Gutting a Georgian house is rarely possible in London because so many have been listed, making alterations difficult. But if you can find one in an unlisted terrace with no original interiors left, the transformation can be spectacular — as it has been in the home of Sardinia-born London restaurateur Mauro Sanna and his English wife, Ashlea.
Even so, once the entire insides of their property had gone, and all Ashlea could see were four walls, sky, and “a bloody great house-sized hole” she couldn’t quite believe it would ever be “home” again.
Mauro, 58, and Ashlea, 49, bought their 2,150sq ft, five-storey house in a Belgravia back street in 2010, lived in it for four years, then in 2015 went for broke with a total transformation, creating something with hints of the Thunderbirds. It is gung-ho in its technological adventures yet still in the spirit of the 18th century, when grace and light were essentials.
Self-made Mauro came to London at 18. He wanted to be an architect, but instead started his first Olivo restaurant in 1990 in Belgravia. He’d met art student Ashlea in King’s Road in 1986. They’re a good team. Ashlea does the social media and design side of things.
“Quality of life is a top priority for us, and living near where you work is imperative — I love my business,” Mauro says. The couple lived in Pimlico, but in 2009 they wanted a bigger house with a big basement for an inviting cooking/entertaining space.
That’s a tall order in London, where basements are usually cramped and dark. But it was their red line. The couple own a Mediterranean-modern house in Sardinia. Under blazing blue skies it’s all about light, with huge picture windows and clean, contemporary spaces, and this light-filled look was what they wanted in London. Sardinia also inspires the food and design at Mauro’s restaurants, frequented by stars such as Dame Maggie Smith.
Mauro and Ashlea spotted the house in 2010. The rooms were tired, but the basement had excellent height and had already been opened up with an old extension and a walled garden beyond. The couple knew architect Andy Martin and liked his adventurous, modern style, so they asked him to do the job.
Their brief was important: contemporary, with concrete, stone, steel, polished plaster, and lots of light. Also vital was to connect the basement with the first floor. “First floors often become a redundant corridor you walk through,” Ashlea says. “We didn’t want that.”
Martin suggested making the entire floor between souped-up basement and first floor out of glass pavement lights, those thick, round glass things you see underfoot and don’t think about. They’re not usually used in domestic interiors. To do it, he’d engineer a concrete floor set in a steel frame, cast on site, with the glass circles set in. A pretty innovative idea. The couple were doubtful, but went for it.
Now you can see up or down, and light filters through the thick circles of glass. From below, the concrete structure holding them looks a bit like a giant waffle. The avant-garde effect is terrific, and brings so much light downstairs that it doesn’t feel like a basement at all.
The room is huge. Luckily it didn’t need to be lowered. A modern extension with sliding glass now replaces the old one and floors throughout the house are pale white oak.
The kitchen area and island, designed by Martin, is Corian, with a huge steel catering cooker. Mauro loves its industrial extractor and big lava-stone barbecue, for super-healthy Mediterranean food. Under the former vault, a utility room and loo are white and practical, and the garden is easy-maintenance, with herbs and climbers.
Two design elements apart from the bubble floor put the house in its own league. A reeded-glass steel-frame screen creates a gracious, Art Deco-style lobby on the first floor.
But the pièce de résistance is a floating, blackened steel folded stair that goes all the way up through the house. At the bottom it doesn’t touch the floor, like a steel stirrup. On the ground floor it’s sided with patinated steel, so you almost don’t notice it, while on the upper floors the steel side is perforated, creating evanescent dappled patterns, lit by a roof light above.
The upper floors are all understated comfort. Two double bedrooms have big en suites, and the large mansard room is for guests. In these parts the décor is serene — pale grey for the linen curtains, bed linen and tiles.
But there’s a stylish glass wall between bedroom and bathroom in the master suite, and a fully mirrored wall in the bathroom above, both adding a posh boutique look without flash. Everywhere else, modern and mid-century furniture enhances the overall look.
Such a big look has to be tempered by immaculate detail, and that is the case here. “We love Sardinia but on our first trip there after the house was done, we couldn’t wait to get home,” Ashlea says.
Knockout houses like this need a bold architect and an equally bold client, prepared to take a risk. Here, although ripping out took a quick month, the entire job took nearly two years — but the results speak for themselves.
WHAT IT COST
House in 2010: £1.6 million
Money spent, 2015: £700,000
Value now (estimate): £3.5 million
GET THE LOOK
- Architect: Andy Martin
- Oak floorboards: custom-made by Parquet Flooring
- Polished plaster: Sphere8
- Steel staircase: by Burvills
- Lighting design: by Pedro Pinto
- Industrial cooker: by Mareno
- Lamp over kitchen island: from Established & Sons
- Kitchen bar stools: Ikea
- Kitchen chairs: from Ligne Roset
- Kitchen sofa: from Cassina
- Potence swing lamp over kitchen table: by Jean Prouvé at Vitra
- Olive green chair in drawing room: from Poliform
- Orange Beetle chair: from Gubi
- Aim suspension lights in drawing room: from Flos
- Grey linen for bedroom curtains: from The Cloth Shop
- Fake plants: from Blooming Artificial
- Olivo restaurants and shops: visit olivorestaurants.com