Interiors: Gone to ground
An artist's house is his industrial conversion. Lisa Freedman sought out Julian Opie at the Shoreditch studio he calls home
When he was a young man in his twenties, on the cutting edge of artistic living, he bought an industrial building in Shoreditch and converted its ground floor into a studio and its upper reaches into the coolest of lofts. When he became the father of a young child, he played out contemporary urban parenthood in the European Modernist tradition among the skyscrapered Brutalism of the Barbican. Now aged 40, and once more on his own, he has returned to his studio building in Shoreditch, although he is no longer in its carefree loft, but in an artfully constructed burrow umbilically attached to its ground-floor workspace.
"I never used to want to work in the back bit of the studio, even though that's where the natural light is, so when I started living here again I decided to turn it into a little house tucked in at the back," says Opie, a slim, quietly-spoken man, who is an odd mixture of intensity and humour.
This skylit former studio is now sleekly partitioned into a platformed bed-sitting room, ground-floor kitchen, computer workspace, child's bedroom and bathroom. This arrangement may sound conventional, but in reality it is disturbingly not so. The whole is internal, hidden, secret. From the street it is impossible to tell that anyone lives here.
Inside, all the window glass is frosted; there is no clear view of the outside world. Only the shouts of workmen and the brutal racket of a drill alert you to the industrial inner city which surrounds you. Opie's home is very much a private space, a place to think and work, not a place to interact with the world outside. It has been constructed with the same concentration he applies to his work, and the dwelling and the art have much in common; a curious sense of unreality, a playfulness, a preoccupation with modular systems and with secrecy, a referencing to earlier Modernist ideas.
Julian Opie is of the generation that preceded Damien Hirst's Freeze class of 1988 at Goldsmiths College, but like them he enjoyed early success, exhibiting while still a student alongside Keith Haring and Anish Kapoor at London's Lisson Gallery, and quickly establishing an international reputation. In 1993, at the unusually young age of 34, he was honoured with a one-man show at the Hayward.
His work does not conform to a single style or lend itself to easy classification, but whether he is making a boxy life-size replica of a Volvo 440, a miniature model castle, or an outsize human figure, Opie has remained pretty consistent in his concerns. Everything he produces is underpinned by a concern with how we negotiate and experience the modern world.
The living space he has created as part of and extension to his studio is very much of the modern world. "I grew up in Victorian houses, which were designed for Victorian life," he says. "In old houses you never know where to put the light switches or what to do with the fireplaces."
Here the flooring, the storage units, the partition walls, and much of the furniture are constructed from a highly contemporary material, birch- faced ply, which he uses extensively in his work and which gives the place the golden glow of a well-groomed labrador. "I like this plywood. It has a very rich surface," says Opie. "Here I've used standard 8 by 4 sheets, and then tried to make them stick to that grid. The lines in the house all criss-cross. I like that sense of simplicity and regularity."
The wood, too, helps to give the place its unity. "The fact that the walls, the floors and the furniture are all the same material gives a sense of calm. It's like the wooden houses of Norway or frontier houses in the States. You're not constantly moving from one decoration to another. I prefer the natural colour of materials to imposed colour."
The other benefit of birch is that, in combination with the white walls of the upper floor, it helps create a gallery-like backdrop for the art he has recently begun to buy and display. "I never used to buy art. I might have swapped smaller works with other artists, but until my former partner, who is an art dealer, encouraged me to do so, I was never willing to spend the money you need to buy something. I still think it's slightly crazy, but now I realise that you'd spend the money anyway, and for the price of a washer and dryer you can own something and enjoy it."
Even so, neither the upstairs walls nor its floor space could be called overcrowded. Everything is minimal and restrained. His granny's Seventies Heal's sofa, re-upholstered in banana yellow, a Marcel Breuer coffee table, an armchair, a bed, a cactus ("It's the only thing I can keep alive") are dotted about airily beneath the high beams.
On the ground floor there's little more. A bubbled sheet of glass, salvaged from a friend's broken Philippe Starck table and imposed on a plywood base of Opie's own design to form a kitchen table, a scattering of red plastic Sixties stacking chairs, and an as-yet-unfinished range of IKEA birchwood kitchen units. "I like the fact that you're buying into a system. That way of thinking appeals to me."
His five-year-old daughter Elena, who visits on weekends, has also had an influence on the flat's element of playful secrecy. "Having children focuses you on what you already know, but hadn't thought about. About all those little spaces, like the backs of cupboards, which make up a home when you're a child. I'm just about to build a cupboard behind the door in the bathroom, which is where Elena always hides when we play hide- and-seek."
Elena's room, next to the kitchen, is dominated by an adventure playground platform bed, designed by Opie, with a rope ladder to mount, a slide to come down, and a play area hidden beneath. A bright-red IKEA swing is suspended from the ceiling. ("Playgrounds are a passion with children, and without a garden this was the next best thing.") At Elena's insistence, the wall that separates her bedroom from the kitchen is windowed, glazed in semi-opaque glass, enabling her to keep an eye on her father's reassuring, shadowy presence in the room beyond while retaining privacy for both adult and child.
But the flat's preoccupation with peek-a-boo, one feels, is not just there to satisfy Elena, but to address Opie's need for Boys' Own adventure. At one point, with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy magician, he swings back a bookshelf to reveal a secret staircase leading to the basement; at another, he compares the flat's construction to that of a tree house.
However much the design of his present home has been influenced by the insights of fatherhood, Opie's interest in the contrast between the hidden and the exposed long pre-dates it. "I like the idea of complication for its own sake," he explains. "My work in the Eighties was about complex spaces. If you looked at it from above, you could understand the entire structure, but from the viewing level it was all secret. It's about not revealing everything at once."
If emotionally he demands mystery, aesthetically he tends more to the truth-to-materials philosophy of Modern architecture. "It's about not hiding the structure, it's that the structure itself is in fact aesthetic." So the I-beams that support the ceiling are left "honestly" exposed, as is the castellated run of beams, while the walls go unpainted.
Modernism, too, has helped form his idea about how one should live in the city. "I like the idea of the urban village, of having all the requirements of life round you. In many ways living in the Barbican was ideal, but even here I have everything I need for work on my doorstep."
For the moment he spends most of his time working. Except on the days when he fetches Elena from school, he works from 10 in the morning to 10 at night. "Until late afternoon I organise and from then on, when the phone stops ringing and I can concentrate, I draw."
"When you're part of a couple you have two people's social lives to live. Now I have to force myself to socialise," admits Opie. "I try to go to openings and the occasional party. If I could I'd take a pill to eat."
Though alone here and distanced from any conventional notion of neighbourliness (even the businessman he rents upstairs to had no idea that Opie actually lived in his studio), he's not lonely. "I seldom feel that claustrophobia, that cabin fever of being in a traditional home. I used to feel much more lonely when I lived and worked in Hampstead. Then, when everyone left in the morning, I felt as though I should be doing the Hoovering. Here I'm in the proper environment for what I do."
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