Within earshot of the birdsong that emanates from London’s Hampstead Heath, sits a street of elegant brick Georgian cottages. This one belongs to Lea Schwartz, a Czech-born former academic and doctor of sociology, and her American husband Peter, a lawyer.
Hidden under heavy curtains, cream carpets and Laura Ashley wallpaper when they found it in 2013, the listed building also sported an unappealing 1950s side extension. For Lea, though, it was easy to see this property’s potential.
‘Georgian architecture is very modern in its own way, with its simplicity and clean lines – it reminds me of the functionalism of the architecture when I was growing up in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia,’ she muses. ‘Peter and I both love old and modern looks and this place allowed us to combine the two.’
‘I wanted a monochrome scheme that was warm and edgy, yet timeless,’ explains Lea, who is drawn to the low-key, rough luxe of the Antwerp design aesthetic. ‘However, at my initial meetings with architects, they kept pushing the same sleek, polished look.’ Then she stumbled across a project by McLaren Excell, which, at the time, was an up-and-coming practice. ‘It was exactly what I wanted: raw, genuine, natural, simple.’
In the original part of the house, the architects remained sensitive to the period architecture, but they rebuilt the side extension and created a new Corten steel-clad rear extension for the kitchen-dining area. Its rust-coloured steel is part of a tactile palette of robust raw materials, including concrete and Douglas fir, deployed throughout the house.
Lea has long admired the use of wood-shuttered concrete in Brutalist buildings and here it brings a brooding quality to the beamed ceilings and panelled walls of the extension’s rooms. McLaren Excell also had the brilliant idea to juxtapose the concrete with areas of the actual timber that had been used for the shuttering process, creating a pleasing visual rhythm. In the older parts of the property, exposed brickwork and unpainted plaster walls reveal the layers of history.
To do justice to the architecture, Lea has curated a mix of modernist furniture, custom-made pieces and globally sourced contemporary designs. Rather than focusing on an era, she is guided by a love of geometric forms and the warm, tactile materials.
‘I’m naturally drawn to what are often perceived as more masculine styles,’ she explains. ‘Visual noise and clutter make me unsettled, but I’m not a minimalist; that feels too cold. I need to have a relationship with the space I live in for it to feel real and genuine. Concrete and brutalism will always mean “home” to me.’ mclarenexcell.com
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