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Out of the Box

Report Vinny Lee
Photographs by Ray Main

The Times Magazine, 1 November 2008

'An apartment in a block of Fifties flats is not an obvious choice for a family of four. But Richard Lewis saw beyond the small rooms and their dividing walls, and conjured a radically different space.'

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'Management consultant Richard Lewis is something of an expert when it comes to finding solutions to tricky problems. So when he and his wife, Catherine Samy, decided they need to convert the Fifties flat in Central London that they shared with their two daughters, India and Sky, he relished the task.

'The couple already knew the building well, having lived for eight years in one of its basement flats. The block is typical of its era - angular, with Crittall metal frame windows - and was designed by Richard Seifert, the architect of such well-known London landmarks as Centrepoint and the Woolworths Building on Marylebone Road. "We heard that the flat was coming on the market and knew it was what we wanted. It is high up so it has a view of the garden square in front. It is also a corner site, so there are windows on two sides," explains Lewis.

'But the 1100sq ft apartment was divided into small, boxy rooms. "We got hold of the original drawings and they showed that the building was constructed 'from the outside'," he continues. "That meant that the internal walls were not part of the supporting structure and could be easily removed and repositioned." And so the conversion from old-fashioned apartment to modern family home began.

'Lewis got in touch with architect Ben Kilburn of Cullum and Nightingale, who had worked with him and Samy on the conversion of their barn in Suffolk some years before. "We had an initial meeting with Ben but left thinking that the scheme wasn't dramatic enough; it lacked a big idea. At the second meeting Ben showed us his scheme for the entrance hall and feature wall and we knew then that we were heading in the right direction," says Lewis, founder of the Pecos Group consultancy. "The feature wall is what greets you as you enter the flat. The walnut-wood wall tapers so that it is narrower at the bedroom end and slightly wider as it opens into the living area - it gives the feeling of walking out into a larger space."

'The walnut wall also conceals two doors: one to a bathroom, and the other to a utility room and store. The utility room is part of a bigger scheme. Lewis explains: "When the girls are older and want their own rooms, we can move the kitchen forward into the dining area, and the section that is currently the utility room can be extended back to form another room."

'For now, though, the girls are happy sharing their bedroom with its built-in, raised platform-bed and individual desk spaces underneath. The panel behind the bunk-bed workstation is electric green. "Mummy gave us a few colours to choose from and we both agreed on the green," says India. "The original scheme of the girl's room had a raspberry-pink wall but the good taste committee vetoed that, making it quite clear that pink isn't their colour," adds Lewis. "We both love colour, but it has been designated to private spaces." The bathroom concealed behind the walnut wall is bright orange, and the bathroom en suite to Lewis and Samy's room is a brilliant turquoise.

'Another feature of the main corridor is its unobtrusive but capacious storage. On the walls opposite the walnut fascia there are a number of deep, built-in wardrobes. "This is also our dressing room. The bedroom is small so we keep a minimal amount of stuff in there," says Lewis.

'As the corridor opens into the living space you pass another cunningly concealed feature, a pivoting end panel. This last section of the walnut wall opens and swings over to close off the living area from the rest of the flat, making it possible to create two distinct areas and to limit noise and disruption.

'The living area of the apartment is arranged around the garden-facing corner and its light aspect. The space is divided into a shelf-filled sitting room, a purpose-built kitchen and a spacious dining area with bespoke red lacquer and Corian cabinet unit - the only splash of colour in the otherwise monochrome room.

'"The walls aren't pure white; they have a hint of grey to prevent them from being too severe, and it is also more in keeping with the colour of the poured resin floor," says Lewis. "The kitchen units and shelving were constructed off site and brought into the flat in sections. That's especially useful if in future we want to put in the extra bedroom, because it is constructed in blocks and set against a back panel and can be dismantled easily," says Lewis.'

'The colour scheme for that extra bedroom, should it ever materialise, is anybody's guess. Although, judging by past verdicts of the good taste committee, it seems a pretty safe bet that it won't be pink.'