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Hidden Gem

London, UK

Up-and-coming architecture and design studio THISS has reworked jeweller William Cheshire's Hackney flat into a place of sanctuary

It’s fair to say that William Cheshire must have seen a fair bit of change in Hackney since he first bought his one-bedroom flat above a nail bar on Mare Street in 1999. The jeweller, whose shop is a short walk away on Broadway Market, has seen his career flourish as the area lost its pie and mash shops but gained micro-bakeries, yoga studios and a thriving creative community.

Cheshire’s home was no ordinary flat, since he had already stamped his mark on it when he moved in: “I ripped out the ceiling in probably 70% of it… a crazy thing to do at the time. It was literally just me and the back of a hammer.” In the ceiling void, he created a mezzanine area as his bedroom and opened up the space below it so that you could see all the way through the flat, over London Fields in one direction and to Mare Street in the other – but it didn’t have what you might call a polished finish. Two decades after he bought the place, “I realised that my ambitions were much bigger than [anything] I could physically do,” and he called on the expertise of architecture practice THISS to write a new chapter.

“It was sort of a ramshackle space where Will lived with his three-legged cat, but it had loads of character and style. It was just in desperate need of a revival,” says Sash Scott of THISS, co-founder of the practice alongside Tamsin Hanke. “At the time we were a tiny practice just beginning on our journey, so it was a really great opportunity to work with somebody really interesting.”

Cheshire went to THISS with some drawings and an idea of how to create an additional bedroom plus a roof terrace to add some much-needed outside space. “Sash and Tamsin seemed to be quite inspired by it,” he says. “They helped draw out some of the quirkiness of my character and the way I think about space and design.”

Scott says that there is a synergy between the jeweller’s work and how THISS considers a project: “His aesthetic is driven by the rustic, ‘found’ nature of east London – finding the tiny speckled jewels in among these rough contexts. That kind of approach was something that we really gelled with.”

The plan that THISS subsequently refined involved removing the roof and inserting a second storey, but sunk into the building so that it couldn’t be seen from the outside, conforming to local authority restrictions on the overall height of the property. This new addition is reached by a black steel staircase with perforated treads; the airy bedroom at the top features a further few steps up and out to the roof terrace.

The new structure is “a lattice of beams that hang off each other; we weren’t allowed to build off the chimney stacks,” says Scott, who explains how his contractor underestimated the complexity and challenges of the structure, which delayed the project on site. That and Covid, of course, since the work started at the beginning of the first lockdown, turning a four-month project into an eight-month one (with Cheshire sleeping in the basement of his shop all the while).

The palette of materials is simple and understated, with exposed spruce rafters, engineered oak flooring and the steel used for the staircase and glazed doors: everyday materials treated with care and craftsmanship to elevate them. Cheshire is especially enamoured with the stripped, bare-brick walls: “It’s a wall you don’t have to decorate, because it’s all done for you – you’ve got peaches, blush tones, concrete – all these tones you could never really recreate.”

Cheshire took over once main architectural work was completed, building the kitchen and bathroom himself and using his skills to make elements such as door-handles and light fittings. “Will being a maker himself and having originally built his flat, he wanted to have a hand in the finishing. There’s been a nice crossover where we’ve been thinking of it as a big structural intervention, and then he’s starting to put these smaller moments into it,” says Scott.

The jeweller has also found a new hobby in the form of gardening – both indoors and out – planting up the new outside space and adding houseplants that trail down the staircase void and line the steps that lead up to terrace. “I wanted to create this sense of being underneath the trees: I wanted to feel covered by flowers and plants to give me the sense of being in a forest or a wood, up on the roof,” he says. “I’m really happy I’ve found a new thing in my life – I’m not a gardener but I’m moving in that direction.”