Jenny Eclair: A home that is modern but mature
Jenny Eclair's husband had always dreamt of building a house from scratch. He just never imagined that an 'ugly' 1950s house would provide the shell
Wednesday 19 September 2007
Four years ago I was living contentedly in a gracious, Georgian house in a more than slightly dodgy bit of Camberwell, south London, with my husband Geof Powell and my 14-year-old daughter Phoebe. I thought that it was my home for the rest of my life and the only way I would leave it was in an oblong wooden box.
Then my husband got made redundant and we had one of those life-changing talks. He told me that despite having been a successful graphic designer and a pin-stripe-and-pink-shirt kind of man, what he had always wanted to do was to get down and dirty, wear great big boots and baggy shorts and build a house with his own bare hands.
When we bought an ugly 1950s three-bedroom house for £260,000 up the road in Denmark Hill with his redundancy money, I thought he was just going to knock a few walls down, tart it up and flog it. We would continue to live in our lovely, small but perfectly formed home while he got on with his special project all the hours of the day and Phoebe and I got on with our lives. I knew that Geof wouldn't want me twittering around, and I couldn't really read the plans that he had drawn up with the architect, Robert Dye, so I stayed away. When I finally took a look behind the hoardings, I was shocked to see a massive great hole. That's when I had to come to terms with the realisation that Geof was going to build a house from scratch – isn't that what all men want to do, really?
The final result, less then a year later, was an impressive Russian redwood-clad building with walls made from crushed rubble and junk, which looked completely different from all the other houses on the hill and yet didn't stick out like a sore thumb. Inside, it was all light and airy, with large windows at the front and back. From a tiny little spot, Geof had managed to make a five-bedroom home and I realised that I would have to transform myself from a hoarding, memento-collecting slut to a sophisticated, grown-up lady. So we got a lock-up where I shoved all our old stuff, while Geof went about buying furniture on eBay. The first was our B&B Italia green sofa, which is so lovely I don't want anyone but me sitting on; then there are the Eames rockers – they were originally designed for nursing mothers – and the Seventies G-plan cabinet.
Gone are the teetering piles of old newspapers with an apple core on top, or the bunches of flowers shoved in a vase. Now, I have been known to give away perfectly attractive flowers simply because they don't quite go with our cool interior, and it really can't take those hideous Christmas gifts that would have just blended in to the scruffy interior of our old house. I have become more organised and ruthless about the way we live, and I think it keeps me saner and my head clearer. The light and space of the house does have a very calming effect on us all. It is so serene sitting downstairs in the kitchen and sitting-room, which lead out onto our bright courtyard. In the walled-off section of the sitting room there is a massive wood-burner hanging down that looks really like a giant testicle.
Upstairs, MDF has been used liberally on the floors and cupboards, and Geof has managed to fit our lovely bedroom's bathroom with double sinks, dressing-room, splash-room, spare-room and my compact little study on the middle floor. His one concession to my love of boudoir chic is the Colefax and Fowler flock wallpaper behind the bed. The floor-to-ceiling doors really give the illusion of height, and the way you walk through the rooms in a slightly maze-like way makes it feel like a very big house. It really is a brilliant design.
It is also a great place to hang paintings and photographs; Geof has an excellent eye for buying art. We don't have much, but what we do have is very, very good. My favourite is the Nicola Hicks sculpture of a poodle and an etching by Tracey Emin of a pubescent female nude, which hangs in my study – a few people have said it looks like me because I have such small boobs. But it isn't.
Phoebe's room is right at the top. It looks like a bomb has hit it with 1,000 photos of her at the Reading and Edinburgh festivals, and all her books and clothes lying around. I nag her about it, but I have to say that I would probably be a bit worried if she had fallen in with the minimalist aesthetic. It wouldn't really be right for an 18-year-old.
She's off to university soon and, in a way, that is the key to why Geof and I both see this house as a natural progression. It's the perfect "verge of an empty nest" house, because it is not really a family home – you couldn't have toys strewn around, or nappies everywhere. Everything is on display, because there are no cupboards under the stairs to chuck stuff into.
It would be much harder if it was just us kicking around the old house with her suddenly not there. There would be memories of her as an adorable toddler in every nook and cranny making me weep, and we would be kicking around, feeling lost. Here everything has a place, an order and no history. A place like this makes you feel much braver.
Comedian and writer Jenny Eclair was the first woman to win the Perrier Award. She now hosts her own show on LBC radio and has appeared in a number of West End productions. She lives with her husband Geof and daughter Phoebe in south-east London
Jenny Eclair will be touring the UK with her Because I Forgot To Get A Pension Tour from 23 September (www.jennyeclair.com)
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