Future architectural historians will earmark the pandemic as a decisive time for British housing. Incarcerated within our four walls, it is when the deficiencies of our interiors became glaringly obvious. A lack of privacy or a tranquil corner to work in; an absence of outside space; dispiriting views; woeful wifi. All these things need to be addressed.
Rebecca Layoo and Roman Meyer’s east London home might serve as a template for change. Set in a tranquil grid of tree-lined terraced streets, their brick and stucco-fronted two-bedroom house has been unpicked and reconfigured for post-pandemic living. There’s a study with treetop views and a once dismal cellar has become a utility room. At the back, the long bright kitchen-dining extension merges with the garden.
Untouched for years, the mid-Victorian property, with its narrow galley kitchen and low, glowering ceiling, required imagination. Layoo, an actor, is quick to credit their architects, DGN Studio, with the transformation. “We wanted to add light and space, but in a way that felt connected to the house,” she says. Daniel Goodacre and Geraldine Ng, saw it as an opportunity to experiment with materials and form. “We weren’t set on being original for its own sake, but on creating the right atmosphere,” Goodacre says. “When you’re working in a tight urban space there’s always the need to balance the sympathetic with the creative.”
Instead of the ubiquitous steel-and-glass add-on, concrete combines with pale oak for a sort of Scandi-brutalist effect in the new extension. Overhead, beams filter the glare of the skylight and there is a nod to the 1860s architecture in the unpainted sash windows that line the side wall. At the end of the room, the floor-to-ceiling timber-framed glazing refines the view of the garden. Layoo worked closely with a friend, the garden-designer Sarah Alun-Jones, to create its contrasting areas: shade-throwing silver birches and dense green hostas offset by feathery, flower-threaded grasses for bucolic vistas.
Since the planners would not allow them to raise the ceiling height they dug down instead. To connect old and new, a flight of wide steps lends a theatrical air to the extension where the low bench, cast in situ from terrazzo-effect concrete, seats a sociable 10.
“We always had an idea of a space that we can use for events or poetry readings with friends,” says Layoo, whose stage appearances include the recent Blue Departed, inspired by Dante’s Inferno, by the upcoming writer Serafina Cusack.
In the bedroom, the walls are painted a galactic blue-black, and an oversized pendant hovers like a spaceship by night. “When you draw the curtains you feel completely cocooned,” says Meyer, who works in finance. In the Victorian part of the house, the architecture was hardly touched. “It was a case of preserving what we loved about the interior, but adding what we didn’t have,” says Layoo.
In the study, the ceiling was raised, but clad in tongue-and-groove for rustic warmth. In the bathroom, a skylight replaced an overlooked window. A joiner added the built-in wardrobes with blackened steel ironmongery, for 19th-century effect, made locally. The stairs were stripped and painted, and the landing widened by removing the chimney breast. Above, the plasterwork was stripped back to reveal the original brickwork, a simple but evocative detail. “We didn’t want things to be too polished,” Layoo says.
As this is the first property the couple has owned, there is a notable absence of “stuff”. “For years, we rented apartments in London. When you’re always on the move it’s not an incentive to acquire things,” Meyer says. There is the heirloom buddha which glows benignly against the midnight-blue walls, and a West African sculpture on the fireplace in the sitting room where a velvet sofa is the only piece of furniture. A surreally disquieting painting by contemporary artist Mary Stephenson is a new acquisition. “We’ll add more things as time goes on. I have lots of ideas, some of them surprisingly maximalist,” says Layoo, pregnant and as serene as her setting, “but for now, this is the way we like it.”
And they have had plenty of time to appreciate their setting. “During lockdown, I’d work in the kitchen and Roman would be in the study. It worked well,” she says. At night they retreated to the atmospheric library filled with novels, histories and Layoo’s beloved poetry. The room also doubles as a home cinema. “We’ll close the shutters and turn the projector on. Home has become our sanctuary.”