Forget Bridget Jones for a romantic story: here’s a design duo who grew up next door to each other in Richmond, where their parents had known each other for 20 years.
“My mother has known John longer than me,” says Jemima Dyer Grimes, 46, interior designer at her husband’s architectural firm, which specialises in ultra-modern high-spec homes in London and the South-East as well as sensitive refurbishments of old houses.
As in the best stories, the children grew up and went their separate ways. John, now 49, to Glasgow to study architecture; Jemima to do fashion design at Central St Martins. After college, both found jobs abroad but were to meet again in 1996 at Jemima’s father’s funeral. They started going out the following year.
In 2006, seven refurbished homes later, with Dolores, the fourth of five children on the way, it was time to find a forever home. Jemima put her foot down: “I said, ‘I can’t face one more move!’” But by putting their combined creative energies into doing up houses and selling them, the couple had learned a huge amount, as well as saving up for their family home.
They’d been looking for two years from a cramped Fulham flat, and were finally on the point of completing on a property, when Jemima drove down a road in Putney she had not noticed before.
A derelict Victorian detached three-storey house covered in ivy had a small for sale sign. Jemima went home in tears, saying she’d found their dream home but it was too late. However, they went to look and put in an offer at once. It was a probate sale, and within weeks they owned the place.
The solid brick 3,000sq ft house had a small vertical Victorian extension on the back. It had a big garden, utterly overgrown with trees, including a 250-year-old oak, and foxes running amok. All the garden walls were collapsing.
Once inside the house, however, the couple were amazed by the wealth of original detail, including parquet, mouldings, old servants’ bells, gas fittings, and — especially — a fine stone or marble fireplace in every room, with its original grate, but boarded in, with electric fires on top. The joined kitchen and scullery, set lower than the rest of the house, were cramped and dark.
John did some sketches and they got a costing, but it was twice what they could afford, so Jemima, who is practical and forthright, told him to be their contractor and builder. So began a two-year labour of love. This house is in a conservation area, so John went to Wandsworth planners for preliminary discussions.
His basic plan was to take the small extension off the back and replace it with a striking vertical window, reflected in the garden by a pond. Bulldozers would clear the garden, preserve the ancient tree, and lower the ground level so that the kitchen and scullery, knocked together, could become one bright room with sliding glass doors to a sculptural garden framed with new trees. That meant removing 100 skips of earth.
The house’s lovely bricks, a mix of glazed white Gault and London Stock, were all lovingly cleaned and repointed. “The builders thought I was mad when I went up and cleaned the bricks on the chimney,” John says. A stroke of genius was to replace the old wall between kitchen-diner and front sitting room with a half-height glass wall. Light moves freely from front to back, and the front room became a safe play-space while the parents cooked.
To John, what you see when you first walk into a house is vital. In this case, from the wide hall with new oak floorboards, the majestic old staircase rises up against the huge glass window.
There is light everywhere: from the restored front rooms with their diligently repaired cornices to the striking kitchen-diner. This room, which the family loves, is great. The side wall of floor-to-ceiling cupboards is entirely mirrored. More light comes from steel work surfaces set on to glossy white kitchen carcases. The look is finished off with metro tiles. It’s a far cry from a dingy low-ceiling Victorian kitchen with a hob grate and quarry tiles.
Jemima designed all the interiors and some of the furniture, using an elegant palette: white walls, dark wood floors, ceramic wood-effect tiles in kitchen and bathrooms. And mirrors: to edge book cases, for a bespoke shoe cupboard in the hall, to mirrored bathroom cupboards. “It’s effective and cheap,” Jemima says.
The children get feature wallpapered walls in their rooms — distressed concrete-effect for the boys, who have taken over the old servants’ attic.
After two years’ building works were finished, the gigantic glass window was flown over the roof with cranes. What had been boarded-up darkness was suddenly utterly transformed.
Juggernauts of light streamed in to fill the house like a glass vase. Now there are no dark corners. The children and cats love sitting on the landing, staring out dreamily at the garden.
“It is better than even we imagined,” says Jemima.
- Don’t rip out period features, work with them.
- Mirror can be cut to size from an accurate template by any glass supplier, then glued in place. For areas of possible knocks (such as Jemima’s brilliant shoe cupboard with concertina doors in the hall) use mirrored Perspex instead, which won’t shatter if bashed.
John’s top tip
- After bringing the bedroom fireplace forwards two feet or so, John built invisibly sprung wardrobes across the spaces to either side, replacing the cornicing, so you don’t even realise that wardrobes are there. This modern take on the tradition of building cupboards in the alcoves is clever stuff.
What it cost
- House in 2006: £1.6 million
- Cost of works: (no fees, self-build) £500,000
- Value now: estimate £3.95 million
Get the look
- Architect: John Dyer Grimes at Dyer Grimes
- Interior design: Jemima Dyer Grimes at Dyer Grimes as above
- Builder: Galower
- Joinery by Toby Hunt
- Floors and dark oak stain by AH Peck Flooring
- Striking bespoke stair runner woven by Bowloom
- Cornices renovated/replicated by London Plastercraft
- Ceramic dark wood floor tiles by Capitol Tiles
- Kitchen by Magnet with steel tops made by builder
- Mirrored Perspex from Denny
- Feature wallpaper in children’s rooms by Mr Perswall
- Striped rug in girls’ room by Paul Smith for The Rug Company
- Sofa in drawing room covered in Eight Thirty Turquoise fabric by Pierre Frey
- Plants and trees from Evergreen trade plant nursery
- Paint throughout: Brilliant white by Dulux