Chris Dyson gave this 18th-century ruin a new lease of life and has created a beautiful family home
Words: Rosalind Sack
Peer behind every door, up every flight of stairs and around every corner and you come across another treat. Be it an imposing ceiling-height grandfather clock, a freestanding nickel-plated copper bath, or a show-stopping 6ft Grecian urn, Chris Dyson’s stunning five-floor Georgian home in Spitalfields, East London, is filled with treasures.
Architect Chris, founder of Chris Dyson Architects, has created nothing short of magic, considering that this former leather garment factory was in a major state of disrepair when he bought it in 1996.
‘It was a time when many Spitalfields buildings were still derelict, so the front door was open and you could just walk in, more or less. Not even squatters were interested,’ recalls caved in and water was pouring in through the roof all the way down the building. It had been a leather garment factory and a shop selling leather jackets, but I think that had stopped in the 1980s given the style of leather jackets we found there.’
A gem amid the decay
Remarkably, Chris managed to see beyond the decay and identify the building’s potential to become
a stunning family home. So he set about tracking down the owners through the Land Registry. ‘I don’t think I’ve bought a single house on the open market, it’s always been by directly approaching the owners, and that’s what I did with this one,’ says Chris.
So he sold his current home to raise the necessary funds, rented a flat above a curry house and got to work treating the building for rot, rewiring, replumbing and making it habitable for himself, his wife, Sarah, a teacher, and two children, Ollie, then five, and Issy, three.
‘It took about a year, and once we’d done the work we jumped into the new house. There were still some windows missing, but it was more or less ready,’ says Chris.
The house had been built as an identical pair with next door – number 22. And as Chris got to know his neighbour, he was able to make measured drawings of the original features that had remained intact next door. They later agreed for Chris to restore his neighbour’s frontage alongside his own in order for them to match.
A city retreat
Despite Chris’ years of experience as an architect and having worked on many historic listed buildings and projects in the conservation areas around Spitalfields, the restoration threw up plenty of unforeseen challenges.
‘Some of the things I thought were going to be major turned out not to be, like removing the front elevation and inserting a new one – I was terrified about it to be honest with you,’ he says. ‘But it was actually straightforward – you prop up the floors and brace the structure, and then there’s just careful plodding work from a bricklayer over several months to put it back up.
‘Then the more complicated projects turned out to be things like wiring because it’s so involved, and you want it to be hidden from view, which ended up being a long process.’
One of the big quandaries for Chris came in where to position the kitchen. And it was only after they demolished some of the outbuildings at the rear of the property to make way for a garden, that he reached a decision.
‘That opened up the idea of using the basement because we were left with a tiered garden with steps that went down to that level,’ he says. ‘It became easier to conceive of the kitchen being in the basement because it wouldn’t be subterranean.’
Using natural stone on the patio brought light into the basement and left Chris with the ground floor as an ideal front room come reception room and occasional gallery space, which he has used in the past for lunches. Then the first floor is a more private sitting room at the front and a drawing room come study at the back with a balcony.
Chris and his family share the house with their two cats and, while it’s located in a bustling part of the city, they have employed clever devices to cut out the street noise and create a peaceful haven. Micro double-glazed units are cleverly fitted into the window sashes, and shutters not only alleviate the noise, but also help with the acoustics.
And Chris’ favourite place to enjoy the new-found peace is the first-floor rear room with the balcony. ‘It’s a great place to sit and read – it’s very private. I enjoy looking out over the garden and it’s got good sunlight,’ he says.
While the building’s beautiful Georgian architecture has clearly influenced the interior design, it’s difficult to identify where the role of architect ends and designer begins.
‘I don’t see a great distinction, that’s my view,’ says Chris. ‘I’m not great on soft furnishings, so I suppose I’m a bit more inclined towards architecture leading the interior design. I’ve always tried to personalise my own house and I encourage other people to do it with their house. I mostly tend to find my interiors pieces locally in Spitalfields market, or I go to auctions. I love well-worn stuff and I’d rather buy a piece that has had a life. I’d rather not buy new, although I do when necessary.’
A case in point are the American walnut Matthew Hilton dining chairs in the kitchen, the William Holland metal bath, the rubber kitchen floor and the four-poster bed from, believe it or not, IKEA. All of which sit seamlessly among a carefully curated collection of second-hand investment pieces, including a collection of 18th-century china, reclaimed oak floorboards and the urn – a former theatrical prop bought for the garden, but too big to fit through the back door!
Having created such a stunning home over many years, don’t be fooled into thinking Chris has created his ‘forever’ home.
‘We won’t live here forever. The trouble is, I’m an itchy-fingers architect!’ he laughs.
All images: Alex James
GET THE LOOK WITH CHRIS’ SUPPLIERS
Chris Dyson Architects LLP: 020 7247 1816; chrisdyson.co.uk
The Morton Partnership Ltd (engineer): 020 7324 7270; themortonpartnership.co.uk
Ian Harper (specialist plaster works): 07779 228875
William Holland (bath tub and vanity basin): 01305 251930; williamholland.com
Duravit (toilets, sinks): duravit.co.uk
Williams Ironmongery: 01299 250824; williams-ironmongery.co.uk
Stonehouse Tiles (floor tiles): 01322 387315; stonehousetiles.co.uk
Wood Newton (cedar sliding doors): 01623 515692; wood-newton.com
Blumsom Timber (cedar cladding): 020 8594 3074; blumsom.co.uk
CP Hart (showers): 0845 600 1950; cphart.co.uk
The Old Radiator Co. (radiators): 01233 850082; theoldradiatorcompany.co.uk
Luis Buitrago (garden landscape architect): firstname.lastname@example.org