When architect Christina Seilern started looking for a home in London, she says: “I couldn’t get my head around the narrow, vertical, Victorian thing after New York, where everything is lateral and lofty. So I told the search agent, nothing less than 10 metres wide — which ruled out most Victorian houses.”
It was 2002. Two years earlier, Christina, 46, and her fiancé, entrepreneur Dimitri Goulandris, had moved to London from New York. They were living in separate rented flats and had just got engaged.
“Dimitri’s flat was in Holland Park, which he loved, but I could never remember which door was his, they all looked the same. I like variety.”
Christina saw a few properties but found them too traditional. Then she was shown the former Victorian postal sorting office, subsequently a small theatre, in the backwaters of Ladbroke Grove. She visited the street very early, before work, and when she saw the building, “I prayed it was that one”.
Almost entirely top-lit, the big, soaring brick sorting shed had a partly pitched roof lined with double-glazed skylights, stunning original iron cross-braces and immense double doors through which trucks and sacks of mail once came, to be turfed onto long wooden tables. Exposed brick and tall plain windows on the front completed the distinct warehouse-loft feel, which the theatre had kept.
“It was a terrible mess,” Christina recalls. But its bones and volume and façade were just what she wanted.
Raised in Switzerland, at 18, British-Austrian Christina moved to Boston to study. “My father said, be an architect or a journalist.”
After a brief rebellion she settled on architecture. She graduated from Columbia in 1996, met Dimitri and went to work for architecture legend Rafael Viñoly, in New York.
In 2002 when Dimitri moved to London, Christina asked Viñoly if she could quit, but he told her to finish the building she was working on.
“Then he said, ‘why don’t we open a London office?’— and sent me to start it. I was only 29!” For architects that’s very young, but at that moment a commission for a tower block in Amsterdam arrived — and she never looked back.
Simultaneously running a new international office and house-hunting is tough, but Christina is decisive.
“This was the fastest project I have ever done,” she says. It only took 12 months from the 2002 start to the finish, including doing the drawings, getting through planning and doing the entire build, which included digging a basement.
“But then I was client, project manager and architect.” They kept the basement modest. Also, the couple lived in the building during most of the works, climbing up scaffolding to their bedroom and bathroom. They had running water and electricity, but ate out.
She shrugs off the difficulties. “We had no children then.” Now they have three, from 12 years to four.
Her transformative design, which swept away most of the interior, combined spare elegance with logic and comfort. She kept all the windows and put in a mezzanine living floor accessed by a gorgeous folded steel stair. Covered in leather, it seems to float in the space.
The ground floor is a huge entertaining space. A steel divider creates a sort of lobby in front of the great front doors, and another deceptively simple bent piece of oiled steel makes an elegant mantelpiece on the exposed brick of the huge original chimney breast. To one side, a cosy suede-walled alcove with a small bathroom off it contains a beautiful red-steel 1920s desk.
With the white-oiled oak floor that runs throughout, the space combines homeliness with a clean New York loft feel.
The family live on the mezzanine level. Everything is open, even the kitchen that’s only lightly divided from the living space. With off-white lacquered cupboards, thick Corian and chestnut work surfaces and unfussy steel splashback, it is smart and practical. The living area mixes comfortable sofas with a classic Colombo chair around a big rug. A long red lacquered console that Christina designed holds AV and air conditioning.
All this would be enough for most of us, but go up the second run of steel stairs and through a small door for another surprise — a little run of stairs leads to a stunning decked roof terrace, a riot of jasmine and agapanthus.
And there’s more, for in 2006 the couple bought the adjacent, smaller property. Planning regulations meant that they had to keep its distinctive, high façade, but they could change everything behind.
So in this volume, connected to the original house, is the master bedroom, with an amazing geometric roof light accented with mirrors. From the bedroom, a big triangular opening lets in and reflects ever-changing sky. And up on the roof terrace, hidden behind the façade, next to this rooflight, Christina tucked a dining area that’s open to the stars but invisible from the street.
Like the rest of this home, this magical New York rooftop is a perfect example of what good design can do.
- Use natural top-lighting wherever you can, as clouds create beautiful diffused light.
- I always try to have one great idea on a project that will make the entire space flow.
- Choose an architect whose work you like. That is the most important thing.
- If you don’t like something, ask the architect for another solution: it’s cheap at the drawing stage. I always offer two ideas. The only problem is when the client likes both!
- If you can, take time on a first project — having to change things later is expensive and causes upheaval.
GET THE LOOK
- Architect: Christina Seilern
- Bespoke furniture from Christina Seilern as before
- Builder: Vitpol
- Folded steel stair by Elite Metalcraft
- Brown floor leather from Carolyn Benson
- Polished steel biomorphic coffee table from Marché au Puces, Paris
- Downstairs rug from The Rug Company
- Serge Mouille articulated lamp from UK distributor Tanguy Rolin
- Iconic 4801 Joe Colombo chair (for Kartell) from suppliers such as Utility Design
- Kitchen from Roundhouse
- Garden design by Declan Buckley