When interior designer Mark Lewis moved into a one-bedroom garden flat in Highgate, even he never expected it to become such a glorious family house, as Jessica Jonzen discovers
MARK LEWIS AT HOME. IMAGE: RORY GARDINER
When you consider the physical permanence of the homes we live in, it’s extraordinary how they can adapt with the people who live in them. Original features are covered or revealed as tastes change, and rooms are carved up or opened out as families grow. Imagining the people who have lived within those four walls and how they created a home there is part of the romance of period properties.
When North London-based interior designer Mark Lewis and his partner, Abi, moved into a one-bedroom garden flat in a Victorian conversion in Highgate in 2010 it was a milestone point in their lives. Their first child, James, was one-year-old, and Mark’s fledgling business was taking a backseat to new fatherhood.
Mark, who originally worked in set and costume design on commercials, fell into interior design by accident. “I renovated my flat in East London about 15 years ago and then friends would ask me to help with theirs. It happened more and more and by 2008, it had reached a point where I thought I should make it into a proper business.” Now with a small but growing team, Mark works on interior design and build projects on period properties across North London.
MARK AND ABI CREATED AN INDUSTRIAL WAREHOUSE LOOK AT THE REAR OF THE VICTORIAN PROPERTY. IMAGES: RORY GARDINER
Mark and Abi had been enchanted by the lush garden at the back of the flat and their initial plan was to extend into the side return but despite getting planning permission, the other freeholders put paid to that idea. “We’d sold a one-bedroom flat and bought a one-bedroom flat which we couldn’t extend – we thought, ‘that was expensive’.”
The couple did an initial renovation where they converted the bathroom into James’ bedroom and put a sleek ‘pod’ bathroom into their bedroom. They didn’t give up on their dream to convert the side return and three years later the freeholders relented. The hard won extension was worth the wait, creating a bright and modern sitting room and kitchen. The flat had grown along with Mark’s business, and it was when Mark and Abi were able to buy the flat above them in 2015 that their home revealed its true potential.
You only use a spare bedroom a handful of times a year and taking it out has meant we’ve been able to create a much more engaging and impactful home which works for all of us.”
After initially renting out the flat the couple had welcomed their new baby daughter, Olive – now four – and space was again at a premium. “Abi wanted to move into a warehouse space but James was already settled at school and there was nowhere like that in our area, so that wasn’t going to happen,” says Mark. “I suggested to her that because we had the flat upstairs we could knock through and make the back end of the house much more in line with modern living.”
In order to achieve Abi’s warehouse space ideal, there was a controversial decision to make: taking out the spare bedroom. “It didn’t go down brilliantly with our mums but you only use a spare bedroom a handful of times a year and it’s meant we’ve been able to create a much more engaging and impactful home which works for all of us,” says Mark.
TOP AND BOTTOM LEFT: MARK AND ABI’S BEDROOM, DECORATED WITH ROBERT KIME WALLPAPER AND FEATURES A MIXTURE OF ANTIQUE AND BESPOKE FURNITURE. BOTTOM RIGHT: THE SPACIOUS EN SUITE BATHROOM. IMAGES: RORY GARDINER
The result of the eight-month conversion is extraordinary. The front of the house retains its original Victorian proportions, with Mark and Abi’s grand bedroom with its Robert Kime wallpaper and Soho Home bed lending gravitas to the space. James’ bedroom has been returned to an elegant en suite bathroom with Aston Matthews fittings and a freestanding bath and separate shower. “It’s a really lovely space to relax in at the end of a busy week,” says Mark.
Beyond, the outdoor courtyard has become a downstairs loo “with a smorgasbord of finishes,” says Mark. The floorboards from the original kitchen have been used to line the walls, and were also recycled to make a headboard for James’ bedroom and a case to hide the boiler. A brick step leading up into the WC was inspired by a step at Mark’s grandparents’ home in Hampshire. “I can be inspired by anything – just living life, walking around London with my eyes open, and also visiting National Trust properties. I go with my team twice a year and it’s always incredibly rewarding,” he says.
“I can be inspired by anything – just living life, walking around London with my eyes open, and also visiting National Trust properties.”
But it is when you walk into the open plan kitchen and living room that Mark’s vision for what this building could become is truly realised. Removing the spare bedroom has created an almost monastic double height space, with specially designed windows flooding the space with light. “For me it’s a bit of a triptych, not that I’m religious but I do like that imagery,” says Mark. The mixed width engineered oak floor from Havwoods seamlessly connects the old part of the house with the new.
On the kitchen wall, lime plaster was applied by hand with a sponge finish to add texture and the units were designed and built to Mark’s specifications. “We make all our kitchens, and they are hand painted, waxed and buffed for a lived-in look.” A gorgeous little pantry does away with the requirement for eye level cabinets. “I’ve always thought there’s something romantic about a pantry.”
MARK WITH HIS FOUR-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER, OLIVE. IMAGE: RORY GARDINER
When Mark was unable to find the hardware he wanted for his interior design projects he decided to create his own. Now, working with a foundry in South London, he has his own designs of traditional cup handles, door knobs, hooks, hinges and much more besides, all available to buy from his website. “I’m all for mixing up finishes and metals, you just want to make sure it has texture.”
The honed Carrara marble worktop is less family friendly, but Mark and Abi get around it by using huge wooden chopping boards. A window seat heads up the dining area, while the living room in the side return extension provides a cosy zone for relaxing. It also displays Mark’s clever reusing of materials – the tiles around the wood burner were glazed tiles left over from a job. He simply turned them over and installed them back to front to give a subtle, textured look. Abi’s father’s vintage Heal’s armchair has been reupholstered, and William Morris cushions dotted around the house were made from a pair of her mother’s curtains.
Upstairs, Mark created a mezzanine overlooking the kitchen and living space, and used the mild steel bars which are a signature of his work and lend the area an industrial feel. Olive’s bedroom is a gorgeously traditional confection. “The floral Robert Kime wallpaper was definitely my influence,” says Mark. “Abi would have done something much more modern but she’s four, now’s the time for a frilly room!” Mark cleverly had the bunk beds specially made so that he and Abi can sit on Olive’s bed to read her a story without bumping their heads.
LEFT: OLIVE’S TRADITIONAL BEDROOM FEATURES ROBERT KIME WALLPAPER AND A BESPOKE EXTRA HIGH BUNK BED. RIGHT: JAMES’ BEDROOM, WITH ITS HEADBOARD MADE FROM THE OLD KITCHEN FLOORBOARDS. IMAGES: RORY GARDINER
James’ bedroom at the front of the house, is a tween-age boy’s dream, complete with double bed, restful grey walls and a sofa for watching TV and playing on the X-Box. The room was large enough to carve out a children’s bathroom complete with a laundry chute, which connects to Mark and Abi’s room and goes straight into the basement next to the washing machine. “It’s all about keeping the decks clear and speeding things up so you’re not always trudging up and down the stairs – there’s enough of that with demands for snacks and water!” Mark says.
Mark describes his design aesthetic as ‘modern English.’ “You want people to come in and think the floors are original, so it’s about using as much reclaimed stuff as possible so it’s believable within the context of the architecture,” he says. “Homes develop over time; you can start it off in the right direction with a sensitive renovation but really, you’ve got to live there for the next 15 years to infuse it fully. My work is all about creating homes with soul and nowhere more so than where I live, and where my kids are going to grow up. It’s a wonderful place to be.”
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