At home with a new classicist

How can you use historic design in a modern way? Poundbury architect Ben Pentreath's flat is a masterly mix, discovers Caroline Roux
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Like me, you'd probably expect the London flat of a self-confessed architectural classicist (someone, that is, who admires the architectural qualities of the classical world) to be as embedded in the past as current conditions will allow – Georgian colours, washstands, cleverly concealed white goods. After all, the tiny home (just 35 square metres) of Ben Pentreath – the classicist in question – is in a building that dates from 1720; it's got panelling and slivers for stairs and doors that speak of a time when people were smaller than today. It's a step back in time.

The 38-year-old Pentreath, however, is something of new kind of traditionalist. The sort that likes looking at a historical model precisely to work out how it might best be freshened up and reconfigured for contemporary use, not the sort that wants to use lead paints, read by candlelight and determinedly turn back the clock. Admittedly, he studied – for less than a year – at the Prince of Wales Foundation ("it was just too chaotic to get anything much done," he says of his brief time there) and has done considerable amounts of work on Poundbury, the Duchy of Cornwall's backward-looking "model village" just outside Dorchester. But a real hardliner, he says, looking towards the wooden table covered in new and vintage books in the middle of his bijou sitting room, "would never have a 1950s coffee table".

When he arrived in his mini-Bloomsbury room of his own six years ago, Pentreath did the early Georgian thing. "The sitting room was soft grey, the kitchen was blue. I stripped back the fireplaces. It was pretty nice," he says. He filled it with period furniture, including a sofa in perfect primrose upholstery, put curtains around the bed, had a set of Hogarth prints in the bedroom, and covered the walls in maps, all in the spirit of the 18th century. Then he took another rental, on a second place in Dorset where work had become plentiful ( "I don't own. I'm one of life's renters. It's something I believe in."), and shipped out the Georgian pieces to the country.

Now the bedroom is decorated with textiles by the Swedish mid-century designer Kaj Franck; prints by early 20th-century English artist Eric Ravillious hang on the walls; and the rugs are Moroccan. Furniture is modest, mid-century modern, often found at the super-reasonable Criterion auction house in Islington – just the right scale for the interior, if not the right period. Brightly coloured resin lamp stands in red blue and yellow, by Spitalfields designer Marianna Kennedy, are dotted throughout.

Pentreath's relaxed attitude dates back, perhaps, to four years spent in New York, working on interiors for a clientele that included a good sprinkling of celebrities. He had, he says, exchanged one village in Norfolk, where he had spent five years learning the business of architecture at the elbow of the vernacularist Charles Morris, for a village in Manhattan - Greenwich village, one key difference being that Sarah Jessica Parker didn't have a house to be done up in Norfolk. But it was during a furniture-finding trip to London in 2003 with his favourite customer, the "absolutely normal" Liv Tyler ("an old head on young shoulders," says Pentreath. "Eclectic would be the kindest way to describe her taste") that he realised he wanted to come home.

Pentreath's fascination with the neo-classical feels very timely. While it has long been regarded as the benchmark for good architecture, younger architects and critics no longer see the architectural world as a battle between the Classic and the Modern (as in the rigorous and undecorative work of the 20th century). The battle waged so ruthlessly for years in London, primarily between the British starchitect Richard Rogers and the tradition-bound Prince of Wales (which really kicked off in 1983 when the Prince denounced a proposal for a new Sainsbury wing at the national Gallery in London as "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a well-loved and elegant friend") seems out of date.

There are even unfounded suspicions that the recent rejection of Richard Rogers plans for the Chelsea Barracks redevelopment, on aesthetic grounds (too strong, steely and severe for the denizens of SW3), could have as much to do with a fear of being able to sell the rather generous number of £10m-plus apartments on the part of the developers as objections to its appearance. The replacement scheme by architects Dixon Jones, however, is quite in line with Pentreath's thinking. The austere lines of Roger's glassy blocks have been replaced with a development that introduces town squares and park spaces, much in the tradition of London.

Pentreath himself is working on a new development bringing 230 new houses to Chichester. "I'm looking hard at old towns and old settlements to see what has worked in the past. The houses won't be at all Poundbury pastiche, but quite contemporary. But for the plan of the place, I want to use a model that works. You can't use people like lab rats and expect them to live in your urban experiments that turn out not to work."

Meanwhile, at the Royal Institute of British Architects, Pentreath is in a show with three contemporaries, George Saumarez Smith and Francis Terry, called 3 Classicists. Huge drawings of his work, that have taken up to three months to be produced on computers, and subsequently been hand ink-washed by him, are on show. "And do you know what has blown me away," asks Pentreath? "it's been the younger journalists who have been interested in the show. A couple of the older ones are still feuding away."

Of course, Pentreath isn't alone in looking to the past to create a better future. The interior architect Martin Brudnizki, who is becoming celebrated for his work in hotels and restaurants including Scotts in Mayfair and the Ivy Club in Soho, believes in taking the best of the old world and making it work in the new. Recently, he completed the Townhouse restaurant in Dean Street, for the Soho House group. "One wall had original, listed Georgian panelling, which we had to keep. For the other walls, we took the idea but didn't use it literally. We applied it in a different way."

The most famous contemporary designer of them all, Frenchman Philippe Starck, hit paydirt with his Louis Ghost chair, a reworking of a classic Louis XV chair in transparent acrylic, with sales in excess of 1 million. When I spoke to him recently, he put its success down to our need to have contact with our history, in many ways, including in our homes.

Pentreath would no doubt agree with that, just as long as it doesn't stop you living in the present day.