The Idealist

House of Books

Inside a Magical House of Books

Today’s house tour takes us to a unique ‘House of Books’ in Hampstead. The former home of Labour grandee Michael Foot, it’s been transformed into a modern design and bibliophile’s paradise by SHH Architects. Behind a traditional facade, the interior is a marvel of clean lines, stunning attention to detail and imaginative use of space.

The name ‘House of Books’, though grounded in some kind of abstract and perhaps architectural reality, can be seen as flirting more with pure fantasy. The name inspires images of make-belief rooms, magically walled by a patchwork of browns, burgundies, blues and emerald greens -the spines of weathered, leather-bound books that proudly endorse philosophies, scientific advancements of bygone, and possibly more enchanting times.

So it’s not difficult to appreciate the gravity of the challenge faced by the West London Chartered Architecture and Interior Design practice SHH, who had to negotiate a bibliophile’s dream-world and reality when commissioned to develop the former home of politician, Michael Foot, into a ‘House of Books’. Foot’s former ownership of the property somewhat increased the weight of expectation for the project. Beside a rather turbulent political career, Foot’s lengthy time as a writer and massive erudition resulted in an enormous personal library that covered every corner of his home. As journalist Anthony Howard remarked, Foot’s house was ‘dedicated to books – reaching high to the ceiling in bookshelves, piled untidily on tables, even scattered randomly about on the floor’.

Needless to say, the ‘House of Books’ envisioned and brought to life by SHH, is nothing short of breath-taking. Imaginatively reconfigured from the ground up, the unique construction of SHH’s ‘House of Books’ truly evokes the idea of a home being poised somewhere between reality and a booklover’s fantasy land.

‘Never judge a book by its cover.’

If you were to walk down the street where the ‘House of Books’ is located, it’s probably likely that you’d walk right past it without ever noticing. This is chiefly due to the property’s period façade being no different from any other that you would find in Hampstead’s leafy suburbs.  SHH were legally obliged to retain it as part of the planning permission agreements with the local council. However, make no mistake, the period façade is where commonalities between the property and other houses of the area both begin and end. As SHH Associate Director and leader of the project, Stuart McLauchlan recounts:

‘We ripped the whole house out behind the façade and built a new steel and timber-frame to sit within the old brick skin and connect it to the existing structure. The space configuration and resulting floors, walls and stairs are all new.’

This sense of reconciling the house’s past with its present undeniably adds to the ‘House of Books’’ charm. The contrast between its normal exterior and ambitiously extravagant interior similarly lends to the narrative of fantasy, in an almost Narnia-like fashion, marking the transition from the ordinariness of the outside to the infinite possibilities of home, constrained only by one’s imagination.

A bibliophile’s paradise

Jointly inspired by the new owners’ passion for books, who themselves own over a hundred linear metres of them, and also as a tip of the hat to the house’s past, incorporation of a book-based motif was part of creating and distilling an atmosphere befitting to the house’s name. McLauchlan’s team responded with a central structure that spans the height of the house, like a book, functioning as a top-to-bottom spine that binds its five storeys. Made from machine-anodised steel sheets, the bookcases’ almost underdressed, minimalistic look assert the pieces as a central structural component to the home, a beating heart in much the same way the book motif serves as a motif to the home. However, its simplicity does not detract from its elegance. Designed so that its panels are bound by countersunk, stainless-steel screws, the piece offers clean and defined lines, in an almost silhouette-like fashion, accentuating the books it holds. By the same token, its muted, metallic finish fits well with the overall colour palette of the house, meaning a structure of such great size does not overbear or shrink the room.

SHH’s manipulation of perspective injects a sense of magic into this centrepiece also. The bookcase features clear, walk-on slots that sit flush with timber flooring on the first, second third and fourth floors of the house. The effect created by this is nothing short of spectacular. At any given moment, one is able to get a full, top-to-bottom view of the bookcase in its entirety.  Capped by a broad window fitted to the ceiling space immediately above it, catching this view in the correct lighting is certainly something special, asserting the house’s identity as the ‘House of Books’ whilst also dabbling with name’s fantastical edge also.

Floating a clinical 50mm from the book case are the stairs of the property, designed to wrap around the bookcase. This ingenious design ensures that every book is within reach and easily accessible to the owner. This ease of access transforms and elevates the bookcase into something more organic. It remains in a state of perpetual flux, able to evolve and be reshaped by the tastes of its owner. By this token, what also remains at the heart of the house is, ultimately, a candid and personal bibliographic snapshot of the owner.

The stairs also instil a sense of drama in the way it tonally accentuates the open, neutral tonal palette that ornaments much of the house. Each individual step, a formed and bespoke steel tray, is dipped into a bright orange liquid rubber. Its tangerine glow injects a youthful energy to the home. Nevertheless, retention of industrial black grey tones in the design of these trays, paired with their open design, mean that they do not disrupt the overall ambience of the space. Rather, inviting, and further developing, a sense of theatre to what is already an enchantingly imaginative living space.

