A 200-year-old cottage on a busy road in Glasgow, restored by an art nouveau-inspired craftsman? It might sound weird but, as Elisabeth Mahoney discovers, the results are inspirational
Sunday 30 April 2000
What are you supposed to do with rabbits? Stroke them? It's not something I normally have to think of on an interiors assignment, but then this house is no run-of-the-mill property. Owned by cabinet-maker Paul Hodgkiss and his wife, Elvera, it's a restored 200-year-old cottage on a busy road in Glasgow's Southside. The exterior is striking enough - there aren't many cottages in this part of town, and even fewer have brightly lit showrooms on the ground floor. But it's when you step beyond the shop - which sells handcrafted furniture from Hodgkiss's own designs - that the surprises really begin.
First, there's Roger, the floppy-eared family pet, who nuzzles my leg and causes the pet etiquette crisis. It's odd and everso slightly magical to have him hopping around, like an escapee from the Alice stories, but he suits the place, itself a rather fantastical mix of the traditional (stone and wood) and the flamboyantly up-to-the-minute. In every room, next to furniture and other features designed and made by Hodgkiss out of local timbers and reclaimed stone, sit eclectic touches - fuchsia or tangerine walls, a bright pink chair, some hand-painted Turkish chairs around the dining room table. The overall effect is a funky take on tradition: not a home that's a slave to the past, but a modern revival of lost skills and materials. It's all a long way from the house the couple bought in 1994.
This marked the beginning of a long and chequered restoration process. "We had quite a few disasters along the way," Hodgkiss recalls. "Our first builder went bankrupt at a very bad stage: there were no windows or doors on the house and only felt on the roof, and it was two days before Elvera and I were due to leave for South America. We went for five weeks and when we returned vandals had rampaged right through the place.
"Then we had some guys doing the roof and they made such a good job of laying the slate (reclaimed from a local hospital) that I let them lay the stone floor downstairs," he continues. "They made a complete arse of it. The football was on and they just walked off when the match started, leaving the cement unset. It was easier once we were doing things ourselves, really, but it was a long slog - earn a bit, do a bit, earn a bit more, do a bit more."
The thing that pushed them to finally finish the place was a television crew from a Scottish interiors programme, who had been following their progress from day one. A couple of days before they were due to do the last shoot, the place still wasn't finished. "We couldn't get the bedroom wardrobe up the stairs so it had to come in through the window. We had to string it up - we had all these ladders in the street, and it had to be absolutely level with the window for it to go in. A guy stopped and said 'Hold on I'll get my dad' - he was a right bruiser - and before we knew where we were, we had a whole squad of people."
Locals have been taking a keen interest in the restoration, apparently. They were slightly suspicious at first of this arty pair with ambitious plans for the house, but they're now respectful of the work Hodgkiss has done. Given the quality of the job and the fact he's used locally produced materials and traditions, this isn't surprising. Trained as a cabinet-maker, Hodgkiss is first and foremost a craftsman, thrilled by the possibilities of the wood he works with.
His designs - dramatically carved chunky pieces made from Scottish timbers - remind me of art nouveau and Gaudi in particular, in their preference for the curved rather than straight line, and the celebration of the materials themselves as much as the finished object.
"When I began working with wood you would cut across the burr to get a straight line, but then I began cutting round it instead because I could see how nice the shapes were," he says with a smile. "I'd been doing the same kind of shapes with metal already, and it all just seemed to match up. It was never a plan, but I do now see the art nouveau thing, but only in as much as I also see the kind of shapes I work with in stones on a beach, gradually being eroded. What's left is the shape I like."
Which is a bit like the story of his house. Restored but left structurally very much as it would have been 200 years ago with stone walls and floors, what they've added is their flamboyant sense of personal style. This doesn't clash with the strong wood and tough stone floors, it brings them to life. This is most apparent in the striking dining and living room, where the stone walls, open fires and timber beams are set off by a Victorian porter's chair in searing bright pink and a huge sofa area in Designers Guild jewel-coloured fabrics.
"What I love about this room," says Hodgkiss, "is that it's so great for parties. You can crash out on the sofa without feeling cut off from what's going on at the table. We brought loads of hammocks back from South America and we often end up with loads of people staying over, sleeping above the open fires."
Hodgkiss may be reviving craft skills and traditions but, as in the bars and restaurants he has designed throughout Glasgow, in his home it is all about living with beauty, style, things that you love. Rabbit included. *
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