Ben Adams bought his two-storey, three-bedroom townhouse in Forest Hill, south-east London, ten years ago and spent two years renovating the building. Designed by British Architect Norman Starrett in the 1960s, it’s fairly unassuming from the outside. I’d walked past many times and barely given them a second glance. It was only when I was invited to take a look inside by resident Ben Adams, founder of mid-century furniture store Designs of Modernity, that I realised just what incredible living spaces they are.
All interior photography by Brotherton-Lock
1960s Townhouse: saving the sore thumb in the terrace
I ask Ben what drew him to the house. “I’d always known these houses were here, but they look very small from the outside, so they weren’t on my radar. I wasn’t thinking about moving but I happened to walk past an estate agent and the house was there in the window. I arranged to view it out of curiosity. It needed a lot of work, which appealed to me – it struck me as the sore thumb in the terrace and someone needed to save it.” And save it he certainly did. In fact Ben devoted a great deal of time to researching the architecture in order to help guide his renovations. Norman Starrett designed the row of eight houses in 1964 for the development company Hyndewood, a company that is perhaps only rivalled by Span in the UK for the quality of its post-war housing. He was known to re-use or adapt his ‘trademark’ architectural features, and Ben regularly visits other Starrett houses out of curiosity when they come onto the market.
1960s Townhouse: the living zones
The architect split the ground floor space into ‘zones’. On entering through the front door, an expansive open-plan living space stretches ahead; this was once divided by teak sliding panels, to provide a dining area and a ‘sitting’ area. Ben explains, “This was all gone when I moved in. I found the original broken up pieces of timber in the garage. I thought about reinstating the screen, but decided to leave the room as one and instead used the wood for other repairs within the house.”
1960s Townhouse: the staircase
Ben built the striking balustrade in the stairwell himself, which reaches all the way up to the upstairs landing. “The original had been removed by the previous owners to create an open staircase. I fell down it once and decided to put up a balustrade, which ‘zones off’ the stairwell in accordance with Starrett’s ideals. It was inspired by an Alvar Aalto design; the balustrade is made from reclaimed church pews, it’s the same Columbian pine as the original staircase. I found the hand rail on a skip a few doors down when a house belonging to one of the original residents was being cleared”. He adds, “It was sad to see so many of the original fixtures coming out. That’s actually where I got the parquet floor for the upstairs landing.”
1960s Townhouse: the glazed doors
Ben commissioned the glazed sliding doors at the back of the house for easier access to the garden to replace the original single door and window. “I had a joiner make the framework from a tropical hardwood called sapele, based on sketches I’d drawn. I went to visit a detached Starrett house in Kent, which was built on a bigger budget, and I designed the doors to be exactly like the ones he’d specced there.”
1960s Townhouse: the kitchen
The original galley kitchen was located at the front of the house, separated from the living area by a Columbian pine ‘bar’. It faced the entrance hall and the original walls and cupboards were also clad in Columbian pine, specified by the architect. All this was however long gone by the time Ben bought the place and the kitchen was instead very much a room in itself. The original floor-to-ceiling window, which looked onto the front ‘courtyard garden’ had been replaced with an over-counter UPVC model. Conceding that the extra unit space was actually more practical, Ben installed a timber-framed window of the same dimensions in its place, once again closely studying windows in other Starrett houses to ensure the style sat comfortably with the rest of the building. He also fitted narrow horizontal panes of white glass into the two internal kitchen walls to allow more light to flow through the space, and these compliment the architecture beautifully. The stark white kitchen units are now set off against a solid worktop of reclaimed 1950s teak.
1960s Townhouse: upstairs and the bathroom
The open-tread stairs lead to a landing on the first floor, off which there are three bedrooms (one now an office and another a music room) and a bathroom. Typically for the 1960s, a wall separated the bathroom and toilet and Ben has knocked the two rooms into one to create a more generously proportioned space. Although it has no external walls, light floods the room from a glazed channel that runs the length of the ceiling. It is in fact the lightest room in the house! Ben has stripped the floor back to the concrete, which combines with the white tiles to give an airy industrial feel.
