Architect William Smalley struck upon a series of elegant solutions to unify this divided three-storey Bloomsbury mews, with Japan providing the solution to open it up to the busy world beyond while maintaining privacy.
The owners of this small three-storey mews home in London’s Bloomsbury are marking 10 years and two days living here on the chilly February morning that Monocle visits. They are sat in a toasty warm study–cum-den on the ground floor, which is lit up by a set of brass task lights next to a wall of books, bits and bobs. It was only recently, following a refit by the British architect William Smalley – who is also based in the neighbourhood – that they really started using this room.
Like so many London mews (originally stables with living areas above), making these ground-floor rooms cosy and welcoming when there is no front garden to keep the world at bay was a challenge. “Before, we felt exposed sitting here on the ground floor with people walking past the window just inches from you,” says one of the owners. “So we kept the blinds down, which then made it an odd place to sit on a sunny day.”
The solution they found came, in part, from a trip to Japan where they took endless pictures of the wooden-slatted screens used to veil windows there. Smalley took these images as a starting point and designed a new flush façade of oak, broken up by two sets of manually controlled vertical slats, or fins. When the fins open, light streams in through the windows behind. Partially open they offer both privacy and stripes of sunshine. Closed, a cocoon is created inside the house. It is a nicely low-tech solution. Another neat detail was a bespoke letterbox set flush into the wood that was designed by Smalley’s assistant Liam Andrews.
The use of oak continues in the ground-floor study where the lightly oiled wood lines the walls, all set against a floor of polished grey plaster. It’s a considered and almost contemplative space with a classic Hans J Wegner sofa to pause on. “It’s a nice place to read a book,” says Smalley. “Architecture should be about that: creating places that you are happy to sit in.”
The owners first questioned the abundant wood that is also used in panels on the stairwell and one wall on the first floor, worried it would look like a Swiss chalet. They were persuaded: “William joked ‘swish’ chalet, not Swiss.” The walls are topped off by a series of Smalley-designed custom-made brass lamps and moveable hooks from which both visitors’ jackets and an assortment of framed pictures hang. Brass adds a touch of elegance, reinforced by the brass handrail and balustrade that leads to the first floor (not to mention Alvar Aalto pendants in the dining area). In a house full of tactile natural materials – plaster, linen, oak, teak, marble – the flicker of brass helps to elevate the tone. Smalley also found a hanging solution on the wooden panels that allowed for no nails but instead a moveable system of small hooks that slide into metal grooves.
On the first floor – with an open-plan living room and kitchen – the character changes from warm and cosy to cool and open. On the second floor, where the master bedroom and shower room are located, it changes once again to dark and comforting. Motifs such as the brass and oak unify the three floors. But so does Smalley’s design aesthetic. His approach was about simplicity – something quiet and English where the materials were left to shine – and a sense of craft, making a home that was modern but grown up. And the clients are happy to admit that Smalley stretched their taste, helping them think about how to use their home. Smalley was also aided by young construction company Amlybuild.
Zoning the tricky mews property was another problem facing Smalley. In the 1980s the house had been converted into two flats. Although they had been merged again when the current owners moved in a decade ago, the slightly divorced nature of the house remained. An inconvenient small bathroom sat on the first floor was ripped out and replaced by a little galley space, with oven, fridge, pantry and dog bowls to keep the living space free of clutter and cooking smells. An en-suite shower room was installed on the second floor in a small lead-box extension tagged onto the top of the house. Light floods in through a flat skylight and a dinky window. This repeats the motif of the façade: being partially connected to the outside world but also closed off from it.
It was appropriate that Japanese screens were such an inspiration. Like traditional machiya, this edifice is on the street but when you’re inside it feels a million miles away. What Smalley has done is make sense of a difficult space that was not initially meant for people. With a gentle restructure, a rejigging of the jagged edges, he has created a unified house where every room is used.
“You should walk away from a place with your eyes closed and remember it,” says Smalley. Perhaps it’s the other way round in this mews: when the shutters are closed, lamps turned on and a seat taken, it is the outside world that becomes a memory.
Brick by brick
William Smalley CV
1984 Given a copy of The Architectural Review by village school headmaster because Smalley spends all his time drawing houses
1999 Leaves University of Edinburgh with first-class degree and diploma in architecture
2003 Qualifies as architect
2010 Establishes his own office
2011 Takes on first staff member (now has five)
2014 Enters first competition: a proposal for Guggenheim Helsinki