A masterclass in space creation

A once-poky, dingy, dark mews studio flat, now a space-efficient ‘Tardis’ that oozes glamour, is testament to the skill of its architect owner.
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Studio apartment and glamour are words not usually used in the same sentence, but in the case of Sofia-born architect Adriana Natcheva, think again, for her 550sq ft mews studio in Kensington oozes glamour from every meticulously used millimetre, and feels twice as big.
“Tardis” and “Alice in Wonderland” readily spring to mind. But it wasn’t always like this, and the dramatic transformation is testament to a mixture of ingenuity and romantic imagination.

However, when Natcheva bought the unpromising studio in 2010, location was about all it had going for it. With a single, ugly, north-facing window at the front and no windows at all at the south-facing back, the already-small space was made worse by being divided into a dingy studio room, with a dark, poky kitchen and bathroom behind. “A sort of granny flat,” she says, wincing.
Natcheva, 40, who was shortlisted this year for the Architects’ Journal woman architect of the year award, studied at Cambridge, after which she got turned down for a couple of dream jobs, being told she was “too ambitious, too driven”, she says. “So eventually, I thought, I’ll just do it by myself.”
In 2000 in Kensington she co-founded Groves Natcheva Architects with Murray Groves, who has been her business partner ever since. While they have designed some achingly svelte private houses, the partnership also does small apartment blocks that combine affordability with sharp, urban style. They are currently designing nine apartments in Clapham.
Natcheva had stayed in the mews, so when her future home came up for sale she pounced. Luckily for her, the mews, built in 1886, isn’t listed, so internal alterations are allowed — and she wasted no time in altering it.
This was where her architect’s eye came into play. Natcheva swept away the partitions and put in windows at the back, bringing in glorious southern light. “The movement of light,” she says, “reminds us of the passage of time.” At the front, she took out the hideous window and replaced it with a big full-height arched sash window, made in mahogany, with toughened glass.
The new window, designed to look as if it has always been there, also has impressive floor-to-ceiling mahogany shutters. “That is where the money went,” Natcheva says, matter-of-factly. But what a difference it makes, adding a touch of Versailles.
The floor went, too, replaced with sustainable ebony shipped all the way from Patagonia. “I ask people to wear high heels,” she says. “I want it patinated — but the wood is so hard!”
Down either side of the big studio room, Natcheva put sliding, glossy black doors, behind which are, in various compartments, her wardrobe, and the kitchen. Very clever and very well fitted, sliding the big doors open is pure theatre. Slide away one panel and a little kitchen emerges, with a glinting, gold-veined Nero Portoro marble worktop and splashback, a bendy Foster tap from Italy, and slick but cheap-to-make MDF cupboards with Japanned handles. Slide another and you are in the larder.
Open the last, and the pièce de résistance emerges: a short passage that leads to a diminutive bathroom tiled in tiny black-and-white squares.
With its immaculately black-grouted walls, ships’ lamps, and old-fashioned stand washbasin, this room is rather sexy-Edwardian. But, ever practical: “You can’t hear anything from the main room,” Natcheva says. In a studio, such a detail — along with being able to hide the kitchen — is very important, and adds to the sense of living somewhere bigger.
Her last major trick was to slip a sleeping mezzanine above the studio, reached by a short flight of mahogany steps. Leather-floored, the bedroom holds just the bed and a few favourite books. “It is like Noah’s Ark, or a tree house. If I was marooned, this is where I should want to be.” But there is more. Above the sliding doors on one side, a library ladder runs along a track. All her books are shelved above, while off the tiny corridor, a utility room is tucked behind a jib door. Every inch is made to work here.
Natcheva furnished the main room so it would function like a theatre set, transforming instantly from banqueting hall to dressing room to candlelit boudoir, enlarging, again, that sense of being in a much bigger space, and one with endless possibilities. Venini glass chandeliers, one designed by Carlo Scarpa, bought on eBay for a song, add grace as well as wonderful light. A desk that Natcheva had bent from a sheet of mild steel, with a magnetised pop-on Bill Amberg blotter, is stunning — and comes to order.
Her work is all about possibility: “I want to give a sense of the richness of life, and hint at something richer,” she says. “The flat can be cosy at night, or romantic — or packed with friends, dancing like crazy.”
  • Architect: grovesnatcheva.com
  • Orpheus desk in mild steel with leather: £5,000 to order from grovesnatcheva.com
  • Window and shutters: by ER Shopfitters (01223 235782)
  • Sustainable ebony flooring: from patagoniaflooring.com
  • Black-and-white bathroom tiles: from Capitol Ceramics (020 7243 4731)
  • Ships’ lamps in bathroom: from davey.co.uk
  • Lefroy Brooks pedestal washbasin: from lefroybrooks.co.uk
  • Bisque classic radiator: in anthracite, from bisque.co.uk
  • Marble: from Antolini Luigi at antolini.com
  • Mixer tap: from Foster at fosterspa.com
  • Cupboard handles: in blackened steel, by Sugatsune (sugatsune.co.uk)
  • Chandeliers by Venini found online. Willy Rizzo cocktail coffee table found at a Paris flea market. Try looking on ebay.com

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