Intelligent Space

When commissioning the redevelopment of the ‘House of Books’, the new owners wanted to give visitors a sense of surprise from the moment they entered. SHH certainly delivered on this aspect. Through keeping the entrance and kitchen-diner garden level floors open plan, visitors are immediately greeted with views of both the entrance and garden-level extension. The view enhances the dynamics of the property, displaying the seamless and organic flow between both rooms and levels. 
So that the space remains functional and accommodating to the needs of the owners, SHH skilfully implemented methods to allow the house to adapt with the daily lives of the owners. Just the entrance floor alone is a masterclass maximising the functionality of the home through use of flexible space. Featuring the house’s ante-lobby lounge area and also a workspace for one of the owners, the various areas can be separated through use of discreet sliding doors. Sofas at the far end of this entrance floor overlook the extended floor space of garden-level floor immediately below, in addition to unobstructed view of the garden, seen through sliding glass doors. These views are meticulously thought out by SHH, who constructed the garden-floor level a whole metre higher so that this sightline and perspective could be achieved.

Setting the tones

The many elements in the first two floors of the property, the entrance and garden-floor kitchen-diner levels, are tied together by selection of a choice, core colours. By sticking to predominantly open, and earthy shades: off-whites, browns, ashen greys and copper notes, SHH achieve a flow and continuity between the various spaces contained within these levels. These tones also allow for the house to breathe, carrying a relaxed and uncongested ambience.

Kitchen And DiningThis is same philosophy is maintained with textural aspects also. Dark zinc, used on the railings, pairs gorgeously with the house’s many black and grey elements, injecting metropolitan sophistication and silhouette-like depth to the room. Matched with the warmer, natural hues of solid cedar, the harshness that sometimes comes with high contrast clashes between the spaces’ off-whites and black zinc notes is lessened. The wood’s grain means that continuity is achieved between indoors and out, gorgeously marrying with the wooden patio area. 

A style anthology

SHH’s incorporation of this tonal and textural palettes make the ‘House of Books’’ living spaces highly compatible with a variety of different styles of furniture and furnishings –and-truthful to this claim, the myriad of different styles found in the home’s social rooms demonstrates the sheer robustness of these palettes. The house boasts the ease with which it effortlessly pairs and accommodates mid-century modern elements with pieces styled in the classical European and Ottoman traditions.  These elements are effortlessly incorporated into the kitchen, by Bulthaup, and the lounge areas – never jarring with the clinical sleekness of their modern styling as one would imagine it would. The talent and ingenuity in SHH’s interior design work can be seen in how effortlessly these historically separate styles are made to work, and that too, with a certain finesse.   

Moving up:

The first floor, immediately above the house’s two social levels, features the master suite and dressing rooms. It carries the architectural and design philosophies observed in the house’s first two levels. Fold-back double doors completely transform the suite during the day and night, adapting to a more open planned space during the day, and seal off during the night. Designed in a neutrally toned, modern style, the bedrooms and bathrooms showcase the clean lines and precision geometries of the furniture and furnishings contained within. The upper floors shift gear from the entrance and garden-level kitchen through a heavier use of muted grey notes. This alters the mood slightly, giving the bedrooms a more complex, metropolitan edge over the roundedness and communally airy feel of the lower levels. The tasteful use of black mosaic tiles in the shower-area of the master suite, a hip and sophisticated touch reminiscent of underground tiles, reinforces this shift to a more metropolitan state of mind. Similarly, walnut replaces the cedar of the home’s lower decks. The wood has a bronze tinge, giving it a slightly more metallic tone which makes for a smoother pairing with the rooms’ grey notes. Other family bedrooms and a shared shower room can also be found on this floor, with an additional bedroom, shower, toilet and guest suite on a higher floor.

An art form

The ‘House of Books’ is a name that suggests a type of magic, a flirtation with the unreal. In many ways, SHH’s ‘House of Books’ embodies this brand of magic. The house breaks from conventional floor plans by inventing its own, new and original cartographies that give the ‘book’ a primacy befitting to the house’s name. There’s also a particularly mystic allure in the way the ‘House of Books’ is an adaptable space, being able to move and evolve with the needs and requirements of its owner; an organic living space in the truest sense. In appreciation of this, it’s difficult to deny that SHH’s ‘House of Books’ is a celebration of both design and modern architecture. However, it would be wrong to assume it a product of the two as separate entities or processes. On the contrary, with the ‘House of Books’, SHH interweave architecture and design into a singular art form, a singular mode of thought and process, with the house that emerging from that being an embodiment of this method: part piece of art, part home. We love it.

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All photography courtesy Alastair Lever/SHH Architects and Interior Design.

  • Nigel is a writer and journalist living in London. He loves music, literature and architecture. Since moving to London to study, he’s yet to kick his honeymoon phase with the city, and when not working, can consequently be found making the most of what London has to offer. He maintains that Billy Joel is one of the greatest and most critically misunderstood singer-songwriters of our time. So far, he has found 3 other people that agree with him.

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