When Gemma Ruse embarked on renovating her London home, her brief was simple; she wanted it to be contemporary, textural and with nothing too polished. She has achieved all that and more with a home that not only looks good but feels good, discovers Rosalind Sack
GEMMA’S STRIKING YET COSY LIVING ROOM WITH ARTWORK PRODUCED BY FRIENDS FOR THEIR BIRTHDAY AND ONE OF A PAIR OF AGATE CHANDELIERS DISCOVERED ON ETSY. IMAGE: FRAHER & FINDLAY/ADAM SCOTT
Have you ever strolled past the sweeping windows of stores such as Liberty, Diesel or Calvin Klein and wondered who is responsible for the fantastical wonderlands created beyond the glass?
Well, it just might be Gemma Ruse and her team at Studio Xag, the retail display agency she owns with her husband Xavier Sheriff. Their remit is all about creating wow moments for bold brands; from attention-grabbing window displays, to giant in-store installations.
So when they bought a run-down six-bedroom Victorian terrace in east London in 2017 and set to work renovating and extending it, the place was never going to be run of the mill. Work began in the summer of 2018 and with their now two-year-old son Raffi, they were able to move into their reconfigured home a year later. Theirs is a home that is, in many ways, the antithesis of their day job; calm, restful and muted. Yet it has striking elements of vibrancy, drama and luxury that sit seamlessly within the design.
GEMMA AND XAVIER’S BEDROOM WITH JAMIE HEYON’S FORMAKAMI CEILING LIGHT FROM &TRADITION AND THROW FROM IAN SNOW. IMAGE: FRAHER & FINDLAY/ADAM SCOTT
“Our work is very much about big, bold, bright, eye-catching temporary installations that demand to be looked at and engaged with,” says Gemma. “They are meant to pique your interest and not necessarily in a very subtle way. I think it would be a lot to live with, so we’ve tried to keep that idea of creating wow moments here, but on a subtler, quieter scale.
“We’ve tried to achieve something that is fairly calm and muted and cohesive, but that has a sense of faded grandeur with pockets of more vibrant pattern and texture to inject a bit of energy.”
Instructing the services of architect-led design and build company Fraher & Findlay, the house underwent a full refurbishment, including a loft extension and a rear and side kitchen extension. One of the most magical elements of the architectural design is the internal Japanese-inspired courtyard between the basement and the kitchen, visible from most rooms in the house. On a practical level it provides the annexe flat on the basement floor and the middle of the house with light and ventilation. On an emotional level it brings so much more.
THE JAPANESE TSUBO-NIWA INSPIRED INTERNAL COURTYARD GARDEN, VISIBLE FROM MOST ROOMS IN THE HOUSE, PROVIDES A SOOTHING CONNECTION WITH NATURE. IMAGES: FRAHER & FINDLAY/ADAM SCOTT
Influenced by the small inner gardens in Japanese palaces, private homes and temples known as tsubo-niwa (which means an area equal to just two tatami flooring mats; 3.3 sq m), it offers a soothing connection with nature.
“Here we can capture soft light, the pattering of rain on leaves, a sweet smell of the planting. It feels like a quiet force — providing life energy to the house,” says architect Lizzie Fraher.
The focal point of the courtyard is an Acer tree, alongside which they have planted climbing jasmine and added pots of evergreen ferns and periwinkle. “I love being in the kitchen and being surrounded and immersed in greenery,” says Gemma.
The courtyard is complemented by the beautifully grained oak veneered kitchen units which sit beneath a white marble worktop and splashback. Natural, textural materials are celebrated further with the raw plaster walls (sealed with protective varnish) and polished concrete flooring and kitchen island. The Mario Bellini-inspired dining table was made by them at Studio Xag from plywood and two plastic tubes left over from a job, all painted in a textured finish which is a nod to the Kelly Wearstler Graffito fabric on the headboard in their bedroom. Unsurprisingly, the family spend a lot of time in this room.
KITCHEN FEATURING UNITS CRAFTED BY OBLIQUE FURNITURE USING CAREFULLY-CHOSEN OAK VENEER FROM UNION VENEERS IN EAST LONDON AND LIGHT FITTINGS FROM ATELIER ARETI. IMAGE: FRAHER & FINDLAY/ADAM SCOTT
I’m happiest when there are people here, although there hardly has been since Covid obviously. But when we have friends staying and we’re all having breakfast together at the table, that’s a really happy time for us,” says Gemma. “We want our home to be a happy space to hang out in – a place where everyone feels welcome to come and stay and hang out and play.”
