Trapping the light fantastic: a new-build home that confounds expectations

·5-min read

The planners insisted on a traditional house that sat politely with its neighbours on this tree-lined street in a conservation area of north London. But the design-minded owners of this expansive new-build, Afsaneh and Ebbi Farsian, had more ambitious ideas. They envisaged a modern, open-plan family home basking in natural light. The result? Not a tentative fudge of new and old, but a house that confounds expectations: traditional on the outside, and contemporary inside.

The eight-bedroom home, which was designed and built by Finkernagel Ross, an architectural and interior design company, replaced a lacklustre 19th-century building.

“Before we moved here we were living in another part of north London,” says Ebbi, who grew up in the house opposite. “When our daughters got into the local school, we thought we’d take a look at my old street. By chance, this house was up for sale.”

The previous owners had lived here for 40 years. “It was untouched and very dark. But we knew it had potential,” he continues. “We considered renovating it. But it turned out that it was cheaper to knock it down and build a new house.”

Behind the neo-classical brick facade, which the planners insisted on, Catherine and Felix Finkernagel were given almost free rein to do what they liked to the 9,000 sq ft interior.

“When you arrive here you feel like a time traveller, stepping from the 19th into the 21st century,” says Iranian-born Ebbi, who works in the motor vehicle industry. For him and Afsaneh, a curator, it was important that the house paid homage to their cultural reverence for sunlight, especially in the darker basement areas.

This was achieved by digging down to create a courtyard that brings light to the subterranean pool and gym at the back. From here, the hillside garden rises in a series of terraces, designed for eating, socialising or quiet contemplation. The olive trees in pots and expanses of limestone underfoot add a Mediterranean feel. During lockdown it’s been just the enviable ticket.

“When you close the front door behind you it feels as if you’re checking into a hotel,” says Ebbi.

By contrast, the top storey of the detached house has a classical appearance, with dormer windows set snugly into the sloping, red-tiled roof. It was designed as a deliberate visual foil to the glazed lower storeys of the house that frame the courtyard, like one of those modernist homes you might find clinging to the hillsides of California.

These main living areas all overlook the garden through wide, floor-to-ceiling windows. The couple were keen on an open-plan layout: the kitchen flows to the dining room and the sitting room where the low stone fireplace is embraced by curving ochre sofas. The addition of sliding pocket doors between the different rooms allows “for privacy without formality”, as Afsaneh puts it. Further rooms include a home office and a TV den, as well as a boot room with a separate entrance.

An immaculate pump room houses the ground-source heat pump. Upstairs, there are seven pared-back bedrooms and a large, peaceful area for reading on the top floor.

At the front, the striking three-storey height entrance hall rises up to a skylight so that you feel as if you have stepped into the atrium of a contemporary art gallery. To connect the different levels, the architects designed the scene-stealing staircase, which twirls upwards like a black ribbon or, as Ebbi puts it, “a strand of DNA”. The steel structure was so large that it had to be craned into place through the roof during the last days of construction. It was made by Littlehampton Welding, the metal fabrication firm that has realised work for designer Thomas Heatherwick and sculptor Anthony Caro.

“We like their work because it bridges the gap between architecture and sculpture,” says Catherine Finkernagel, who likes to compare the house to “a series of experiences… First there’s the entrance hall, which has an almost monastic feel. Then there’s the drama of the staircase. And after that, there are the living areas, which are more intimate and snug.”

The detail-conscious Farsians were closely involved with every stage of the project. They also travelled to Iran to source the stone – marble, limestone, travertine – which brings a weightiness to the restrained decoration. “It’s the closest you’ll get to being on Iranian soil without a visa,” jokes Ebbi.

Afsaneh, whose business, Noor, specialises in homewares sustainably made from stone offcuts, chose the slabs herself. Each one is bookmatched so that the inherent, sparkling patterns combine to form dancing motifs, like the abstract designs in a Persian rug.

Having inspected several of their architect’s projects, the couple were also set on a “gallery finish” – no skirtings or cornices, for a seamless effect. Mouldings exist to conceal annoying gaps between floors and walls, so the builders were unenthusiastic. “It did mean that the work took slightly longer because everything had to be perfectly level. But we feel it was worth it,” Afsaneh says.

Apart from a scattering of the couple’s antiques and heirlooms, almost all the furniture and artworks were bought specially for the interior. Black and white photographs of Iran sit with mid-century classics such as the Saarinen Knoll Tulip table. The muted tones of Persian rugs are offset by vibrant contemporary paintings: old juxtaposed with new for companionable effect.

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