How to style a modern home:inside an iconic north London penthouse filled with furniture design classics

Magnus Englund so loved the Isokon Building in Belsize Park he moved in, restored his flat and filled it with period plywood classics.

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Magnus Englund, the Swedish design expert and co-founder of Scandinavian furniture retailer Skandium, lives in the Grade I-listed Isokon Building in Belsize Park, north London, and has become its unofficial custodian.

He is a hoarder of all things Isokon — the London-based company formed in 1929 to design modernist houses and flats and the fixtures and furniture to go in them. He has also been a champion behind the Isokon Gallery, dedicated to the extraordinary history of the building where he lives.

The gallery opened in the block's former garage on the ground floor three years ago.

"I absolutely love living here — it has become part of my life," says Englund, 50, who moved to the UK in 1995 to pursue a career in fashion, working first for Paul Smith, then Patrick Cox, before opening the first Skandium store in Marylebone in 1999.

For the past four years, he has lived in a one-bedroom flat on the top floor of the long, horizontal, white building which is often compared to an ocean liner that appears to be cruising through a row of Victorian terrace houses.

The concept of the building was to promote the minimal flat and minimal living as a way of addressing the housing crisis of its day, he says, so things have come full circle.

"Today's London needs a lot of Isokon Buildings," he adds. Designed in 1934 by Wells Coates for the furniture entrepreneur Jack Pritchard and his wife Molly, it was the first domestic building in Britain to use reinforced concrete.

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The tiny ship’s cabin-style bedroom still has its original curved, panelled plywood walls and built-in wardrobes (David Butler)

Originally created as an experiment in social housing, it soon became an intellectual hub for architects and designers — together with a sprinkling of Soviet spies. Bauhaus émigrés Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer lived there, as did Agatha Christie in the Forties, while artists Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson were among regular visitors.

Sold to Camden council in 1972, the building became a halfway house for single men with mental health problems but fell into dereliction until 2003, when it was taken over by Notting Hill Housing association, which restored the building and set up a shared-ownership scheme.

Englund shares his one-bedroom modernist paradise with his Norwegian wife, Gjøril. Thanks to the sprawling south-facing roof terrace, the flat is always filled with light and seems twice as big in summer, when the couple more or less live outdoors. Winter is another matter though, as the original Thirties insulation cannot be upgraded.

"We have plenty of Eleanor Pritchard blankets instead, which fit into the scheme very well," says Englund. "It's a British building with an interior clad in Estonian and Finnish birchwood, so it feels quite Scandinavian. Jack [Pritchard] who lived in the penthouse until the Sixties, was a friend of Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto and they were all very influenced by pre-war Swedish architects."

The birch plywood walls and flooring, which Englund had restored by his friend Nick Goldfinger, grandson of the Trellick Tower architect Ernö, also lend warm tones to the interior. Says Englund: "Nick came and patched it all and refused to be paid because he was so happy that someone cared."

He has furnished the open-plan living area with Isokon classics, including two small Marcel Breuer plywood dining tables, Alvar Aalto for Artek dining chairs and a nest of Isokon plywood tables.

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Isokon classic pieces in the open-plan living area include Marcel Breuer dining tables and Alvar Aalto for Artek dining chairs (David Butler)

Books are stored in Isokon Donkey magazine racks. The soft woollen rug is Persian, its modern geometric design a reflection of having been made during the Shah's reign, when traditional designs were unpopular. Bizarrely, it looks perfect here.

Lighting includes Poul Henningsen's inimitable glass table lamps and an unusual three-coloured floor lamp designed by Josef Frank. The tiny ship's cabin-style bedroom retains the original curved, panelled plywood walls and built-in wardrobes.

Inside, Englund shows me with huge pride, are several ingenious storage ideas, from the extending trouser rack to a thin plywood loop device which he uses to stack and store his T-shirts. The bathroom and kitchen next door are exemplary models of compact living from which designers today could learn a thing or two.

No longer active in the day-to-day running of Skandium, Englund has just written three books: one on Scandinavian design, one on the history of Isokon and the Bauhaus, and a children's book about chairs "for parents who want to brainwash children with design from an early age".

He has also managed to find time to curate Heal's 100, featuring the most iconic pieces that have been, or are still, sold by the famous department store.


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