Smart shades of grey

Inspired by New York lofts, photographer Mike Penn turned a central London office into a cool urban living space and created the perfect backdrop to hang his pictures

Visitors to Mike Penn’s house in a delightful mews in Fitzrovia, tucked away from the noise and traffic of central London, need get no further than the front door – painted gunmetal grey, free from all ornamentation – to realise this is no traditional period city “cottage”.

Penn is a photographer who has travelled the world  working for glossy magazines including Elle and Arena (mikejpenn.com), gathering ideas along the way. Influenced by loft apartments in New York, he has opened out his mews into a series of broad, lateral spaces with a functional, industrial feel.

“What I wanted was a creative living space,” Penn says. “I didn’t see why I had to have a normal three-bedroom house. Everything needed to be ripped out and I saw it as an opportunity to have something that was a fantastic, adaptable, urban, cool living space.”

Penn, 49, had been living, happily, in a Victorian house in Queen’s Park. “I was out with friends one night and we were in Charlotte Street, and I just thought, ‘this has got such a great vibe,’” he says.  A buying agent told him about a former office in the area that was for sale. The owners had won planning permission from Camden council to convert it into a house and Penn was enthused by the idea of the project.

He was introduced to the architect Thomas Griem, the director of TG Studio (tg-studio.co.uk), and even before the sale went through, he and Griem were working on the plans.

The unconverted mews cost just over £2m and when Penn exchanged contracts, a year ago, Griem was almost ready to submit a second application to amend the plans the photographer inherited when he bought the property.

The building work on this project was limited. With no outdoor space there was nowhere to extend, but there was a spacious 1,800 sq ft to play with. The main structural innovation was to enlarge the windows of the three-storey mews to almost floor-to-ceiling height. A new, compact staircase was installed in a corner of the building to link the floors while taking up as little space as possible. And, once building was under way, it emerged that the roof needed replacing.

Penn wanted a lateral living space, and to get around regulations requiring firewalls and doors Griem installed a sprinkler system that will, should fire be detected by sensors, spray the rooms with a fine mist to drench the flames.

Griem also had to deal with the need for insulation. Penn liked the idea of keeping areas of open brickwork, so Griem had a layer of insulation added and then covered it with authentically weathered brick slips, which are about an inch thick, to get the look without wasting space.

Instead of conventional windowsills, the architect designed oak boxes to encase the windows, creating deep niches.

The ground floor has been divided into a sitting room/study, lined with built-in cupboarding, and an en suite guest bedroom. The first floor is an open-plan living room and kitchen, and the top floor is given over to a master suite with bedroom, bathroom and dressing room.

Most of the walls are smart shades of grey. Flooring ranges from wide limed-oak boards in the living room to putty-coloured carpeting on the stairs. Tactile fabric wallcovering – again grey – softens the bedroom.

Accessorising is stylish. Clustered alongside a tasteful beige L-shaped sofa in the living room, and two translucent coffee tables, are two vintage chairs upholstered in soft turquoise, together with a vivid apple-green-gloss television stand. The walls are covered with art, most notably some monumental black-and-white shots of horses taken by Penn. An image of a very bad-tempered polo pony hanging in the study is particularly arresting.

Most people see white as the most suitable backdrop for hanging art, of whatever medium, but Penn disagrees. “There is something just too monochrome about it,” he says. “This light shade of grey is perfect for showing photography.”

The kitchen is by the Spanish company Doca (docauk.com) and was installed by Gemini Design (geminidesignltd.co.uk). The white cupboards have a slightly disconcerting, gummy finish, while the work surfaces are sandblasted granite, which gives an effect both rough and matt. The splashbacks are marble.

In the bathroom, white heritage tiles are teamed with a sleek, free-standing bath, a modern glazed shower with Victorian-style fittings, a bench-type sink unit, and more marble. Perhaps thanks to the subdued colour scheme, all of these disparate elements somehow seem as if they were made for each other.

The project cost about £480,000, but Fitzrovia is hot and properties regularly sell for £1,600 to £2,000 a square foot, so Penn should see a healthy return if he sells.

The entire project took six months. Griem and Penn agree that part of the reason for its speedy conclusion was the efficiency of the contractor,  Paul Christopher Building (paulchristopherbuilding.co.uk). The other reasons are the decisiveness of the client and planning.

Penn’s advice to others keen to attempt a major project is not to stress over the details too much. “There is a danger of over-obsessing,” he says. “You can spend so much time talking about the exact alignment of the plugs, then when  you get it done you don’t even notice.”

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