A work in progress: At home with design expert Stephen Bayley

Author and design critic Stephen Bayley has lived in his London house for 25 years but it still isn't finished – and he wouldn't have it any other way

Interview,Charlotte Philby
Wednesday 06 August 2008 00:00

Doing up a home is like food and sex: it should never be rushed. You must never aspire to "finish" a house, you can merely hope to start it, and from then on it's an evolutionary process. The fashion designer Issey Miyake came for dinner when there was no furniture or lights, and the floorboards were bare and unpolished. He interpreted it as some sort of progressive artistic statement, but it wasn't. We simply didn't have anything.

Furnishing our house has been a careful process of acquisition, and patience is immensely important. Without wishing to sound messianic, I do care about detail and would rather do without than put up with something that doesn't satisfy. It is also best not to try to achieve an effect; a home is not a set, it needs to genuinely reflect the characters living within it.

When we bought the place 25 years ago, the architect Peter Wadley had turned the house into an 11-room multi-occupancy building. It was pretty much there, structurally, but without the finishing touches, so we had a rough, empty blank canvas to work with.

The house is very much a usable space. We have a large garden, full of green things and very comfortable, the sole purpose of which is to provide a space where we can sit with a book and a glass of wine.

There's a tiled area with a separate studio at the end, but that has now been well and truly taken over by my son. My wife and I both love cooking – I am an advanced male – so we argue about who gets to rustle up dinner. The kitchen is small but well-equipped, which is fine. But first and foremost, there is a great stock of wine available at all times.

The area in which we live very much depends on context, and the need to promote oneself socially. Depending on who you are talking to, it is either Vauxhall or Oval or Lambeth. Whichever way, this is a rough old area, and it certainly doesn't get more urban; and yet there is the odd, narrow strip of gentility amid it all.

We live in a tall, four-storey, stucco-fronted house, built in 1840 for workers building the Southern railway. Even in the 25 years that we have lived here, we have never reached a point where the house is "done". There is always something else to be getting on with. Recently, we replaced the rather scruffy concrete front steps with Portland stone, which is what you do when you have nothing else left to spend money on.

I've since been lecturing my children – who notionally live here, too – about the necessity of not using the first step on a flight of stairs, as this causes a disproportionate amount of wear to the carpet. I regard this as sound advice imparted by a wise and loving father, whereas my children see it as evidence of my lunacy.

There is not a word in the architectural or design vocabulary to comprehensively describe the style of our home. I suppose it is an austere place – it was designed by a German industrial chemist. Inside, it is spare and elegant and light – a feeling we enjoy – yet it is filled with interesting things, to satisfy and divert the eye. I have no particular interest in antiquities or antiques, but I like things to meet a certain aesthetic.

It is sometimes easier to have furniture made than to find things. Some of the larger pieces here have been made for us by Steve Amos, though in our bedroom we have an early 19th-century French kitchen table, which is superlatively elegant in shape. A lot of our antiques come from Lillie Road in Fulham, and then various architectural-salvage people, and some bits and bobs from France.

My wife has an amazingly good eye, and thanks to her, the most beautiful things dotted around the place are those that haven't cost us a penny. There's a leaf she found in the street, displayed on the mantelpiece, which is utterly wonderful. Then there's the Andy Goldsworthy-esque sculpture, which is in fact an assemblage of twigs from Battersea Park.

Without wishing to sound autobiographical, I hope to eventually create an honest expression of what my family and I like; to encapsulate the aspirations and the passions of the people who created our home.

Stephen Bayley is a design critic, cultural commentator and author. He lives with his wife and their two children, Bruno, 23, and Coco, 21, in south-west London, and is the style director at Guest Hotels. For more information, visit www.guesthotels.com

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