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Designing a (comfortable) work of art

Designing a (comfortable) work of art


The story of A House for Essex: designing a house for a fictional client

Designing a (comfortable) work of art

Would you want to live in a modernist masterpiece? This is a question non-architects probably often ask themselves when faced with an architect-designed house. It might look fantastic, it might push all sorts of artistic boundaries but would the dishwasher have been sacrificed for the maximum aesthetic kitchen design? Would the chairs be comfortable to sit on, or to curl up with a book? 

This is a question that lies at the heart of Living Architecture: how to commission works of architecture that are also comfortable and enjoyable places to stay. It is a question that might initially seem an unlikely one in the formation of A House For Essex, a house that has contemporary art and architecture at its core. And yet for architect Charles Holland and artist Grayson Perry, the idea of comfort and of the pleasure of being inside this house was paramount.

A House For Essex was designed around a fictional character, Julie Cope, an Essex everywoman and Grayson’s invention. During the design process, Julie became a nominal client, her character and tastes governing the choices of everything from the bathroom taps to (literally) the kitchen sink. Crucially, Charles and Grayson decided that Julie would not have lived in a particularly contemporary house. She might have lived in one that was a little worn, one that showed the marks of age and that might even have needed a lick of paint and a new loo.

She certainly wouldn’t have had the latest gadgets or a minimalist oven hidden away behind slick cupboards, or touch screen lighting controls. And she might have liked to relax into a big comfortable sofa or a decent sized bath tub. Charles says that, “Julie’s house has a decidedly analogue quality. The bathroom taps are big, brass ones with oversized handles - no slick Euro mixers here! The light switches are circular white Bakelite of the sort that an old country house might have. And her kitchen has a butler’s sink and open shelves. The pots hang on hooks and there is a big, roomy dresser for the plates and cutlery.”

All of this is given a twist so that it is not merely nostalgic or un-designed. There is an intensity of colour and a precision of detail that elevates the interior of the house to a high level, one where the compositional hand of the designers is always present but hopefully not too insistent. Everything is meant to be easy: no hidden switches or fiddly cupboards. Windows have big, bronze handles and the doors have proper door knobs. The fridge is easy to find.

There are other subtler nods to more psychological ideas of comfort. The upstairs is compact with but with nooks and corners and hidden cupboards. Some spaces are deliberately a little dark in contrast to the contemporary desire for wide-open, brightly lit spaces. It is meant to be a retreat: into art, into domestic comfort and a fantasy of escape. A House For Essex is an example of contemporary architecture but not the one we are familiar with from Sunday supplements and Grand Designs. It is stranger than that, but also, unexpectedly, more comfortable too.

Designing a (comfortable) work of artDesigning a (comfortable) work of artDesigning a (comfortable) work of art
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