Me And My Home: Into the light

The ceramicist Nicholas Arroyave Portela talks to Dominic Lutyens
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The Independent Online

Nicholas Arroyave Portela, a ceramicist, lives in a two-bed flat in Swiss Cottage, north London, with his partner, Michael

We both used to live in a flat in Primrose Hill, but decided to move out of town a bit to live somewhere with more space. We rented a place in Archway for a while, but didn't like the area. Then, inspired by friends who lived off the Finchley Road, and who liked it there, we decided to rent a flat in nearby Swiss Cottage to get a feel of the area. We've always loved this part of London, and Michael was born here. The area turned out to be incredibly convenient. The nearest Tube is on the Jubilee Line, which whisks you into Bond Street in 15 minutes. We've got great parks nearby - Regent's Park and Hampstead Heath - which suited us, as we have a dog.

"Michael spotted our duplex, which we loved the moment we viewed it. It was a week or two after September 11, and the atmosphere was very grim. Although the economic climate and general mood were jittery, we thought we've got to get on with our lives, so we made an offer immediately. Luckily, the flat was owned by a Russian couple who wanted to move out sharpish.

"We loved the way the flat - in a Seventies block - was purpose-built. We hate the way that, in many conversions, rooms have been insensitively carved up and their elegant proportions lost. Our block isn't the prettiest building from the outside, but the flats are well-proportioned. Someone had changed the layout of ours for the worse some years ago, but a later occupant restored it to its original state. We did find, though, that some windows immediately next to the staircase leading to the bedrooms had been boarded up for some strange reason, and a cupboard had been put in under the stairs. We ripped both things out.

"It's a fantastically practical flat. Although it's not very big, it feels like it is; our bedroom has an en-suite bathroom, and, as well as a second bedroom, there's a second bathroom. Michael, who works from home, also uses a spacious upper landing as his office.

"The main change we made was to repaint the walls. Generally, I like earthy colours, teamed with white and cream. I think neutrals are the best way to show off our collection of art and objects. We painted the hallway and living room a rich terracotta - we wanted those rooms to look cosy. There's a lot of light throughout the flat, thanks to its big windows, so we thought the living room could take a dark colour. I also chose the terracotta because it marries well with my ceramics, which are predominantly an earthenware brown. I spray them from below in blue to create a two-tone effect.

"My ceramics are inspired by the distortions and refractions of light caused by water, and by the markings on silk moiré. Some of the artworks in the flat - like a wacky wall-hung ceramic piece enclosing an egg in our bedroom and a fish made out of wire in the dining room - were made by friends. They're pieces I swapped for some of mine.

"The living room looks really dramatic when you turn the lights down, so they only illuminate our paintings. These are mainly by Sir Gerald Kelly, a former president of the Royal Academy, who was friends of Rodin and Degas. Michael's mother used to work for him, and once a year he'd give her one of his pieces. He was a royal portraitist - he often painted the Queen Mother - and his style was normally tight, but these pictures were done quickly when he was travelling, and are very free.

"We've also got a Terry Frost print in the hall, in characteristically ebullient colours. On another wall are two drawings of set designs for early Bond films - one is for Goldfinger - given to us by friends. We've also got ceramics by Lucie Rie, Walter Keeler and Takashi Yasuda.

"Michael has a very good eye for lighting. He works in the lighting industry and knows lots of interesting designers who do lighting for West End shows or work with architects. We've also got older examples - an art deco, orb-shaped light and a Sixties lamp that looks like an abstract sculpture, which suits the modernist style of the flat. The same goes for a lot of our furniture in a similarly modernist vein - there's a screen made of Columbian pine that looks like it was designed by 20th-century Finnish architect and furniture designer Alvar Aalto, and chairs in the style of Arne Jacobsen.

"Although the living room is painted a dark, moody colour, there's plenty of natural daylight elsewhere. There's a large terrace outside our bedroom and a larger one outside our dining room. We have barbecues and sunbathe in the larger terrace in summer. Last summer, we planted lavender and grasses in troughs around its edge, which looked spectacular. At the moment, the windows between the dining room and terrace are separated into panes of glass in a fixed timber frame. We'd like to take those out, and make two large panes that can be opened as sliding doors. We've also got a terrace outside the bedroom and guest room. All this outside space - an unusual feature in London - was one of the main reasons we fell for this place."

Nicholas's work is on show in Making Waves, at Flow Gallery, 1-5 Needham Road, London W11 (020-7243 0782) until 1 March

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