Me And My Home: Above the shop floor

Patricia Wynn Davies meets a designer who pioneered the live-work concept in Islington
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The Independent Online

If you're going to make a design statement, you might as well push a few boundaries in the process. What was once a shop with an arty Bohemian flat above couldn't be more different now - no carpet, no radiators, not many conventional doors, but lots and lots of glass - glass stairs even - and masses of light. I suppose the transformation partly reflects my own history: I've been here for 34 years and we might never have pressed ahead with the Diverse shops if we hadn't had the original one.

If you're going to make a design statement, you might as well push a few boundaries in the process. What was once a shop with an arty Bohemian flat above couldn't be more different now - no carpet, no radiators, not many conventional doors, but lots and lots of glass - glass stairs even - and masses of light. I suppose the transformation partly reflects my own history: I've been here for 34 years and we might never have pressed ahead with the Diverse shops if we hadn't had the original one.

When I first came here in 1970 I had to come downstairs to an outside lavatory at the back. Now, you walk through the front door down a limestone-tiled hallway, where one wall has floor-to-ceiling sandblasted-glass storage cupboards that extend the length of the building. On the left is the guest room, the walls of which are glass; then comes a wet room and then our open-plan bedroom and bathroom area, which contains an 8ft sunken bath clad in the same limestone. From the bath you look straight out through a glass wall on to a slate-tiled courtyard filled with bamboo and banana palms.

In the original building, you climbed a spiral staircase from the first-floor living/kitchen area to get to my little bedroom under the eaves. When I moved in, I rented it for £14 a week and the shop on the ground floor was used as a printmaking studio by my then-partner. I'd recently left art school and did the typical thing - had a baby and gave up the idea of becoming an artist. The artistic drive got channelled in a different direction. I split up from my partner about four years later and got involved in importing Aquatec, an acrylic from New York that English artists were mad for at the time.

After that I rented the shop to a couple with an etching press, then an architect. By then, Gary and I had got together. He already had a factory where he printed T-shirts with "artistic" designs when such things were new and unusual. We thought, let's design our own T-shirts and put them in the shop and open it.

At around the same time the freehold came up for auction, which was scary. I kept thinking, how am I going to get it and not get kicked out? But when the day of the sale came, there weren't many bids and I got it for £28,000. Life was still a bit precarious, doing the T-shirts in the shop and living in the flat above. One morning we came downstairs and found bare shelves - every scrap of stock had been stolen. Gary, being a go-getting Sagittarian, heroically printed them all again. Then we started adding jeans and denim shirts, but always chose them carefully, and the operation became more of a shop proper.

But the venture was in an out-of-the-way residential backwater. Even when we moved the business round to Upper Street, the high street of Islington, in the mid-Eighties, we still felt like frontierspeople. There were car spares shops, ironmongers and the like - no trendy restaurants, and certainly no designer shops.

It was all very untapped, but risky, though premiums on premises were high, so something was obviously afoot. Gary had to put up his flat as security for the first shop. We now have three: women's, men's and childrenswear. The idea of the name Diverse was to do with offering a cross-section of stylish fashion, from casual to top-end designers, plus lingerie, swimwear and accessories - a bit like a mini-department store, where you can find everything from new, young designers like Emma Cook to sought-after names like Margiela Six and Missoni, and also pick up your Orla Kiely or Luella bag.

It was after establishing all of this that we eventually turned our eagle eyes back to the shop where it all began. You could say we went for the nuclear option, knocking everything down apart from the two party walls, building a metal framework and starting afresh, extending out at the back and making a terrace on the upper two floors and a courtyard on the lower level.

We went for the top-of-the-range Poggenpohl kitchen - this alone took a year to finish - and put in underfloor heating, wired the place for sound and TV on each level, and installed press-button blinds, concealed lighting, the works. The walls of the entire interior are finished with this marvellous white plaster, which we have left undecorated. There's a lot of attention to detail, such as the aluminium skirting boards and also ensuring that every conceivable source of light is used to its full extent, which is where the glass stairs - from the first floor living/kitchen area to what is now a studio/office above - come in.

It's the light that I love the most, and that slightly Mediterranean feel of the white plaster; it's a beautiful surface, but with imperfections - painterly, you could say. It's such a change; I almost felt nervous about coming back when it was finally finished. People still come into Diverse and say, "I remember buying one of those T-shirts you used to do round the corner."

Diverse: 294 Upper St, London N1, plus two other Islington outlets (020-7359 8877)

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