Interiors: Family circle

Josef sleeps in a sleigh and watches television with his parents in a pink woollen dinghy. Doris Saatchi visits the completely customised home of Future Systems architects Amanda Levete and Jan Kaplicky
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A PURPLE, yellow and white former leather factory with shocking pink carpets is the place Josef Kaplicky has called home for almost half his life.

Josef is three-and-a-half-years old. His London house sits hidden from the attentions of curious neighbours and architectural sightseers behind scruffy metal shutters in a lively, style-conscious part of town where households are stocked from local shops catering to both "shabby chic" and avant-garde tastes in furniture, fashion and food.

Josef shares his colourful 2,000sq ft of living space with his architect parents, Amanda Levete and Jan Kaplicky, who designed it for him and whose professional union - known as Future Systems - is one of Britain's brightest architectural practices.

Levete and Kaplicky joined together as a design team in 1989, two years after they became linked romantically. Before that, Levete was honing her talent in the office of hi-tech titan Richard Rogers, already aiming to have her own practice and admiring the work of her colleague Kaplicky from afar.

Kaplicky's fascination with the monocoque, aluminium shell structure of airplanes - the pod - had started when he was his son's present age. Even now, the model aircraft neatly ranged in dense lines on the shelves of his work area outnumber Josef's toys. His theory of design centred on using the pod structure in the service of architecture.

By the early Nineties Levete had come to believe that Kaplicky had pushed his idea about as far as it could go. "I felt Jan had become locked into finding design solutions in technical terms," observes Levete. "I knew he could loosen up the forms a bit."

Levete was also developing her own ideas about architecture. "For me," she says, "there are other important factors in designing a building, such as intuition, context and emotion. I'm a great believer in work that communicates without the need for it to be backed up by any explanation or theory. We no longer feel the need to justify a decision solely on a technical basis. There is no rationale, for example, for the colour we have introduced to our structures."

One recently completed example of Future System's bold and inexplicable use of bright colour is the pontoon bridge in London's Docklands painted a specially mixed colour called "Amanda" green.

Their first project together was an entry for Paris's National Library competition. It took second prize and attracted commissions and inquiries from public bodies and private individuals. One of them resulted in a "glass" house in north London for a couple with young children. Built with severe site and budget limitations, it raised their international profile even higher.

Besides Levete and Josef, Kaplicky cites Le Corbusier and Neimeyer as influences. "Corbusier," he says, "recognised the possibilities of the future and grabbed them as very few others did." The plasticity of form introduced by "Corb" and the informal, adaptable open spaces that flowed from it are present in the plan of Josef's house (which was conceived, defined and drawn up for the contractor over just two weekends).

There are only two doors in the two-storey structure; one to the WC and one to Josef's room on the ground floor, so he can get some sleep when his parents' talk of Mies, social housing and the politics of architecture becomes tiresome. Privacy is created elsewhere by free-standing, curved walls that enclose the bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen without shutting out light and air.

Conceptually, Future Systems were after simplicity. When they couldn't afford to do what they wanted they improvised, making a virtue of what Kaplicky describes as "ersatz" solutions. "When you're designing something that costs one fifth of the normal price," he observes, "you have to be reasonably flexible." One example of their flexibility is the apparently ideal position of the bathroom. Kaplicky reveals that it's where it is because the services were there and they couldn't afford to move them. They did move the staircase, though; it was impossible to deal with in its original location.

"This place would be considered too cheap for some people," says Kaplicky, "and it wouldn't suit them for other reasons. Either they simply couldn't deal with the space in the informal way that we do or they would make a nice little goulash out of it." The lush, rosy carpet that looks so expensive covers "rubbish" floor surfaces and transforms the space into an enormous playpen for both Josef and his elders. It is custom-dyed to match a lipstick colour chosen from an issue of Vogue, but it is also 100 per cent nylon, the cheapest possible material.

With the exception of the Eames dining chairs and the workstation chair upstairs, every piece of furniture is a Future Systems design. The round matrimonial bed that fills the inner circumference of the curved purple well downstairs has a 7ft diameter to accommodate Kaplicky's 6ft 4in frame. The eating, meeting, greeting table on the ground floor consists of stainless- steel cables, half-inch tube and castors with a top made of the corrugated, anodised aluminium used in aircraft manufacture.

In the 29ft by 16ft open space upstairs, guests climb into a large dinghy to sit down. Kaplicky calls it a "sausage", created by rolling two different densities of foam over a raised plywood carrier, then covering it in woollen fabric dyed to match the carpet. In addition, there are sturdy metal brackets set firmly into the surface for drinks, television and a light. What appears to be an expensive custom design turns out to be a low-cost choice (when compared to the cost of a couple of sofas and chairs for the eight to 10 passengers who fit aboard the dingy).

The bed where Josef sleeps and dreams is a pared-down cross between machine- age sleigh and racing car. The minimal frame is made from stainless steel tubing of the same dimensions as that used in early Modernist chairs. Kaplicky remembers that his family had some "Bauhaus things" at home in Czechoslovakia. These provided him with his first hands-on experience of contemporary design.

He also remembers, while a student at the Prague School of Applied Art and Architecture, seeing Russian tanks roll into the city. Shortly afterwards he left for London, taking with him those early influences and the six works of sculpture and two paintings by his artist father that are now installed in the house.

The two minds of Future Systems agree that there are no "mistakes" in their home. But Levete and Kaplicky acknowledge that some of the work they wanted to do had to be put on hold for financial reasons. The first priority "when we get some money", say both partners, is to create a terrace on the flat roof outside the workspace on the second floor.

"Yes," says Levete, "it is annoying not having enclosed clothes storage and I would love to be able to install a shower and we were unable to design for future flexibility. But I can't imagine giving this up, however much money we had. I've even come to like the absurdity of the scruffy entrance. We were going to put up a full-height grill gate on the street and pave the entrance with white pebbles so that Josef could play there safely. But then it seemed to me that we would attract attention we didn't want. Besides, poor Josef would end up like an animal in a cage being gawked at by passers-by. So now I am inclined to leave it the way it is."

Josef plays contentedly indoors anyway. According to his parents, he has an amazing imagination. "The reason he has so many toys," explains Levete, "is that they hold his attention for such a short time. In fact he's much happier playing with an object such as a tennis racquet and pretending it's something else, like a guitar or a slice of pizza."

This article appears in the Holiday edition of `nest', an interiors magazine, pounds 7.95, available from Mission (0171 792 4633) and Zwemmer (0171 379 7886). For subscriptions call 0800 0130 011 and when operator answers dial 877 532 1277

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