Issue 05 | Interiors

Step Change

London, England

In this three-storey London family flat by Michaelis Boyd, a floating staircase sets the tone for an array of inspiring quirks and design touches

Architect Alex Michaelis, co-founder of the award-winning London and New York practice Michaelis Boyd – best known for their work with commercial and residential buildings, including numerous private residences around the world – savours the experience of working with a client willing to take chances. Ideal then, that a west London-based family, who engaged the studio to design their two-storey apartment 10 years ago, returned for a challenging update.

Originally, the architects were asked to connect two separate apartments spread across the first and second floors of a five-storey stucco-fronted Georgian building to become one home. Then, more recently, the place was reconfigured to include new family rooms and an outdoor terrace on an additional third floor.

“It wasn’t in a wonderful decorative state when we started the project,” admits Michaelis. “Great ceilings, all the standard period details – we kept most of them – but it was boring. The husband is a financier and she’s a Parisian art consultant and collector; between them they wanted to inject a bit of life into the place.” The couple also had an art and 20th century furniture collection, which they were keen to incorporate into the design scheme.

The maisonette, now a substantial 270 sqm of bright living space, is a seamless mix of elegant and lived-in, fusing the architectural vernacular of the neighbourhood with the family’s more contemporary tastes.

It was really brave of the owners to agree to the staircase… We don’t have many clients who are willing to let us do something as mad as this

Where there were dividing walls on the first floor, most were knocked down to create a large, open-plan 50 sqm living space. It’s a practically uninterrupted stretch, save for some internal Crittall glazed walls – which form a small study, floor-to-ceiling with books. A kitchen is at the one end, again partitioned by Crittall glass, and features a bespoke Bulthaup stainless-steel clad island and worktop with an intimate dining area.

“We wanted to add something that defined the space, but allowed the client to still read the volumes,” explains Michaelis. “Volumes are so important in these types of buildings. If you suddenly take two metres to put in a wall, you can end up with something uncomfortable that doesn’t feel right. This way, it allows you to read the space as it should be read, to understand its proportions.”

Adding a sense of fun and adventure in the home is a signature for Michaelis Boyd. The architect’s own London home, which he shares with his wife and their seven children, is case in point – there’s an internal slide and a fireman’s pole. “We’re all children until we die, aren’t we?” he says. “I’ve always felt that architecture can be taken too seriously but, actually, it can be the most amazing, playful, sculptural thing. Those lovely, quirky details we can add to buildings that don’t always cost much more, make people smile and add an element of surprise and fun.”

The quirky touches at this residence – aside from some wonderfully-spirited bathrooms with clashing graphic walls and unexpected skylights opening up internal rooms – is focused on one architectural showstopper: a post-box red, perforated metal suspended staircase designed by Michaelis Boyd in collaboration with Webb Yates Engineers and Diapo, that connects the first and second floors. Inspired by the work of Korean installation artist Doh Ho Suh and set within the traditional grandeur of the room, the floating stairs, which hover lightly above a Dinesen oak floor and next to a long formal dining table, is where the magic of this entire home lies. Arguably, the industrial quality of the material and it’s lack of direct relationship with any of its surroundings, should jar here. And yet, it suits the room perfectly. Michaelis is clearly thrilled with the results.

“It was really brave of the owners to agree to it,” says Michaelis. “It’s completely floating and really is a piece of art. We don’t have many clients who are willing to let us do something as mad as this. There was months of design work with structural engineers trying to make it work without obvious steels and visible fixings. There were discussions about colour, too. I initially wanted a subtler, more elegant off-white, but someone I was working with suggested it should be bright red. We rendered it and it looked incredible; you could see its form much more clearly, so that’s what we did.”

Up those unexpectedly easy-to-navigate stairs and you’re into the family’s private area: four bedrooms and two ensuites; while a corridor-like walk-in wardrobe off the pared-back white master bedroom conceals a pleasing amount of storage. “The client was very keen to get those details right, and ensure it wasn’t boring,” says Michaelis. Off the more informal family kitchen on the third floor, dark grey USM units become the perfect showcase for the children’s toy collections.

The natural light here is particularly special. The apartment being set in a corner property means large windows on the front, back and sides of the building. It makes a difference. On the new third floor addition, there’s also a sizeable indoor and outdoor terrace. The indoor section has a retractable glazed roof, an ideal spot to sit during the colder months. As the weather warms, the doors slide open to reveal an outdoor seating area with a table and chairs designed by Michaelis Boyd, using Dinesen timber. It’s easy to picture the elegant parties at this place.