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Before and after in Berlin

I like interiors. I like writing about them, looking at them and creating nice spaces to spend time in... in my own home, at least. Which was what I discovered when I agreed to help a friend do up his new flat in Berlin last year.

Because, oh my god. Doing someone else's interior – a friend's? In another city to the one you live in? Where you don't speak the language or know any of the shops? And as a favour, when it's not your real job (writing about interiors is nothing like doing interiors)? Hmm. There were some challenges. We'll come to those. But first, here's what it looked like before we got started...

The kitchen: in German flats it is the norm to rip out the kitchen before you move out, leaving an empty shell for the new occupants. Pretty weird, I thought – or are us Brits alone in leaving things intact when we ship out?

The bedroom: what to do with that odd bit of sticky-out wall was an early challenge, satisfyingly resolved. And the cheap laminate flooring? We eventually decided (after many anguished and lengthy Skype chats, usually for some reason at midnight), that there was no decent cheap option that worked in the overall budget. Other things, my friend decided, were more important. He could live with the floor.

The chats we had and research we did, however – prompted by another friend asking for similar advice – turned into one of my columns in the Independent on Sunday (see the blog version here, with more pictures). What did change, though, was the nasty excuse for skirting boards: they looked more like picture frame mouldings and only drew more attention to the laminate flooring.

The living room: a decent space and a nice balcony at the end, but a very dark room.

The windowsills all over the flat were like this: made from chopped up, pinkish fake marble laminate worktops. Nice. The solution, which you will see in various images lower down, was to bin them all and get MDF ones made, with square corners, and simply paint them. They are nice deep sills, but they didn't need to be turned into a jarring feature.

The bathroom: due to the brief ("spend as little as possible – no major works") this stayed pretty much as is, a stand-alone job for another time. I think it'd look great done out like the kitchen on this beautiful houseboat – you'll see the yellow would mirror the flash of sunshine in the kitchen.

Now for the after pictures. All I see when I look at these are all the things I would have done differently, or didn't have time to get to. Just as in my own home.

Though I went over initially to see the flat, everything – aside from what got done during a very sweaty and frantic three days there last August, while my friend was in London – happened remotely. Not easy... (My friend divides his time between London, his main base, and Berlin.) Interior designers and stylists, I knew your jobs were hard. Now I have experienced the pain first-hand: the physical labour! The communication challenges! The many chefs! The frustration of not being on site every time you need to be! The tiny but important details that go awry when you're not! All this and the responsibility of spending someone else's money wisely, and in a way that will do what you consider to be a good, stylish job, but which will comfort them and make the place feel like home, not a place you've just come and transplanted your own taste into...

Here's the kitchen (as it looks on the Airbnb website – details of that below). Those cupboards caused some issues: I was against the visible panelling along the bottom of the wall cupboards, but wasn't there to make final decisions as they happened. And the cupboards, generally... we were gutted to discover that Ikea had stopped selling their Nexus range in the wonderfully warm wood-veneer they used to sell. It was called Yellow Gold and had a real late 60s, 70s feel (it's also featured in the afore-mentioned houseboat).

The most obvious approach to the flat would have been to do it all white and crisp – very Berlin: but – apart from the bedroom, which we'll get to in a sec – the flat has virtually no natural light; big windows but all facing the wrong way or shielded by other buildings. White + no light tends to result in dingy and cold (the opposite to what you might imagine – but if there is no light, white paint can't increase it, so better to go for a mid-tone colour with some substance). However...

...the floor was a step too far – in my opinion. It was a late-night "well blue might work" idea that got actioned straight away (I suggested, he bought).

I really wanted black, white and grey check (as you can see one of my early – and very basic – Photoshop mock-ups on the left).

But my friend loves the blue floor and that is what is important – and I'm just happy he doesn't hate me for suggesting it in the first place...

In my own shots, you can see how dark the wooden cupboard doors are. But we made the best of them. Initially – in the "in-between" stage, the kitchen looked like this...