1960s Townhouse: Ben, Britpop and Designs of Modernity
I’m keen to find out where Ben’s creative eye and appreciation for Modernist architecture originated. He tells me, “My mother was a theatre set designer and my father, an actor turned antiques-dealer. When I was as young as five, I’d go into some pretty interesting, eclectically furnished houses with him, many of which belonged to actor friends of his and looked like they could be from a ’70s movie.” “I’ve always been interested in American Modernism, specifically the Los Angeles Case Study houses – and I found my own poor-man’s version here in Forest Hill! I still have pieces of Eames and Bertoia furniture in the house that I collected years back – it’s timeless.” The other love in Ben’s life is music, and I spot numerous clues to his previous life as the singer and guitarist in Britpop band Vibrola. So how did he come to be in the furniture business? “I worked for Vitra in the late ’80s as a service employee”. At that time Vitra had just taken over the franchise of Eames products in the UK, so if you had Eames furniture (Ben points out that only the uber cool did back then), your primary contact had to be Vitra. “I’d turn up to service someone’s lounge chair and stay for a half-hour chat about design when I’d finished.” It was his own house however that was the catalyst for Ben’s mid-century furniture business. Having quit his job to focus his attention on the renovation, he explains, “One day I stopped the car at the traffic lights, I looked left and saw a shop with 50 second-hand Eames soft pad office chairs stacked outside. I asked how much they were and was told £100 each, if I took the lot. I knew I had to do it, so I brought them home and lined them up in the living room. They sold on eBay really quickly and I realised I could make a living doing this. I decided to create my own website and finally opened my shop, Designs of Modernity, in 2005.”
1960s Townhouse: mid-century furniture
And so to the furniture. I notice that Ben has a fairly ‘masculine’ interior design style. Well, let’s be honest, there’s hardy a cushion or throw in sight! However, the forms of the metal-framed Dutch Gelderland sofas, the coated wire Harry Bertoia Bird Chair and Eames DKR Chair are skillfully tempered by the mix of tropical hardwoods: a strikingly grained Rio rosewood sideboard by Merrow Associates, a teak Arne Wahl Iversen desk, slatted rosewood Hans Brattrud Scandia dining chairs, and a teak Kay Bojesen monkey, who playfully balances mid-swing on the edge of the book case. Not to mention the stunning teak parquet flooring. Ben evidently enjoys mixing metal and wood and he tells me that it took a long time to source furniture that was right for the room. “The furniture needs to tie the space together, though it only works if each ‘zone’ remains distinct. It’s important to leave uncluttered space around the furniture, otherwise it looks too solid”. I ask him whether all this is here to stay? “Because things come and go so easily, the objects I have ended up keeping generally have some sort of story attached to them. I picked up the Hans Brattrud dining chairs eight years ago at auction – I bought them with the intention of selling, but I put them in the house and they’ve stayed ever since. The Arne Wahl Iversen desk has been here almost as long. It’s a nice early example made from an interesting big-grained teak and it really works under the stairs. And then there’s the Merrow Associates sideboard, which I spotted in an unlikely place, and for a complete steal – it’s the only time that’s ever happened to me and I just can’t sell it on!”
1960s Townhouse: A slice of Los Angeles Modernism
As I say goodbye and head back down the hill, I ponder on just how much of this house is Norman Starrett and how much Ben Adams. I take my hat off to Ben. Through his dedication to this building, he’s managed to pull off a sympathetic renovation while making concessions to contemporary living that allow the place to function as a truly Modern home. Oh yes, Ben has certainly created his slice of Los Angeles Modernism here in Forest Hill, and I vow to make a point of stopping to admire this tidy row of townhouses when I pass them in future.
Check out Ben’s shop Designs of Modernity If you enjoyed this article, you may like Scandinavian Modernism in London: A Treetop Treat Other interior articles an full photo shoots are published in the print issues of MidCentury magazine For more on LA Modern homes, see Julius Shulman and the Case Study House Program