Post modern

Even William Morris would have approved of this conversion of an Arts & Crafts post office in Hampstead. By Alexandra Campbell. Photographs by Morley von Sternberg
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The designs for Helen David English Eccentrics bridge the chasm between traditional and contemporary design - her richly coloured scarves and shirts are objects of desire across a spectrum of tastes. So when she fell in love with a GPO sorting office that was up for sale, she was well cast to modernise the Arts & Crafts building without destroying the original feel.

The task of changing the building, which now houses her business headquarters, was more complex than simply leaving period detail intact and painting everything white.

Dating from 1903, it had a front door in the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, tongue-and-groove wooden panelling, and repeated half-moon window shapes. The architects, Thomas Brent Associates, were under instructions to create more space by carving out a mezzanine floor and turning a bicycle shed into a proper extension, as well as installing long runs of cupboards.

Helen David "hours of brainstorming" with Thomas Brent and her husband Colin. "We wanted to keep everything very simple," she says , "but ordinary modern cupboards and fittings wouldn't have been right for the style of the building. So we had to work out ways of echoing the detailing on the new fittings and areas. Tom came up with the idea of using a slight curve wherever possible, reflecting the Arts & Crafts shape in an understated way. It's simply a question of not using straight lines."

The curve now appears as a simple carved pattern on the cupboard doors, as well as in a striking pewter-and-nickel design on the main door. Tables, too, are softly curved figures of eight. Thanks to the aluminium chairs from Heal's, meetings have a comfortable informality: "I wanted it to be as organic as possible," says David, "so I simply drew up the kind of shape I wanted, and Tom had it cut out in laminated plywood."

Light was an important consideration throughout the building: "It's always an issue when you're trying to make a period building feel more contemporary: Victorian and Edwardian houses and offices tend to be rather dark. And, of course, light in the workplace is crucial for designers."

The main building is a single large space - it used to be the sorting office - with a few side rooms, providing facilities such as the kitchen or bathroom. But David wanted to create a general meeting place and display area without blocking off light. The solution was a long, thin, open- plan mezzanine floor, built up with tongue-and-groove panelling along one side and with storage space below it.

"We had a lot of discussions about this, because tongue-and-groove can look very country-kitcheny, which would have been wrong for the building and wasn't what we wanted," says David. By elongating the boards and giving them a square finish, the panelling looks smarter and more urban, as well as being more historically accurate.

For the stairs going up to the mezzanine, Tom Brent picked out a cross- hatched, metal flooring design, which picks up the pattern of the traditional parquet floor in a contemporary material. "It was a way of linking and uniting two different areas and looks," says David. In fact, it is metal factory safety flooring, not the usual combination with parquet:

"The wooden floor was original, but so black with use and age that you couldn't even see the parquet blocks. Restoring it was a very fiddly job - whole sections had to be removed for cleaning and then replaced. But I wouldn't have dreamt of covering it up." It was also important to keep the tone of the floor - indeed, the whole of the interior - as neutral as possible so that it didn't clash with or distract from the constantly changing fashion colours that the designers work with. "The building is a backdrop - even the flooring had to be kept as close to the pale natural wood colour as possible," explains Brent. "Most floor varnishes add some kind of warmth or colour."

"In any home where the focus is on objects - the pictures, say, or the furniture - complete neutrality is a good idea," says Andy Coughlan of Brent Associates. "You can change the colour accents with soft furnishings or art whenever you like."

For the same reason, all the fittings at the headquarters building are pale metals, which are more neutral in colour than warm ones such as brass or gold. Everything is chrome, nickel, stainless steel or pewter, from the doorknobs and drawer handles to the dining chairs and detailing on the main door.

"I don't like mixing metals in an interior," says David, "and keeping a sense of continuity is vital when there is a prospective clash of styles. Pewter would have been the real Arts & Crafts choice, but in most places it wouldn't have been practical."

At the back of the building, there was an old bicycle shed - protected by a preservation order - ideal for a kitchen but rather bleak on cold November days.

"You had to go outside to reach it, but we couldn't simply roof over the area between the two buildings because this would have cut out light to the studio," says David. "Tom came up with the answer - a sloping glass roof linking the shed and main building to provide both protection and light." And, as the bicycle shed lacked windows, they also took a slice off the sloping roof and replaced that with another intersecting run of glass to create a light, sunny room.

The red-brick outside walls are now covered with white-painted plasterboard (they are completely intact underneath), and the old iron steps down from the main building - cleaned up and re-varnished - make suitably minimalist-looking stairs and banister rails. So, although this outside space between the two buildings is now an inside corridor complete with a Cumberland slate floor - "a very Arts & Crafts material that still looks contemporary today" - nothing has been destroyed or removed.

But away from the restraint of the design studio, there are outbreaks of visual anarchy. David, who describes herself as a textile specialist rather than a fashion designer, spotted a kitsch reproduction sofa in gilt and brown Dralon outside a junk shop: "It looked really tarty and cheap - I think it might have come from the Forties." She rescued it, re-covered it in black velvet, and had its gilt changed to silver. Along with the new company colour, an almost boudoir lilac made elegant with a hint of grey, it now adds that outrageous element essential to any neutral, understated interior

Helen David English Eccentrics cushions (shown on the sofa), cost from pounds 84, throws, pounds 378. Both are available from Liberty (0171-7341234), or contact Helen David English Eccentrics on 0171-284 2525.

Thomas Brent Associates can be contacted on 0171-435 8545.

Most wood varnishes add some kind of stain or tint, but Thomas Brent Associates used Bonakemi by Cementone-Beaver Ltd (01280 824400 for local distributors) to keep the parquet colourless and neutral. It's also non- toxic, quick-drying (around 12 hours) and highly stain resistant.

The sofa was found in a second-hand shop, covered in brown Dralon and gold leaf. It was updated with black velvet and silver leaf available from Comelissen & Sons (0171-636 1045, mail order available). A book of silver leaf covers around 15 sq ins and costs pounds 7. Books on paint techniques which include step- by-step instructions on working with gold and silver leaf include `Paint - Decorating with Water Based Paints' by John Sutcliffe (Frances Lincoln, pounds 25) and `The Techniques of Decorating' by Kevin McCloud (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 14.99)

Recycled parquet flooring can be found at architectural salvage yards such as Chapel & Mills (01422 886005, nationwide delivery available), where prices start at pounds 5-pounds 10 per square yard. NB: stripping, cleaning and restoring most antique parquet is a fiddly and time-consuming job. Depending on the state of the floor, this could add a considerable amount to your overall costs.

Industrial metal safety flooring is available from ISG Steel Stockholders Ltd on 0181-778 8881. Prices vary widely according to size and installation costs but expect to pay pounds 40-pounds 50 square metre.