See how cold the room looks with paler walls? This was what I arrived to for my three-day shopping and handyman-instructing stay in Berlin. My friend was reluctant to mess with the walls as they'd already been painted once (communication about paint colours when you're not actually there to see it in person, when light changes everything, proved rather tricky too). So I pushed him to agree to the paint-job – and the shelves, even though there was enough storage.

Decisions decisions: two shelves or three?

You wouldn't perhaps think that grey would warm things up... but it really did, don't you think?

The worktops look like polished concrete – which is what we wanted – but far cheaper and more manageable is Beton Cire, a material that my friend's excellent builder Bert told us about: you build the worktop out of wood, and then just cover the surface with this stuff – rather than filling an entire mould with solid concrete. You can read about worktops in this column I wrote on the topic while all this was going on (the details for the Beton Cire are at the end).

All the little bits and pieces came from a frenetic flea-market dash – I did five of them in two days on one of the hottest weekends of the summer. I was pleased with my finds, though, especially the wooden East German houses (the flat is on the east side of the city) and the nice trio of jugs that complements the floor, which helped me to curse it a little bit less.

The inspiration for the kitchen came a little bit from here, and – for the colours, at least – from this wonderful signage on the U-Bahn.

Below: the bedroom. This lovely, light room worked beautifully with plain white walls and just a few splashes of colour.

And see what we did with that odd bit of wall? Made the perfect headboard with a bit of extension.

The bedside lights were easy, even though my friend balked initially at us buying all the bits to make the separately. We got wire with a lampholder on one end, a plug on the other, and a switch in the middle from Fabric Cable (it's not at all pricey and comes in loads of different colours). The shades are old jelly moulds found on eBay, and the hangers are simply shelf brackets. We just wound the wire around each one to fix the lamps in place. Great if you don't want the hassle of chasing wall lights into plasterwork.

The living room, done. I think the monochrome rug does a decent job of taking your eye away from the laminate flooring in here. It would look better against some lovely real wood, but the overall effect isn't bad. No? (Read about the tribulations of getting this rug in situ in this previous post – and see how the room looked before the yellow wall arrived.) You also get a good view of how much difference those new skirting boards make in the top left image.

Here's the other end of the living room. What could be more on budget than a row of postcards (hung on little nails, with miniature bulldog clips) to spruce up a bare corner? The African fabric (from my local market in London) on the cushion is the same as the curtains in the kitchen. He's been polite, but I do wonder if this choice was more colourful and feminine than my friend would ideally have liked. Another tricky moment.

The overall palette has many more colours than I'd originally imagined: but considering my friend's outlook when the process began, I was just happy to hear that he was out buying stuff confidently.

When the process began, he asked for my help because he thought he was clueless and didn't know what to buy. I told him he wasn't – but I guess it takes practice to tune into what you like when you're not used to making those sorts of decisions. He knew he liked the Berlin “ostalgia” vibe (mid-century East German stylings) but that starting point was almost all there was. Our first flea-market trip was together – and I vividly remember my friend's deferrals. I thought it was just his hangover (well, it was partly his hangover) but mainly it was lack of confidence because it was all so totally new to him.

But the more he got into it, the more he discovered that of course he had taste and style – and got enthusiastic about buying stuff himself. And while I might look back at the pictures and fussily think "I wish I'd done this" or "why didn't we choose that?" – that's not really important. The process, arduous and challenging as it was, has resulted in someone who knows what he likes and where he'd start if he did the whole thing again... Hurrah!

And if you'd like to stay in the flat, you can find it on Airbnb.


  1. Great post Kate. The flat looks gorgeous and there are so many little details that are really enjoyable and useful. The grey kitchen and the yellow tiles are delicious. We have just bought our first ever place and it needs so so much work that we are currently quite freaked out. Your post was very comforting late night reading yesterday. Made me feel bit calmer and like it'll be okay, we can do it etc etc. So thank you! Katie

    1. Katie - thank you, that's nice to hear. And congratulations and good luck with your own place - you'll have to share some pictures of your progress (all in good time!) Kate