Sunday, 4 September 2011

How to… tackle an old house (Antoni & Alison style)

If you saw today's Insider column in the Independent on Sunday, about the studio/house of Brit fashion design duo Antoni and Alison – and how they did it up, you might want to see how it looks. 

Well, here are a few snaps of their quirkily styled and lovingly restored space...

When the creative partners bought the derelict 1820s house they spent a year, says Antoni, “Going ‘Agh! What do we do with it?’” They wanted to respect its history but not to the point it resembled an English Heritage property. The result is a surprisingly beautiful blend of Mr Blobby ornaments and painstakingly salvaged authenticity. On 17 September, as part of London Fashion Week, they open it to the public (Openhouselondon.org.uk). I asked Antoni what he’d learnt during the restoration…

Love conquers all “Never buy to sell on,” says Antoni. “Fall in love with a place.” It’s what gave he and Alison the strength to grapple with a collapsed roof, wall-mushrooms an exterior covered in plastic flowers. There was also a "secret" cemented over basement that the previous owner had filled with relics from his job – as a dustman. In other words, rubbish.

Gotta have faith “The surveyor told us to ‘walk away’ and my dad, a builder, said ‘don’t do it’,” he continues. “But the house had survived two world wars, been a workshop, a dress-making shop, a lino off-cuts shop and been DIY-ed to death. Being told no gave us a challenge.”

Expert touch "Somebody said: ‘Get an architect’. So we did. And it was brilliant because the architect said, 'What you want to do is lose this wall here, rip out this, turn it into a big modernist space…’ and then we knew he was talking rubbish. It made us realise we wanted to preserve as much as we could because we’d grown to love everything about it."

Your history “We asked people in the local pub, went to the records office – anything to piece together the house’s history. It helped us make decisions about what to keep and restore.”

Can’t touch this “Don’t do anything immediately – it took us a year of thinking to start work. We took photos of every inch and laid them out elsewhere to help us make a plan. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed while surrounded by the space.” It is also tempting, he adds, to expose wonderful things as you find them – in their case, the original banisters, among many other treasures. But resist until building work is complete – things are easily ruined amid the dust and chaos.

Truth and rights “The house’s history was important to us – but we weren’t slaves to the era. When we added new bits, even matching wood panels, we didn’t try to make them look old. Nothing is fake: we wanted to be honest.”

Mega mix The duo have chairs – which you can see further up – once owned by the Beatles (bought from the Jesus and Mary Christian Trust and, now, adorned with a specially- made brass plaque noting the Fab Four's probable link), Billy Butlin’s old bathroom (the sink is also labelled with one of the pair's commissioned plaques) and 1940s lighting discarded from a department store. “We deliberately added things slowly and organically,” Antoni explains. “It’s not stuff you’d maybe think would all work in a Georgian house – like Mr Blobby! But he fits in beautifully because he’s loved. And I think that’s the secret: don’t get things just because you think they’re worth something, get them because you think ‘I really love that.’”

Search and rescueSalvo is brilliant. You can post very specific things you’re after – like an 1820s sink – and someone, nerdishly, will have a tip.”

Scene and heard Interview a good few builders on-site: “You wouldn’t hire anyone else without doing so. And listen more than you speak.”


Boxing clever Antoni's dad was a builder. His top tip? “Don’t let workmen box things in. If they make stuff thinking it’ll be on display, they’ll do it beautifully. Box in at the end if you like, knowing there’s perfection underneath.”

Inside job Take a guided tour of the house online: Antoniandalison.co.uk

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