Me And My Home: It's a container for life

Charlotte Cullinan doesn't buy designer stuff for her warehouse - she makes it herself


One half of the art duo Artlab, Charlotte Cullinan lives with her husband and family in a two-storey, industrial building in Vyner Street, Bethnal Green.

One half of the art duo Artlab, Charlotte Cullinan lives with her husband and family in a two-storey, industrial building in Vyner Street, Bethnal Green.

We moved into Bethnal Green 19 years ago. We were worried that it was too far out but it was all that we could afford. Originally, we bought a run-down warehouse but we moved into this new one five years ago, because it was bigger and offered better opportunities to incorporate work and home.

As a two-storey building it functions very well - we have our living space, known as the "apartment", on the first floor, and the ground floor is my studio, which is the headquarters of Artlab. Jeanine Richards and I started working collaboratively as Artlab about six years ago. At the moment, we're producing work for a show that opens on 26 February at MOT, a small art venue in east London run by Chris Hammond.

Our Artlab studio is also used as an experimental micro-brewery by my husband, Nick, and Bill Buchannon, who are developing brewed-in-the-bottle organic beer for girls, with a Chinese herb recipe.

Our building has huge windows running across the front at ground level. The outside has been restored but deliberately retains its original appearance, so that there's not much evidence externally that it is lived in. Vyner Street is in a commercial area and we only have one residential neighbour, so it's important that it doesn't stand out from its surroundings, for security reasons. It was built in 1961, so it's quite fortress-y from the outside. We don't have any curtains either, because we don't like them. Opposite us is the gallery Modern Art, owned by Stuart Shave. Every weekend, chauffer-driven collectors arrive to view the shows there - which makes for a heady mix in our part of Vyner Street.

When we bought our house, the first floor was disused and the business that had operated from the ground floor was said to have gone bust. We had to clear miles of old conduit piping and a massive heating system. On both floors there were men's and ladies' lavatories, so it was obvious where the bathroom was going to go. We filled three skips with rubbish - Jeanine and I became expert skip-packers.

We didn't have to do too much to the studio after that. We have tried to make use of existing materials wherever we can. We got our hands on this huge piece of glass that was originally intended to go into the Lloyd's building; we have used it as a partition, which dictated the size of the studio. The headquarters have evolved that way - in an accidental, makeshift way - making use of the things that we've found and often dictated by the particular kind of work that we're producing at the time.

The first floor involved much more design. It was part of our "Uberplan" that the outside of the house would remain the same but that the inside would be specialised. We employed the services of CABAL, my brother Dominic's architectural practice, which did an incredible job. We began by partitioning it off into a five-bedroom apartment. One of our main reasons for moving was that the kids desperately wanted separate bedrooms. The walls are built of breeze blocks. The floor area of 2,000 sq ft looked much bigger after the partitions went up - I suppose they provided a sense of scale. The plywood doors are full height. Most of this work was done by a team of firemen - it's true that firemen are some of the most lovely men, and it shows in the tender workmanship and details. The rear wall of the building has five windows spaced along it and there is one included in each of the four partitioned bedrooms and the bathroom that adjoins them. The master bedroom is at the front, occupying the space originally taken by the foreman's office.

Although there were existing skylights, we wanted to add a greenhouse on the roof. We put the staircase in and cut a hole in the ceiling. From the greenhouse, there is a great view of Canary Wharf, and the door leads out on to the roof garden, where we hang the washing and keep the bees. We have three hives at the moment - the bees have a two-minute flight to Victoria Park.

The main space is divided by the staircase and adjoining wall. We are not interested in designer stuff - we prefer to fabricate stuff for ourselves. The main shell of the house has been given a lot of thought by CABAL, but the individual furniture pieces are much more incidental. This follows the mood of what happens in the studio. The kitchen table was designed by Nick and made by some roof-rack fabricators down the road. The top is made of painted ply that was left over by the firemen.

Our sofas were chucked out by the House of Commons - we found them in a second-hand shop. The chairs are random light-industrial sewing-machinists' chairs that were left behind by the last parting tenants. We do have a Smeg fridge - but it didn't come from Peter Jones, but we bought it around the corner in a shop that sells slightly damaged goods. My brother Dominic was working on a job in west London where the clients were throwing out the cooker, the basin and the dishwasher.

A lot of the work we do at Artlab follows the same philosophy - after careful planning and deliberation, the random acquisition of "found objects" is important. We have used taxi seats from our friends at Cyprus Taxis down the road, in some of our sculpture and have also made some chandeliers/sculptures from found cable reels.

Our flooring is made of blocks of reclaimed maple that are quite tiny - about 6in x 2in each - but very thick and of unknown origins. They were individually cleaned by Nick to remove the tar that they had originally been set in, before being laid, also by Nick, to cover the entire 2,000 sq ft of floor. We got someone else in to sand them afterwards, as Nick's back had had enough.

Our house is still evolving and probably always will. We love the feel of it and the way it looks - it's a "container for life".

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