Next, hire José Selgas and Lucía Cano, the white-hot architecture duo designing this summer’s Serpentine Pavilion, to rip apart a boring concrete office building in east London and refit it with huge splashes of dazzling orange and rapeseed yellow. Then throw in 600 different mid-century modern chairs and lamps, and 1,000 hydroponic plants and trees, plus a springy pure wool carpet.
Give the place a restaurant with former Ottolenghi head chef Louis Solley on the burners and, finally, add superfast broadband, before leasing space, divided by transparent, curvaceous plexiglass, to 31 fledgling companies — and bingo, you’ve just invented Second Home.
FUN PLACE TO BE
The minute you see the cigar-shaped café cantilevered over the pavement on the front of the once bog-standard Seventies block, with young saplings all along its side and a stream of arty people going in and out of the futuristic doors controlled by a pulley, you know it’ll be fun to be here.
That feeling increases once inside the airy two-storey space that, until last summer, was a nondescript building minding its own business. Second Home’s design is (as its name implies) deliberately modern-homey, even down to the duck egg blue domestic carpet, chosen from a high street shop, used for the walkways.
From the start, Rohan and Sam had big plans. They met in 2011, introduced by Rohan’s wife, Kate, who’d worked with Sam at Shuffle (which aims to make public spaces work better). Rohan was still at Number 10, which he’d leave in 2013, looking for a new challenge. So the pair sat down and discussed what they could do.
“We all talk about the housing crisis,” says Rohan, “but there’s an even bigger crisis for small businesses. The only place for them to go is the equivalent of a tatty bedsit, but we’re saying there’s a better way to go — and in the future we want to do residential spaces, too.”
Rohan claims this is a golden age for entrepreneurs: “Last year, more businesses started up than any other year. Small businesses have gone from 700,000 in the Seventies to 5.1 million today. Yet, all my friends who run companies were frustrated by what the City was serving up in terms of offices.”
Sam, who looks after the design side of things, says that for small start-ups, working around similar groups of people is more inspiring. Similarly, spaces with cultural bolt-ons, such as galleries or activities and a fun, well-designed environment, also make a big difference.
So the pair decided on a design-led office space. Then luck stepped in, for the aunt and uncle of Sam’s fiancée, Isabel, just happened to be José Selgas and Lucía Cano.
SelgasCano is known throughout Europe for using modern materials, particularly glass and acrylic and bright colours. Second Home is their first work in the UK, and the Serpentine Pavilion will be their first new-build. But, as Sam points out, the design they came up with for Second Home is closer to their own home than anything they’ve done so far — and, as he’s almost related to them, he should know.
Sam and Rohan rented the square building, which was on four floors with a solid back wall, and SelgasCano came up with the designs early last year. The designs went to the planners in May 2014, were passed without a quibble, and went onsite in June. All the work was done by November.
One amazing room now has a table shaped like a Scalextric track that lifts up into the ceiling on mechanised pulleys. This room is for ‘roaming’ workers. Another smaller room is called the Hanging Gardens, with a palm tree and hanging plants. In this calm oasis you cannot use mobiles or computers.
The architects not only proposed the bold café cantilevered on the front, but also knocked out the whole back wall and replaced it with glass. They also put in a mezzanine floor, making lots more studio space.
“The day before we opened,” says Sam, “we were here with the architects, running about, moving things. We had our Marigolds on, wiping things down.”
Rohan says he left government to get his hands dirty — but he didn’t realise how dirty.
“The architects still come back every two weeks and move chairs around. It’s a real family affair.”
Get the look
- Architects: SelgasCano (www.selgascano.net)
- Royal pure wool carpet from Westex Carpets at www.westexcarpets.co.uk
- 600 chairs and tables from all over the place, including eBay, Brussels Design Fair, and the junk shops of Croydon
- Trees planted outside (all different) from Barcham tree specialists at www.barcham.co.uk
- Poured resin floors from www.monofloor.com
- Curtains from Danish textile company Kvadrat at www.kvadrat.dk
Eat the look
- Jago restaurant run by third partner, Hugo Thurston. Find details at www.jagorestaurant.com
- Coffee from the Workshop Coffee Company at www.workshopcoffee.com
- Handmade artisanal cheeses from www.androuet.co.uk
- Bagels from Beigel Bake at 159, Brick Lane, E1 (020 7729 0616)