floor plates.”
It was those impressive proportions, along with extraordinarily high ceilings and fine ornamental detailing, that originally drew Cochrane and his Irish-born wife Alannah Weston to the 1870s Victorian nestled in a quiet square in the busy capital. Years of slapdash overpainting had obscured the first floor living room’s fine Georgian-style plasterwork so a meticulous restoration project was embarked on to gently remove the layers of paint and reveal the beautiful period embellishments.
Although a century of general wear and tear had led to the steps being filled with grimy resin, the Portland staircase still looks wonderful: “Rather than carpet over this resin, I thought it best to leave it on show because it provided an interesting textural appearance. Alannah however would have preferred it all covered over with carpet!”
While appreciating the classical and period architecture of the structure, Cochrane’s architectural training and interest in contemporary design and in avant garde processes meant that significant structural alterations were always on the cards. “The house needed to be substantially modernised to suit our way of living. The floor layout also needed to be adjusted to allow for greater light. This was achieved by moving as many walls as we could. The house is much more open now.”
Cochrane’s appreciation of the Japanese aesthetic is evident in the minimalist design and sharp lines, particularly in the open-plan master bedroom, one of the designer’s favourite spaces. “There is a calmness that makes you forget that you are in a mega-city. I can spend hours in this room.”
Working with natural materials is part of Cochrane’s ethos and many of the design elements are constructed using wood, stone and metal. “I like to push a material’s capabilities in order to celebrate its extraordinary qualities. For instance, using full-size marble slabs in the shower instead of marble mosaic, and sourcing very long floorboards that might actually make you pause and consider the height of the tree they have been cut from.” This preference for large-format materials requires skilled workmanship to cope with the exactitude of minimalist design. Environmental impact was also taken into account during the project, with materials sourced locally as much as possible. The majority of elements are fully recyclable, plastics were avoided and while acrylics were used in the children’s bedrooms, they are 95 per cent recycled.
Although for the most part aligned on aesthetics, the couple differed somewhat over how the house would best function. “It was interesting to understand that our expectations and desires for the house often stemmed from our past experiences. We found ourselves justifying our needs by reverting to days long gone,” says Cochrane. So while he was happy to recall his own childhood memories playing in the basement of his family home and place the children’s playroom on the lower ground floor (substantially altered to be flooded with light) Alannah couldn’t stand the thought of it.
Evaluating what is important to their family was also a big consideration when it came to the more practical aspects of the build. “Designing a house is like designing a machine that will enable you to live the life that you want to live. At home, at least!”
Cochrane recognises the importance of having lots of storage in a minimalist home, and also the fact that there never seems enough: “The guitars are dotted around the house with their cables snaking everywhere and this is driving Alannah mad. I never designed a place for the guitars! One of my daughters has pet rabbits and these bunnies are hopping all around the third floor while the other loves rats and we have a huge rat cage now!”
An afternoon spent at historic Baron’s Court in Co Tyrone provided the inspiration for the magnificent library. Its dark blue – almost black – walls and striking primary red lacquered shelves with black facing pay homage to David Hick’s red cloth-lined library shelves. Extraordinary skill was required to achieve the sharp edge where the two colours meet. The lower shelves shift to lime green to provide further dynamic contrast. As with the living room, the original decorative features were preserved and restored to their original glory.
Cochrane studied painting and spatial design as well as architecture, and the house is full of collected artworks and bespoke furniture. “A big part of what my practice does is design and specify furniture. We specify furniture and lighting for nearly all our schemes and our home contains many of our own favourite pieces.” In the future he says he would like to have his own commercial workshop to build furniture and objects. He has a particular appreciation for Gerrit Thomas 637 Utrecht chairs, now something of a signature and included in many of his projects.
Current ventures for the architect and designer include a commission for Modulr Space to reinvent the garden shed as a fully insulated and sustainable structure to work in or retreat to, and a new residential home in London. Having recently carried out the redesign of Brown Thomas’ second floor, Cochrane will again be working in Ireland, this time finalising the design for an elegant Victorian theatre situated on an estate in Co Dublin.
Outside work, the busy couple enjoy visiting family and friends in Co Wicklow, where they both spent their childhood. “I look forward to the time when we can again travel and be inspired by other places and people,” says Cochrane.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALEX COCHRANE
WORDS BY RACHEL HURLEY
The living room sofas and ottoman, designed by architect Alex Cochrane, are upholstered in fine linen by La Cuona. The chandelier is from Carlton Davidson, the Gong table by Giulio Cappellini, rattan armchair by Nanna Ditzel, and Zig-Zag chair by Rietfeld. The Tacia table lamp is by Castiglioni.
The first floor landing with the original Portland stone staircase and Victorian leaded glass window.
In the living room, the fine plasterwork in the Georgian style showcasing the Victorian developer’s grand ambitions for the house, was restored, as was the stone fi replace. The wood floor was past salvaging so was replaced with parquet blocks in herringbone pattern with a walnut border. The mustard yellow curtains on bronze poles at the large French doors overlooking the garden square are fine linen by Romo. The furniture is a mix of period, modernist, vintage and contemporary pieces which Cochrane says “offset the classicism” of the space. An admirer of the work of lighting designers Achille and Pier Castiglioni, Cochrane chose both Tacia table-lights and Toio lamps here.
The David Hicks-designed library in Barons Court, Co Tyrone, was the inspiration for the library designed by Alex Cochrane. He chose a very dark navy paint shade for the walls, the ultimate background shade for art, and designed slim lacquered shelves on two of the walls, in primary red with a facing edge in black, the bottom shelves shifting to a lime green colour for contrast.
His favourite armchairs – the 637 Utrecht chairs by Gerrit Thomas – were upholstered in red and dark blue.
The kitchen is accessed off the ground floor entrance hall through a monumental bright yellow sliding door. The Portland stone of the cantilevered staircase, which runs from the ground floor to the second floor, still bears the pitting and resin filling of more than a century of use. Rather than carpet over it, Cochrane preferred the look and texture of the original.
A continuous counter lined in 30mm-thick Carrara marble runs the long length of the kitchen, returning towards the yellow sliding door and forming an L-shaped galley kitchen. On the opposite wall, there is full-height joinery containing the kitchen appliances. The Maarten Van Severen TW88 oak dining table is surrounded by vintage rosewood Model 78 and Model 62 armchairs by Niels Moller for JL Moller.
Previously three separate rooms, the open-plan kitchen now includes a relaxed sitting area in the bay window which overlooks the garden square.
Taking centre stage in the master suite, the large bed is a bespoke joinery piece that includes an oak headboard, mattress plinth and side tables. The wall behind the headboard separates the bedroom from the bathroom. Tall cupboards line the length of the corridor between the two and wide oak floorboards run interrupted between both spaces.
A built-in vanity desk, and a rattan armchair by Nanna Ditzel.
Hans Wegner’s Haylard chair is placed in the corner of the room beside an artwork by Christopher le Brun.
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