From industrial warehouse to stunning home, this was one renovation project with a huge difference…
For internationally acclaimed sculptor Jeff Lowe, renovating a house is more than a plaster-and-paint job – it’s an artistic project in its own right. When Jeff bought a disused industrial building in Forest Hill, south east London, his plan was to transform it into a unique space to live and work in – but the direction it would ultimately take was to be an evolving artistic process, just like the artworks Jeff creates and exhibits all over the world.
‘When I first discovered Havelock Walk 20 years ago, it was an ugly, underused, unsafe row of buildings, but I was attracted to it as I could see the potential for buying the properties cheaply and turning them into wonderful creative spaces,’ says Jeff. ‘I bought, renovated and lived in one property, and encouraged other artistic people to do the same. It’s now an energetic, creative community of painters, dancers, photographers and ceramicists.’ However, it wasn’t until seven years ago that Jeff turned his attention to another building on the cobbled mews…
‘This was the ugliest building on the row, but I saw it as a challenge,’ says Jeff. ‘Most properties on the mews date from the 1860s, but this one had been bombed during the War, and rebuilt in brick, concrete and steel. It had since been used as an industrial storage space downstairs, and for unofficial church meetings upstairs. There was nearly 5,000 sq ft of floor space to work with. I planned to turn it into a live/work space, with a ground floor studio and gallery area for my artwork.
For the next two years, Jeff and his team of builders, carpenters and craftspeople worked to transform the wrecked shell into a sumptuous building, inside and out – including adding an extra storey. It was a major job – the floors had to be dug out, insulation installed, walls moved and all windows and doors replaced. A rolling garage door at the front of the building was taken out, and a series of large double doors were installed, opening into an airy studio.
‘I originally got planning permission to turn the building into two separate properties,’ says Jeff. ‘But as I developed and restored it, I realised I liked it as one.’
This change of direction is typical of Jeff’s approach to property renovations – of which he has done several.
‘I don’t like to design too much on paper – I like to see how a space evolves and progresses as I’m going along,’ he says. ‘As a sculptor, I’m more familiar with this process. I tend to continue designing and changing a property as it comes together around me, piecing the different elements together like a giant jigsaw. I’m a great believer in the positive results of accidents.’ Fortunately, Jeff’s builders have worked with him on several renovations, and are used to his way of working! ‘However, I knew I was aiming for a sense of grandeur,’ adds Jeff. ‘I love stone pediments, cast iron columns and pillars, and big doors with ornate door handles. I wanted to give the impression that the elements were original to the building – while also creating a feeling of being in the Mediterranean, rather than south east London!’
Voyage of discovery
When it came to decorating the property, the quirky features and curios to be found at every turn were more than an afterthought for Jeff – they were central to the design, and each item holds a special memory of a trip abroad or an exciting discovery in a salvage yard.
‘The cast iron columns inside the house were salvaged from Smithfield Market,’ says Jeff. ‘The iron balconies on the front of the property were originally from a chateau in France, as were some ornate radiators.
‘I got a call from a sculptor friend one day, alerting me to the fact that Lord’s Cricket Ground was getting rid of a load of pine boards from its roof. I got enough well-seasoned pitch pine planks to do almost all my flooring.
‘I also found a beautiful angled Art Deco shop counter in Portugal, which I turned into a bar-style kitchen counter, and I designed the rest of the kitchen around it. I added vintage barstools on cast iron bases, which are from The Old Fire Station salvage dealer on the Old Kent Road. I’d have liked more, but they only had three.
‘The cast aluminium plaque, which I placed on the kitchen window, says, “Jewish Home Of Rest”. It was a lucky find at The Old Bath House reclamation centre in Sydenham, south east London. I just loved it.’
Jeff found most of the rest of the furnishings, including tables and chairs, and the fixtures and fittings, such as ornate door handles, at auctions and salvage yards. He combines them with an artistic eye, to spectacular effect.
‘I like the arts and crafts look, and I don’t worry too much about whether things “fit” together,’ says Jeff. ‘I appreciate the minimalist look – but for me, decorating a space is all about history, love and inspiration.’
To learn more about Havelock Walk artists’ community (studios are sometimes open to the public), visit www.havelockwalk.com
Picture: Paul Scannell.
For more about Jeff Lowe’s sculpting work and studio renovations, visit www.jeff-lowe.com
First published in At Home with Sarah Beeny