“What I wanted was a creative living space,” says Penn. “I didn’t see why I had to have a normal three-bedroom house. Everything needed to be ripped out and I saw it as an opportunity to have something that was a fantastic, adaptable, urban, cool living space.”
Mike Penn in his open-plan first-floor living room
Penn, 49, had been living, happily, in a Victorian house in Queen’s Park. “I was out with friends one night and we were in Charlotte Street, and I just thought, ‘This has got such a great vibe’,” he says. He and his friends began discussing how much they would like to live in the area and Penn, who was starting to feel his Queen’s Park house was too big and wrong, began putting out feelers. A buying agent told him about a former office in the area that was for sale. The owners had won planning permission from Camden council to convert it into a house and Penn was enthused by the idea of the project.
He was introduced, via a friend’s recommendation, to architect Thomas Griem, director of TG Studio (tg-studio.co.uk), and even before the sale went through, he and Griem were working on the plans.
The unconverted mews cost just a shade over £2 million and by the time Penn exchanged contracts, a year ago now, Griem was almost ready to submit a second application to amend the plans the photographer inherited when he bought the property.
The building work on this project was limited. With no outdoor space there was nowhere to extend, but there was a spacious 1,800sq ft to play with. The main structural innovation was to enlarge the windows of the three-storey mews to almost floor-to-ceiling height, in an echo of the large windows of a classic warehouse. A new, compact staircase was installed in a corner of the building to link the floors while taking up as little space as possible. And, once building was under way, it emerged that the roof needed replacing.
Penn wanted a lateral living space and to get around building regulations requiring fire walls and doors, Griem installed a state-of-the-art sprinkler system that will, should fire be detected by sensors, spray the rooms with a fine mist to drench the flames.
Another building regulation Griem had to deal with was the need for insulation. Penn liked the idea of keeping areas of open brickwork, so Griem had a layer of insulation added and then covered it with authentically weathered brick slips, which are only about an inch thick, to get the look without wasting space.
Instead of conventional windowsills, the architect designed oak boxes to encase the windows, creating deep niches. The ground floor has been divided into two spaces, a sitting room/study, lined with built-in cupboarding, and an en suite guest bedroom. The first floor is an open-plan living room and kitchen, and the entire top floor is given over to a master suite with bedroom, bathroom and dressing room.
Most of the walls are smart shades of grey. Flooring ranges from wide, limed-oak boards in the living room to putty-coloured carpeting on the stairs. Tactile fabric wallcovering — again grey — softens the bedroom.
Accessorising is stylish. Clustered alongside a tasteful beige L-shaped sofa in the living room, and two translucent coffee tables, are two vintage chairs upholstered in soft turquoise, together with a vivid apple green gloss TV stand. The walls are covered with art, most notably some of the monumental black-and-white shots of horses taken by Penn as part of a project to photograph some of the world’s leading sports horses. An image of a very bad-tempered polo pony hanging in the study is particularly arresting.
Most people see white as the most suitable backdrop for hanging art, of whatever medium, but Penn disagrees. “There is something just too monochrome about it,” he says. “I think this light shade of grey is perfect for showing photography.”
The kitchen is by Spanish company Doca (docauk.com) and was installed by Gemini Design (geminidesignltd.co.uk). The white cupboards have a slightly disconcerting, gummy finish, while the work surfaces are sandblasted granite, which gives an effect both rough and matte. The splashbacks are marble.
This combination of styles — cutting-edge and classic extravagance — is employed elsewhere in the house, too. In the bathroom white heritage tiles are teamed with a sleek, free-standing bath, a modern glazed shower with Victorian-style fittings, a bench-type sink unit, and more marble. Perhaps thanks to the subdued colour scheme, all of these disparate elements somehow seem as if they were made for each other.
The project cost about £480,000, but Fitzrovia is hot and properties regularly sell for £1,600 to £2,000 a square foot, so Penn should see a healthy return if he sells. The entire project took six months. Griem and Penn agree that part of the reason for its speedy conclusion was the efficiency of the contractor, Paul Christopher Building (paulchristopherbuilding.co.uk).
The other reasons are the decisiveness of the client and good old-fashioned planning. “It is well worth spending a couple of weeks getting a schedule sorted out for everything,” says Penn. “I knew exactly when everything was going to be done and when everything needed to be ordered.”
His final advice to others keen to attempt a major project is not to stress over the details too much. “There is a danger of over-obsessing about things,” he says. “You can spend so much time talking about the exact alignment of the plugs, then when you get it done you don’t even notice.”