Me And My Home: Strength and grace

Gordon McKee talks to Patricia Wynn Davies about how a former artist's studio in London brought out the 'obsessive Virgoan' in him
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The Independent Online

Artist and former advertising art director Gordon McKee lives in an artist's studio house in West Hampstead, north-west London

Artist and former advertising art director Gordon McKee lives in an artist's studio house in West Hampstead, north-west London

Although it's carefully designed and uses the best materials I could afford, where I live is a very personalised extension of Le Corbusier's vision of a house as a machine for living in. I didn't want to create just another spare, minimalist home, and the house has been a vehicle for exploring my obsessions and passions and it operates as an extension of my artistic life. Though it does follow Le Corbusier's principle of using every square inch to best possible advantage, if a house is a machine, this one's an eclectic and highly individualised example.

All of which is probably apt, since the building itself was idiosyncratic to start with. West Hampstead Studios came into being as a result of a local publican's decision, in the late 1880s, to do a bit of property developing on the side.

I don't know why he chose to put up artists' studios, but he certainly approved a distinctive design by the Victorian church architect Sir Arthur Blomfield - two red-brick, two-storey houses based on the shape of a rhombus, the semi-circular bays topped with conical roofs, set back behind railings and divided by a courtyard leading to more studios behind. Better-known artists who have lived or worked in them include Anna Airy and the twin brother illustrators Maurice and Edward Detmold.

I've used a good deal of metallic material in this house but I've kept quirky features like the stained-glass panels in the ground floor windows. After making scores of drawings I did most of the work myself, partly for financial reasons but partly because I enjoy making things. I sometimes think I've remained at the stage of a foundation course student at art college, doing a bit of everything. Living in a building site while the work is in progress is not one I would like to repeat, but it's the same as creating a sculpture or any work of art.

Object-making is one of my interests as an artist because of the fusion of beauty and function, so when I went to see the constituent parts of a solid aluminium spiral staircase that a friend had stored in his garage, I knew I had to have it. It came from an upmarket house in Kensington and there were 25 treads in all and I calculated that I could use all of them once I'd dug down to create a new basement. The fine construction and art deco overtones of the staircase make it look as though it could have come from a 1930s luxury liner, and it's a thing of incredible substance and beauty. Its flawless fabrication appeals to my Virgoan, perfectionist tendency and its combination of strength and grace are perfectly balanced.

A friend calls me a "lapsed" Virgo - I can sometimes be untidy - but I am an obsessive and I do like to see things done to the very highest standard, given the technologies available and a not unlimited budget. So here, the floors are of Siberian oak, the radiators have a lacquered silver finish and there is marble, mirror and high-quality fittings in the bathrooms.

I gave up my day job as an art director three years ago and now rely mainly on freelance photographic commissions, so for extra income I decided to make the newly created basement into a rentable studio flat with its own entrance, though there's a door to the staircase so that the house can also be used as a single residence. The challenge was to fit everything one person might need to have around them into a compact space. Having scoured the market for a mini-kitchen, I came up with my own invention - basically a box divided into three levels, small fridge and freezer at the top, hob and sink in the middle, oven and cupboard below. The flat opens onto a courtyard, which I paved with cream and grey stone chips in circular designs that look like urban crop circles.

Up in the original house, my bedroom and bathroom are on the ground floor off the hall. I extended the height of the doorways to accentuate the feeling of space, but the doors themselves are extra sturdy and heavy. One is painted orange and the other a shade of grape. You go up the aluminium staircase to the kitchen and living room on the first floor, where there's lots more aluminium, and granite work surfaces, and a working fireplace in polished slate. It's light and airy and a great space for displaying two-dimensional work.

There used to be a small mezzanine level above this but I extended it and made a stainless-steel staircase from scratch to lead up to a new work area with a large window. The design of the railing is abstract and Picasso-esque. I sat for weeks doing the welding out on my front steps.

There's one further surprise up on this level - a gate in the railing that can be opened to allow for a drawbridge to be pulled down from the loft space beneath the conical roof, forming a gangway up to a storage room that's tightly packed with everything I only need to get at occasionally. Le Corbusier might have been impressed.

Gordon McKee: 020-7916 5934; gordon.mckee@virgin.net

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