Why go for stripped-down minimalism when an 18th-century map of London can make such fantastic flooring? Caroline Kamp visits a small flat with a big personality. Photographs by Michael Franke
Saturday 01 December 2007
The River Thames snakes through the living room of Christopher Prain's basement flat in Pimlico, central London. And the interior designer couldn't be more delighted. Printed on the floor in sepia tones is an 18th-century map of London showing a plan of Westminster and Southwark. Stretched out beneath his feet, and hiding under his furniture, is Georgian London; a thriving city dominated by the river and complete with farms, fields and ferry crossings.
Prain first saw the map at an exhibition about London at the British Museum a few years ago. The map, by the surveyor John Rocque, was begun in 1737 and published nine years later in 1746. It is the most detailed map of London that exists from the period. Printed on to 24 sheets, it is a fascinating historical record and creates a striking visual effect. All of the original sheets were individually engraved and then cast and printed like a brass rubbing. Prain and his business partner Chanond Purananda, who together run the interior design consultancy Christopher Chanond, had the idea to scan the map and reproduce it. They approached a firm who owned the right scanning equipment and, once digitised, they were able to play with the map's scale. The duo have enlarged small sections of the map and printed them on to furniture and lamps. And a private member's club in central London has a section of the map printed on the wall.
"It works on two levels," says Prain in reference to his floor. "On an abstract level it's eye-catching, but then you see the detail." It's the incredible depth of the work that draws you in and keeps you looking and making comparisons with London as it is today. Clearly visible are roads and landmarks such as the Tower of London and St Peter's Abbey (now Westminster). Grosvenor Square and Soho Square are both there, though Frith Street is called Thrift Street. "Tottenham Court looks like a hamlet," notes Prain, "not the electronic retail centre it is now." Moving north there is a Foundling Hospital close to Great Ormond Street. One of the most notable absences is Marble Arch, which in the 18th century was Tyburn. There is a note underneath that reads: "Where soldiers were shot." It's a startling reminder of the past. Despite there being lots of ferry points, including the Horse Ferry, there are only two bridges: London Bridge and Westminster Bridge. The latter, built in 1750, would have still been under construction. The detail is such that you can make out tiny stick men on the many boats travelling up and down the river. Even the fields and ornamental gardens have painstakingly been drawn with trees, which each have their own shadow.
It seems fitting that a Georgian flat would have a map of Georgian London on the floor. But it's not the only effect Prain has employed to create something unique. The flat used to be a doctor's surgery and was just one large reception room with a narrow bedroom. To resolve this he built twin curved bookcases at one end of the living room. Behind one is neatly hidden a bathroom and behind the other an office. He sunk the ceiling down by about a foot and put in light wells. It has given the flat more of a period feel, but at the same time uses the space more effectively. He moved the kitchen to become a galley style walk-through space and enlarged the bedroom by extending out the back. It is exactly what Prain says an interior designer should do. His work is the art of concealment. His job is not to choose fabrics and wallpapers, something an interior decorator does, yet he's aware that the two jobs are often merged in people's minds. There is a difference. "You need to be good with spatial design," he says. "A good interior designer should be able to hide a building's faults.
"Lighting is so incredibly important," he says, leaping up and going over to the curved bookcase. He switches off the downlighters in the middle shelf and the ones over the ottoman in the centre of the room. "Turn these off and it kills the room," he says. And he's right. Being in a basement, he explains, is like being in a studio as you have total control over the light. "Natural light can kill interior light as the sun is always moving," he points out, but stops short of saying artificial light is best. "Obviously natural light is far superior but you have to have something to compensate." His advice on lighting from above is to only do so to pinpoint specific things. The rest should come from ambient light, in other words table lamps and floor lights, which give more character.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the small space is that Prain uses it for living and working. "Usually there are about six people crammed around that table," he explains, pointing to a 1960s-style round table with four solid wooden chairs. He admits that his girlfriend is not exactly thrilled about this. But along with clever lighting he's used other tricks to compensate for the minimal square footage. He has mirror squares behind the modern fireplace and a French gilded mirror and console on the facing wall to create an optical illusion. A red ottoman and lampshade, both made from horsehair, inject a bit of colour into the generally neutral palette.
Tricks aside, it does feel as if Prain's designs are being held back by the property's modest dimensions. His taste seems more suited to a rather grander scale. The ornate mirror by the front door is, by his admission, "a bit over the top", but in a larger room it would work brilliantly. It's not surprising to learn he's a fan of David Hicks, the influential interior designer who was known for his work with aristocratic and royal clients. "He took classical ideas and re-worked them. He was brave," says Prain in admiration. "He had the confidence to do black lacquered walls. And 40 years on his ideas still work."
This sense of continuity is important. Prain is not a fan of fashion-led design. "There's a difference between a moment and a time," he says. "I don't believe in jumping on a period bandwagon." He's not one to go down the route of Scandinavian stripped-wood floors. "It's wonderful and if you did it in the 1960s, fine, but now it's a bit clichd. The Arne Jacobsen look is interior decoration as opposed to interior design." But he's no arch traditionalist pushing papered walls and heavy wooden furniture. His most recent project is modern and minimal with a floating kitchen and acid colours. He's proud that most of his clients are under 35. "I don't have a cohesive look a cohesive look is boring."
He is passionate about good design, which he says is not always about having lots of money, but about thinking it through. ("Bad design often lacks thought.") And he's scathing about some of the poorly designed buildings that have sprung up recently along the Thames. "You get that opportunity once every hundred years," he says with obvious frustration. "London's riverside is being ruined." Standing on his 200-year-old map of the city, it's interesting to speculate on what buildings will still be around in another two centuries. No doubt there will be future hits and misses. The River Thames will still be winding its path through the city but it's unlikely there will be a John Rocque spending nine years drawing a map.
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