Photography by Tino Tedaldi
James Thomas and David O’Brien live with their Boston Terrier, Cooper, in a two-storey 1960s town house in South-east London. With a palpably Victorian approach to collecting the objects that surround them, the pair have put their own unique twist on the mid-century interior of their home.
Eclectic Modern: a look around the house
On entering at ground floor level, a hallway gives way to a cloakroom, a garage, and a study that looks out onto a courtyard garden. The imposing central staircase leads up to the first and second floors. At first floor level, there is an airy U-shaped open-plan space, comprising a dining area, kitchen, and living area. The spaces on the second floor are smaller and more intimate, with two bedrooms, a sizeable dressing room and a bathroom.
Eclectic Modern: discovering mid-century architecture
Having resided solely in Victorian properties for the previous eight years, I’m keen to find out what drew James and David to a 1960s house. David explains “We wanted to move to south London and spotted a house we liked on a development in Champion Hill, designed by architect Peter Moiret in 1967. Although this property was over our budget, it sparked our interest in 1960s housing. Shortly afterwards, we stumbled upon the Dulwich Estate, built by Wates in 1964”. And this is where they eventually bought.
The pair share their initial impressions on seeing inside. “It was an absolute wreck. It looked pretty unloved, but as a result it had remained largely untouched”. The original steel-framed Crittall windows were still in place and the colour palette had remained intact, with the front door painted in its original colour. Inside it was all there: the reeded interior glazing, the striking stairwell, the narrow wooden floor boards in the living area and the hot air heating system.
James recalls, “The space and the light felt really good. We could see that all we had to do was strip it back and let some air run through the house. It needed to breathe again”. The place was theirs a few months later. “We love the upside-down layout, with the kitchen and living area on the first floor. It stays lighter for longer up here in the evenings.”
Eclectic Modern: renovating a 1960s house
Then came the renovation. The open-plan living space was originally divided into three sections: the dining room, entered from the stairwell, was partitioned off from the living area on one side, by a heavy-duty curtain, and from the kitchen on the other, by a partition wall. Once this had been opened up, David and James added two vertical reeded glass panels to the stairwell wall to carry the light through into this space. “We’d seen some glass panelling in the stairwell of a neighbour’s house and we decided to put our own in.”
Each room contains a playful splash of colour on one wall. “We wanted to create injections of colour that you would discover on turning a corner or drawing a curtain. We did a lot of research into the 1960s colour palette and we were careful to choose tones that felt ‘now’, but acknowledged the period”. The green wall in the living area cleverly mimics the foliage outside and the blue in the dressing room references the external panelling on the surrounding houses.
On opening up the kitchen area, James and David selected contemporary units to fit their new space. “We wanted it to seamlessly integrate with the rest of the room. We kept the grey gloss units on a low level and paired them with a white worktop to match the white walls. We found classic-looking matt square tiles for the back wall behind the cooker – in yellow”. He adds “I truly believe that a little bit of yellow makes you feel happy, so we have yellow objects dotted throughout the room.”
And then there’s the bathroom. Matt Grey tiles are paired with a white bathroom suite for a neutral aesthetic, and the floor tiles were chosen for textural contrast. James explains, “The colour of the grain and the textured bumps reminded us of the flooring in the public swimming baths we’d visited as kids. Our friends thought we were mad, but the tiles are so synonymous with the mid-century period.”
Eclectic Modern: a design ethos
I ask the pair to talk me through their design ethos. James sums it up. “I would call our style ‘New Modern’. We surround ourselves with objects that have a story behind them. Each one means something to us and when grouped together, they create a warm and friendly environment”. If the function of a home is to convey the personalities of its inhabitants, then this one does so very effectively. “We want people to feel comfortable when they come to visit, to leave their shoes on if they want to. We try not to be too precious about our things – you can’t be when you have a dog!”
David interjects “I would call it ‘Eclectic Modern’. We’ve been together for 13 years; we each brought our own things into the house and have gone on to accumulate more as a couple – there’s a lot of history here”. I ask him how they go about choosing what to buy. “For us it’s about finding the right pieces for the property and we’re prepared to change our furniture depending on where we live. Over time, it’s become more about shape, size and finish than name or brand.”
James tells me about an Arts and Crafts bed he bought on a whim a few years back. “It looks just as good in this house as it did in the Victorian place”. David describes the William IV sofa, which he found in a house clearance sale. “We love the juxtaposition with the Modern Robin Day Hillestack chairs and our Eames Eiffel chairs”. I admire the rosewood dining table, with its contrasting black extending panels at the ends, the floor lamp in the living area, an upcycled piece fashioned from a surveyor’s tripod, and the stunning Poul Cadovius rosewood wall unit that defines their living room.
Everywhere I look, there is something that captures my interest: Georgian dolls house cutlery is mounted and framed on the kitchen wall, a set of brilliant blue 1960s ‘Totem’ ceramic jars by Portmeirion are lined up by the cooker, and the head of a stuffed deer watches my every move from across the room. James says “I’m a big fan of taxidermy. We brought eight pieces with us from our Victorian house and they look beautiful in a white modern space.”
Eclectic Modern: no going back
Before I leave, I ask James and David whether they would have considered living in this type of building a few years ago. “I don’t think so. Having now experienced life in a mid-century property, we find the light and the space almost infectious. I think it’s opened our eyes and made us look at architecture very differently.”
For the full article and more photographs, see Mix and Match: Vintage meet Victoriana in south-east London in MidCentury issue 05
For more on the Dulwich Estate, check out our article The Dulwich Estate: A hillside haven in south-east London
We take a tour of a very different house on the Dulwich Estate in Mid Century Home: A hand-me-down from 1958
For more information on Peter Moiret’s estate ‘The Hamlet’ in Champion Hill, London, click here