The space is punctuated by the contemporary opal globes and brass disc lighting by their friends at Atelier Areti. While the vivid pink chair and matching plinth add a playful touch to the informal seating area which leads on to the living room through specially heightened doorways and sliding metal doors.
“All of the interventions that we’ve made are very much contemporary interventions, but we’ve tried to respect the history of the building and reveal and acknowledge the period features,” says Gemma.
KITCHEN FEATURING A CURVED DINING TABLE DESIGNED AND MADE BY GEMMA AND XAVIER AT STUDIO XAG AND VINTAGE DINING CHAIRS FROM VINTERIOR. IMAGE: FRAHER & FINDLAY/ADAM SCOTT
In the living room, for example, all the cornices are stripped back to the original and left unfinished. “I don’t really like anything too slick and polished, which is quite different to the work we do which often has to be super high-end and luxe,” says Gemma. “I like having patina and texture across everything and I like the space to feel cocooning.”
Referencing those ‘wow moments’, there’s no escaping the pair of strikingly beautiful agate starburst chandelier lights which hang in each end of the room, discovered by Gemma on Etsy. “I originally bought one without agate, then found the one with agate and I was completely obsessed with it. I hung them both and eventually just had to replace the one without the agate because it looked so sad in contrast!”
THE MORE RELAXED ‘TV ROOM’ AT THE REAR OF THE LIVING SPACE WITH A JULIET BALCONY PROVIDING A SOOTHING VIEW OF THE INTERNAL COURTYARD. IMAGES: FRAHER & FINDLAY/ADAM SCOTT
Gemma adds: “I like to play with scale a lot in our work and I’ve tried to do that with some of the light fittings; pushing them as big as the room can take, or even a bit bigger. Lighting is crucial and I like to think of it as the jewellery of the home – I had a lot of fun with the lights, brassware and taps.”
In the living room they have a separate lamp circuit, so that all of the lamps can be turned on or off from the flick of a switch at the entrance to the room.
“The living room is split into a TV room at the back and a more formal conversation and record room in the front. We’re trying our best to hang out in there more because it is more beautiful, but inevitably we end up on the big squishy yellow sofa in the TV room. I also hang out in the bathroom quite a bit – I love a family bath!”
(LEFT) THE DRAMATIC HIGH-CEILINGED BATHROOM WITH WALLS PAINTED IN HO HO GREEN BY LITTLE GREENE; (RIGHT) RAW PLASTER WALLS RUN THROUGH THE HOUSE, CONTRASTED BY BLACK FLOORS AND PAINTED STAIRCASE. IMAGES: FRAHER & FINDLAY/ADAM SCOTT
Solely for bathing, the bathroom is another well-considered, impactful space with a heightened ceiling achieved by knocking through into the loft. Over the freestanding roll-top bath, the huge skylight offers views of the clouds and stars, while the walls are painted in the rich, enveloping Ho Ho Green by Little Greene. “The bathroom is a real sanctuary which feels very indulgent,” says Gemma. “It feels really nice to be in a space like that with the high ceiling, which is almost gallery-like.”
An ingenious melting pot of Japanese nods, a splash of art deco and a touch of the contemporary, Gemma, Xavier and Raffi’s home is a beauty that transcends good looks. It’s a home with soul, with feeling and with emotion.
“For me and my family I want our home to feel calm and inspiring and restful. But I also want it to feel luxurious and indulgent through the use of honest, tactile materials,” says Gemma. “We are not far from a busy roundabout and it can be a bit hectic outside, so I like the feeling that our home can transport us to a little zen moment. This is our safe haven from everything else.”
Couldn’t we all do with one of those right now?
(L TO R) BLACK PAINTED WINDOW FRAMES AND PRETTY BISTRO CURTAINS IN GEMMA AND XAVIER’S HOUSE; EN SUITE BATHROOM WITH LIPS ARTWORK BY PRINT CLUB LONDON AND FLOOR TILES FROM TOPPS TILES; BESPOKE HEADBOARD WITH HIDDEN STORAGE UPHOLSTERED IN KELLY WEARSTLER GRAFFITO FABRIC. IMAGES: FRAHER & FINDLAY/ADAM SCOTT
(L TO R) BATHROOM WITH GRAPHIC FLOOR TILES AND VINTAGE ARTWORK; RAFFI’S BEDROOM WITH MAGICAL PAINTED NIGHT SKY CEILING; THE VIEW TO THE GARDEN FROM THE KITCHEN. IMAGES: FRAHER & FINDLAY/ADAM SCOTT
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