Seasons in style

A former print shop off a north London high street may not seem to have much going for it - unless, as Mary Wilson discovers, you're a photographer with an eye for potential

The area of Kilburn in North West London has never been traditionally seen as one of the capital's smartest - the high street has the same mix of shops, bedsits and flats, and behind the main drag are rows of identikit terraced three bedroom Victorian houses with nothing to shout about in terms of design or individuality.

The area of Kilburn in North West London has never been traditionally seen as one of the capital's smartest - the high street has the same mix of shops, bedsits and flats, and behind the main drag are rows of identikit terraced three bedroom Victorian houses with nothing to shout about in terms of design or individuality.

"Off the top of Kilburn High Road is the Mapesbury conservation area, and to the left of that is Brondesbury, where you can find property for sale for over £1m, but directly off the high road, you won't find much over £300,000," says Jean Pierre Kalebic, of Winkworth's Willesden office. However, the most northern part of the High Road has come up in the last 18 months, with grotty pubs being turned into gastropubs and several restaurants opening up. This part is also home to the Tricycle Theatre, opposite which there is a most unexpected surprise.

It's a contemporary cedar-clad, flat-roofed building overlooking the very pretty Kilburn Grange Park, which only the locals seem to know about. "The park used to belong to a stately home," says James Cant, the creator and owner of this unique property. "Now it is open to the public, but not many people use it. It is well looked after and has tennis courts, a play area and lovely trees."

James is a fashion photographer, who moved to the UK from Australia 10 years ago. He has worked for most national newspapers and magazines, including Marie Claire and Loaded. He and his wife Arabella lived previously in Willesden, in a stunning flat they bought off Oliver Peyton, who designed the Atlantic restaurant in Soho. "He had spent a fortune on this huge mansion flat and we loved it, but we wanted to create our own place so we started looking for the right plot of land," he says.

They looked all over London for three years, searching down back streets and alleys and then in 2001 they spotted a for sale sign for a commercial building overlooking the park. "The building used to be the stables of a stately home, but had been converted and had been used for the last 20 years by a printing company. I just loved the location and what I could do with it."

Their original idea was to build a photographic studio with two flats over the top, which they would sell and use that money to buy another place for themselves. "Arabella wasn't at all keen about living in Kilburn, but it was such a magical position, I managed to convince her that we should live there too, over the studio," he says.

He instructed the architects, Denton Cooke & Marshall, who usually only undertake multi-million pound commercial projects such as the ultra-contemporary glass law courts in Manchester. "But they do take on a few residential projects for friends and I had worked for them for 10 years when I had been an architectural photographer in Australia," says James.

As well as being confident that they could come up with what he wanted, he also felt that as the site had to be re-zoned from commercial into residential use, using a big-name architect would give him more chance to getting his plans through. "We got them to look at how we lived before and asked them to design something that replicated that - but with a photographic studio on the ground floor," he says. "We were also limited by the 1,700sq ft site as the building is wedged in on two sides by other buildings and the park on the third."

They also wanted a property where they would be happy living and working from as well as looking after their children - they have two daughters, aged four and eight - without ever having to leave their home. Arabella runs the photographic studio, letting it out when James is not using it. The property had to be easy maintenance and simple," says James. So the floors throughout are in polished concrete and under heated. "Timber floors wear out and I like stone, but this is more natural."

The building has been in London's Open House day twice, and James says, "Most people, who expected to see a hard edged minimal home, have commented that it felt quite warm and not sterile and cold at all."

On two sides of the living room are three huge sliding glazed panels. "In the summer when they are open, it seems as if we are part of the park," says James. "The wildlife is fantastic, and we see squirrels and foxes."

The blinds in the bedrooms are closed to keep out the light, but in the living room they are never used. "We were going to, but when the trees dropped their leaves, there was this wonderful skyline, so we never bothered. We wake up every morning to a different vista, which is why we don't have anything on the walls. The view is enough, it's like a big TV screen," he says.

At one end of the 22ft long living area is the kitchen - again, minimally white with no handles, plus a larder/storage room. The three bedrooms have white walls and walnut cupboards which help create warmth.

Concrete steps with a galvanised frame lead up to a huge decked roof terrace, which has been made so real turf can be put down. The terrace also could be landscaped and the building is structurally strong enough for another floor to be built, if planning was given.

"We have thought a lot about how the building could grow into the next generation," says James. "The top floor could be re-modelled with the walls put in different places," he says. "And you can even drive cars into the studio, which has a separate entrance to the flat."

The couple are moving because they have found another place, which will be re-built into a similar looking home, nearer to their daughters' school.

The Kilburn High Road house is for sale through Knight Frank (020-7586 2777) for £2m

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