Expect the Unexpected

Appearances can be deceptive. The outside of this former boiler making factory in Montreuil, on the outskirts of Paris, gives away little about its interior. Within the rehabilitated industrial building and one-time art studio lies 300m2 of residential and work space. It’s a wonderful surprise.

Cécile Halley des Fontaines had a crush on this house 10 years ago. It began as she was flicking through an interiors magazine that featured the work of then owner, artist Claire Basler.

“We loved the façade,” recalls Halley des Fontaines. “We did not absolutely know where it was. Later, we were looking to buy a house in Paris and one day an estate agent presented it to us.”

Being an architect, she needed a space that would both welcome her design agency’s collaborators and be a home for her family of six. “We found an extraordinary light and a magnificent, rich garden.”

The artist studio, which had a seven-metre-high ceiling, was transformed into a family home by redesigning the existing space and playing with contrasting volumes. The ceiling was lowered in the open-plan kitchen to make it a more intimate layout. Remodelling the space was not without its challenges. “The industrial spirit could not be removed without losing the soul of the place,” says Halley des Fontaines. “On the other hand, the existing architecture was poor.

We kept elements such as the passageway, which we divided in two and moved to create a circulation space on the first floor.”

On the ground floor, the vast living area of 180m2 adjoins the agency, which takes on projects varying from interior architectural design to corporate identity and product packaging.

“I have a space dedicated to my work,” says Halley des Fontaines. “It has allowed me to develop my business.”

The rest of the building serves a dual purpose. “It is a mixed place. During the day, I receive my customers and organise meetings on the big table, and in the evening, we eat or gather here with my husband and our four children.” She feels privileged to have this large living room, she says. In contrast, the five bedrooms upstairs are of more modest sizes, from 8 to 15m2 each.

“My husband wanted to live in a family home. That’s why I introduced materials of character, which would appear as though they had been here from the original building – antique doors with Haussmann locks,for example.

“The floor tiles were also bought second hand: they look as if they were there when we arrived. These materials brought the charm and warmth, which were lacking,” Halley des Fontaines says. The colour scheme is dominated by greys, which vary according to the time of day.

“I looked for a soft, enveloping tint that would play with the daylight in the house,” she explains.

Bright furniture and fabrics liven up the monochrome, bringing a cozy element to the spaces which – downstairs at least – are still on an industrial scale. “It is not easy to furnish such a room,” admits Halley des Fontaines. “Even an XXL 4 x 3 metre rug seems lost. I like this bareness, though, it is restful.

“To live in 300m2 changes everything and gives an immense sensation of freedom of life and movement. It’s a little bit as if we are on holiday all year.”

Georgian Charm

Nestled in the fashionable central London district of Bloomsbury is a spacious and light-filled townhouse, once fallen into disrepair and now restored to its former breathtaking glory. Steeped in history with original fireplaces that were boarded up and aged wood panelling, it was transformed into a warm and contemporary family home 
by East London-based architects Charter Projects, who sloughed away years of neglect.

Set in a village-like atmosphere and surrounded by English garden squares, this storybook townhouse is, rather surprisingly, a stone’s throw from bustling Soho and the heart of London. “It is really quiet, yet we can walk to Soho in 15 minutes. There are some beautiful garden squares and the children-only park Coram’s Fields. Everything is on our doorstep including [food co-operative] The People’s Supermarket, which is the best independent supermarket in the country,” says the homeowner Elizabeth Reeve, a native of Australia. A living and breathing piece of Georgian London, this light-filled, five-storey terraced house dates as far back as 1722. Previously joined to the neighbouring property, the building was once used as a solicitors’ office and had fallen into disrepair with the layout a maze of awkward nooks and crannies including small kitchenettes for staff, a reception area, meeting rooms and a basement used for file storage.

“When we found it, the timber and panelling throughout the house was part painted, part covered up and part exposed in different areas of the property and was in pretty bad state – split, dry and discoloured,” says Reeve.

Heirloom Modern

Wanting the architectural history of the house to be immediately visible, the architects exposed the graceful curves and original panelling using French polishers to rejuvenate its natural colour and warmth. A grand stairway and geometric floor tiles from Mosaic del Sur take centre stage to create a breathtaking entrance.

Having made the aesthetic decision to strip back the wood, Reeve carried the look through the whole house by reconditioning all existing timber. The walls were then painted with lashings of elegant greys and a soft palette of colours to create light and modern rooms, and furnished in mid-century furniture sourced from auctions, markets and their travels. The idea was to design a perfect mix of reclaimed, aged timber with the extremely modern look of the kitchen and furnishings creating a harmonious contrast with the property’s traditional details.
“We wanted to remain faithful to the traditional architecture of the property, yet create a relaxed, lived-in feel. We didn’t want the house to feel like a museum,” laughs Reeve.

Historic neighbourhood

While the property now has plenty of modern conveniences, the townhouse has a Grade II listing from Historic England, a government body dedicated to preserving the country’s built heritage. The conservation body describes Grade II buildings as “of more than special interest”, with only one listing grade higher.

A daunting project because of the age of the property and its size, the conservation listing was the real challenge for the architects. “It was important for us to preserve the integrity of this building and Charter Projects worked to build a relationship with English Heritage, Camden Council and the relevant conservation bodies (as well as the neighbours) at the very beginning of the project,” says Reeve.

Although 18th-century buildings are relatively common in London, the Bloomsbury neighbourhood is significant due to its many notable residents – artists, writers and thinkers whose work greatly influenced the modern approach to everything fromliterature and economics to feminism.

“Father of evolution” Charles Darwin, architect George Dance and writer Charles Dickens all lived in the area at various points in the 1800s, while William Butler Yeats and JM Barrie took up residence slightly later. The “Bloomsbury Set” – a group of friends including writers Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, painter Vanessa Bell and economist John Maynard Keynes – all made their homes in the area in the first half of the 20th century.

Legendary musician Bob Marley lived in Bloomsbury 
for a time in 1972 and more recent neighbours have included contemporary comedians Alexi Sayle, Catherine Tate and 
Ricky Gervais.

Restoration Project

Wanting to create a modern family home, the owners were very conscious of remaining faithful to the Georgian features of the property. Keen to have an energy-efficient, high-tech home, Reeve took great care to ensure the period features were retained. Modern services such as the custom-made Bulthaup kitchen were discreetly threaded through the building to preserve its architectural and historical integrity. Gaining planning permission for some layout amendments made a huge difference to the space and the owner’s lifestyle. An internal partition was removed, opening up the kitchen into the dining area to create a large and light-filled entertaining space. A small glass conservatory and paving was added to the roof, creating a small garden on top of the house.

Reeve explains: “The flat roof was also a real drawcard 
as we knew we would be able to get planning permission for a roof terrace where most of the houses in the street had little or no outdoor space.”

Tip: When mixing décor from different eras, choose one as the dominant style and add pieces from other periods. Clean lines contrast well with intricate woodwork.