Pink walls, blue stairs and yellow handrails: a home renovation full of colour

Oliver Wainwright
·5-min read

“We had one condition for the architects,” Tamsin Chislett says. She is standing in her kitchen, beneath a canary yellow steel beam that leaps across a pistachio-coloured ceiling towards a pale pink seating alcove, framing a deep blue sofa. Across the room, a row of pink bannisters topped with a yellow handrail cascades down a teal staircase towards a glossy cobalt blue radiator, meeting the newel post with a bright red dot. “No grey,” she says, firmly. “Anywhere.” Her partner Max Lines chimes in: “And no Farrow & Ball.”

It’s fair to say the designers took the couple at their word. This modest lower-ground-floor renovation of a Victorian terraced house in London is a dazzling kaleidoscope of colour, every swatch of the Dulux paint chart deployed with joyful relish. It feels like Miami meets Memphis, the pastel palette of an ice-cream parlour turbocharged with zings of primary colour, bringing the promise of sunnier climes to drizzly January. “At one point they tried to sneak in a concrete floor,” Chislett says, “but I ruled it out.”

The pair bought the house a couple of years ago and inherited a dark and dingy lower-ground floor that had been subdivided into a small bedroom, kitchen and shower room. They wanted to open up the space into one big family kitchen, with plenty of fun nooks and crannies to explore for their young son Mo, now three, and his one-year-old brother Marcie – who dramatically arrived midway through construction, hastily born on a sheet of plywood in the bathroom.

“I loved the idea of having secret places that only the kids could get to,” Chislett says, “and that grownups couldn’t reach.” A bright red, semi-circular handle opens a small blue cupboard under the stairs, which has become Mo’s favourite hiding place, while storage built into a pink seating nook has toddler-height cupboards below and adult-level storage above, for “toys at the bottom, booze at the top”. The seat also doubles as a fun cushioned platform for the boys to rampage across, and a comfy daybed for parents to nap, in between tidying up the toys. “The other main requirement for the project was that it had to look good messy,” Chislett says. “We’re definitely not minimalists.”

This playful nest is the work of the cheekily named Office S&M, a young practice founded in 2013 by Catrina Stewart and Hugh McEwen, with the aim of injecting colour and joy into the often po-faced world of architecture. Where many designers spend months agonising over 50 shades of greige, Stewart and McEwen embrace colour as a building material, as much as bricks and mortar, revelling in unlikely combinations of tone and texture. Their Salmen House in London is covered with knobbly render in salmon pink and minty green, and has become an Instagram sensation, while they recently won planning permission for a garden studio clad with recycled satellite dishes. Marking a step up in scale, the architects are finalising plans for an off-grid house in East Sussex made of soil-packed tyres, inspired by the earthships of Taos, New Mexico, as well as developing a daring bow-fronted red and green apartment block in Croydon. “The design is not the status quo,” concluded the planning officer, with impressive understatement.
But S&M hadn’t built much when Chislett appointed them. Instead, the connection was based on long-term personal trust. “I went to school with Catrina and I’ve always wanted to commission her to do something,” she says. “I knew I could leave it in her hands.” Stewart grew up as the daughter of toymakers and has her own substantial collection of miniatures and wind-up toys. This has clearly influenced the pair’s playful approach to design.

“We think of the furniture pieces as characters in a story,” Stewart says. “The larder has a nose, which shines light over the worktop, and a mirrored eye that blinks every time you open the door.” The pink nook, meanwhile, is conceived as a theatrical throne topped with a crown, framing the family like the proscenium arch around a stage set.

Curved, golden-hued acrylic mirrors on the walls reflect the combinations of colour and texture in unexpected ways and bring further playful echoes of a funfair hall of mirrors (an effect that’s strangely enhanced by their unintentionally wobbly surface). Colour has also been used to frame views through the space and emphasise the different components, with a single structural column painted bright blue, supporting the yellow beam, and the openings to a utility room and shower room framed with pink architraves against lilac doors with contrasting shiny plastic handles in beetroot and blue. They’ve even had fun with the light switches, using round ceramic fittings that jump out from the walls as yellow and pink dots. Upstairs, a simple white-tiled bathroom has been given extra pizzazz with yellow grout and countertops made of swirly black and white recycled plastic.

“Reuse and longevity of materials were really important,” says Chislett, who co-founded a fashion rental company, Onloan, in 2018, which loans “statement pieces” of clothing on a rotating monthly basis, to be returned and reloaned to others. Along with the recycled plastic surfaces in the bathroom and utility room, which have the bold, wiggly marbling of a sliced red cabbage, there’s the kitchen countertop, where what looks like an expensive green marble surface is actually a kind of polished terrazzo made from pulverised rubble.

Much of the space itself has been recycled, too, with only one partition wall removed. The original wooden staircase was simply upgraded with a new balustrade, and a new door and windows were fitted into existing openings – all avoiding the structural costs that come with extending and more substantial remodelling. The major hidden cost, as is so often the case with lower-ground-floor refurbs, was in damp-proofing, which swallowed a third of the £73,000 budget. The rest is deceptively simple, coming down to the judicious choice of materials and finishes. As Stewart modestly puts it: “You can do a lot with paint.”

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