Buy Of The Week: Canonbury

A young family have adapted a dilapidated period terrace in the heart of literary London into this stunning home that mixes old and new to striking effect. Mary Wilson reports on a novel conversion
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The Independent Online

If you want to live in north Islington, then you could do a lot worse than Canonbury Square N1. Canonbury is bounded by St Paul's Road to the north and Essex Road to the south, and the grand Regency terraced houses, set around two private garden squares, have been the haunt of many literary figures over the years.

George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four while living at No 27; Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant had a home there; and Evelyn Waugh resided in 17a Canonbury Place, just around the corner.

It's just a few minutes south of Highbury and Islington Tube, so it's easy to whizz into central London, but the area retains a certain calm and elegance that still attracts writers, journalists and media folk.

On the north side of the square, around the corner from the revered Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, Steve Dunn and his wife, Christine, who are both in advertising, have restored one of these five-storey houses into a contemporary but relaxed family home.

They have loved their six years there. They are only moving because they want more lateral space for their three children, aged three, six and seven. "Also, every time we move, we go for a totally new experience and we feel it's time for another one," Steve says.

The Dunns, who are passionate about the modernist look of the Thirties to the Fifties, decked out the interior with iconic furniture of that period: the property is scattered with lights by Castiglioni and chairs by Aarnio, Saarinen and Cherner. There are also a couple of pieces by Wells Coates from the Thirties and a chest of drawers painted by Roger Fry.

"Regency homes are very forgiving," Steve says. "You can easily mix period with modern and it still looks right." They have retained the beautiful cornicing and period windows, but created a contemporary kitchen and bathroom.

"When we walked into the house, it was a complete mess," Steve says. "It was owned by a former chairman of ICI, who was quite elderly, and the property had not been touched since the Fifties. There were yards of tatty old lino, which took days to un-stick. It was a horrendous job. Many of the lovely old floorboards had been covered over and there was Anaglypta wallpaper everywhere."

When they moved in, their eldest son was just one, and so they all squeezed into a room in the basement, with a bathroom at the back. Their bedroom/living room is now a spare room/children's room and the bathroom has been turned into Steve's office. "It's very quiet down here, so it's a good place to work but it's also a great place to make a lot of noise. I can play my guitars as loud as I like and no one will hear me." But, with all the plumbing still in place, it could easily be turned back into a bathroom and the floor used as a self-contained flat.

The Dunns opened up the two rooms on the ground floor, putting down walnut flooring with an extraordinary kitchen at the front and a dining area at the back. The kitchen was designed by Don Matheson, a young architect who now works for Richard Rogers.

On one side is a row of eye-level units with filleted metal doors, which were designed by a metalwork artist. In the centre of the room is a long, rectangular work area crafted from walnut, and on the other side are white shelves and cupboards, one of which hides the fridge freezer. The double gas ring and griddle, oven and microwave are visible, but they disappear from view when the white folding doors are closed.

As you climb the old staircase, which gently winds its way up the floors, you are aware of the slight slant of the steps, the sloping landings and the out-of-true door frames, which all give the house such character.

On the first floor is the double living room with three huge, original sash windows and wide, oak floorboards. It is beautifully light. The high ceiling has intricate cornicing all around it and there are original marble fireplaces in both rooms. "We've got another in our garage, which we took out from the bedroom," Steve says.

On the second floor are the main bedroom and a fabulous bathroom. "It was a real mess before," he says, "and it took us a long time to work out what to do with it." To make it look larger, they've put two huge mirrors on opposite walls, which are lit around the sides to give a soft, relaxing light. The walls are covered with large limestone tiles, there is walnut shelving and a walnut floor and, in the centre, a large, double-ended bath.

In the bedroom, the couple have put in fitted wardrobes along one wall, with two huge, white sliding doors. "We have tried to keep everything simple," Steve says. "It was most important that, although the house is 'designed', it's also a house you can live in comfortably as a family."

The next floor up is devoted to the children. The two bedrooms each have fitted, pale-wood shelving and furniture, with one having the bed built into the shelving. Each room has a tiny Victorian fireplace. Right at the top of the house is a small study lined with shelves, which is a great place to keep memorabilia and junk.

Outside, there is an 86ft- long garden, which was overgrown when the Dunns bought the house. Some of the Canonbury Square gardens are ornate, but the Dunns have created a simple, easy-to-maintain space, with a few shrubs and a central grassed area surrounded by concrete paths. "The garden was another bonus," Steve says. "We never expected to have such a beautiful long garden in London."

Get the spec

What's for sale: A five-storey, four-bedroom Regency house in north London.

Serious kit: Double reception room on the first floor, period features and a lovely garden.

How big: Living area of 2,414 square feet.

Extras: An unashamedly contemporary kitchen, beautiful wooden floors and a luxurious bathroom.

Buy it: Through Currell Islington (020-7226 4200) for £1.65m.

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