The founder and CEO of Designed by Woulfe transformed this late-Victorian mansion flat into a sublime entertaining space that balances understated luxury with playfulness. What’s more, it’s dog proof…
Scaffolding shrouds the front of the St. John’s Wood Edwardian mansion block and there are boxes of tiles and builder’s paraphernalia on the landing outside Brian Woulfe’s first floor apartment – classics signs of a renovation in progress.
Brian opens the door to me, shadowed by his adorable eight-month-old puppy, the deliciously named Chow Mein. But as I step into the apartment, it’s immediately apparent that this is very much a finished project (bar a few tiles being replaced on the front balcony). The overall impression is of smooth planes of bold colour, punctuated by textured surfaces and mid-Century silhouettes with just a hint of Art Deco. It is, quite simply, stunning.
It’s a far cry from the dark and gloomy space that Brian and his partner first encountered when they viewed the property. “The previous owner was a woman in her eighties, who’d lowered the ceilings by 1.5m and blocked up the fireplace to make the space easier to heat,” Brian tells me. “We had to strip everything back to the joists and replace pretty much everything: wiring, plumbing, even the chimney breast. We did keep some of the original architraves, though, and an old wood panel
on the bay window.”
Incredibly, this massive project took just 10 weeks from start to finish. “Something of this scale would normally take around six months,” admits Brian, “but we called in lots of favours, and begged to jump queues. The kitchen was pre-planned, which helped, but the sequencing of the works was very complicated. In the final two weeks, sometimes there were 20 or so people in the house.”
Brian takes me on a tour of the apartment. The attention to detail everywhere is breathtaking: hand patinated surfaces, sleek chamfered edges on wardrobe and cabinet doors, a shagreen pattern cast in bronze on the headboard and bedside cabinet doors in the master bedroom. And incredibly sophisticated lighting, one of the most striking – or should I say subtle – features of this apartment. “I always start a project with a lighting plan,” explains Brian.
The lighting is as beautiful as it is functional, from the low-level PIR inset lights in the skirting boards, to the ceiling lights in the master bedroom that throw pools of light on to the soft folds of the cashmere curtains (yes, cashmere). The teal velvet border on these gorgeous floor-to-ceiling drapes, which perfectly matches the colour of the sumptuous upholstered headboard, was not, however, part of the original design. “Chow Mein chewed the bottom,” says Brian ruefully. This is a dog with seriously expensive tastes.
Repeating shapes unify the space – the circular mirror in the sitting room is echoed by the wall-mounted ceramic artwork in the hallway and the globe-shaped pendant light above the dining table. Colour is a unifying element, too. Even though block colours dominate, every room has hints of colours from the other rooms – but there’s no white paintwork anywhere in the flat. “I’ve used an off-white, a pearlescent shade that’s softer, less brilliant than white,” explains Brian. “It’s so much easier to keep clean, especially on skirting boards, which are a major consideration with a dog like Chow Mein in the house.”
The apartment is very much a place for living and relaxing. “It’s a feel-good space,” says Brian. Take the dining area – the Tom Faulkner table with marble top and custom-made Lazy Susan was designed with entertaining very much in mind. “It’s a great social table, we use it for playing games as much as eating. During the day I often sit and work at it, with my laptop and papers spread out all over it. The table seats eight people, and I made sure that we had enough seating for everyone in the living room, so that no-one had to perch on the arm of a sofa with their pre-dinner drink. We chose the Flexform swivel armchairs because guests can turn around and talk to us if we’re in the kitchen cooking.”
Cast bronze surfaces are a striking feature of Brian’s home. The standout piece is the magnificent drinks cabinet in the dining area with its Shou Sugi Ban (charred timber) effect doors. Like every piece in this home, a huge amount of thought has gone into how it can enhance the room’s ambience. It’s backlit and when you open the doors, clever interior lighting provides another layer of illumination.
Brian was in charge of all the interior design decisions, but the one thing that his partner was not prepared to compromise on was the large TV. “I had to concede that point. But I really didn’t want the screen to be the focus of the living room, so I found the most minimalist model that I could. I chose this particular shade of blue for the walls so that the black screen would recede into the space.” And just to prove that aesthetics and practicality can go hand in hand, the TV is on an arm that swings out into the room at right angles so that you can watch it while sitting at the dining table.
I ask Brian how he’d describe his style. “It’s a classic/contemporary mix, with metallic accents – bronze and brass. It’s classic in the sense of the way that the space is organised, with the bay window as the focal point for the dining area, the fireplace is the focal point of the living area. But it’s a relaxed, liveable space, not at all precious. I want guests to feel comfortable in it, not to be worried about spilling something on the rug, or where to put their glass down. We have a dog, so we have to be practical – the flooring is engineered wood that’s sealed and can be sanded back, the rug isn’t an expensive silk one and can easily be replaced.”
There’s a playfulness at work here, too. From the Arte wallpaper in the guest bedroom with its giant flamingos, to the artwork in the corridor created from a piece of broken skateboard and the trio of brass pineapples sitting on the coffee table, there are little whimsical touches throughout the apartment that soften its classical edges. Does he have a favourite piece? Brian ponders the question for a moment. “My orchid bowl has followed me everywhere,” he says. “I bought it in Thailand, and it’s a bit battered and bruised now, but in a refined interior like this that makes it even more interesting.”
So why did Brian decide to put down roots in St. John’s Wood? “I’m a country boy at heart,” he says, “I grew up on a farm in Ireland, so I need to be near green spaces. Here, we’re close to Regent’s Park and Paddington Recreation Ground. The streets are very wide and tree-lined, so you have a real sense of space. Plus, the master bedroom has a balcony and overlooks a garden with glorious mature trees.” Another draw was the apartment’s perfect east/west orientation. “The sun pours in through the kitchen and dining room windows in the morning, and it sets over the garden behind the master bedroom. So the flat is drenched in light all day long.”
After the grand tour, we sit down in those supremely comfortable Flexform swivel chairs for a coffee and a chat about Brian’s career to date, which hasn’t exactly followed a traditional path. “I was a concert pianist,” he reveals. “But I realised that spending six to eight hours a day sitting on my own practising wasn’t really for me. So I decided to move away from performing and set up my own classical music label, Landor Records. I was also interested in interior design and had helped people out on various projects. Then I moved to Thailand where I worked with a developer on a big project. He liked my attention to detail, and what had been a hobby up to that point, turned into a career.”
Since his first project in Thailand, Brian has worked all over the world: New York, Majorca, Sydney and the Hollywood Hills. “I’m just about to start another project with an old New York client who has bought a new apartment,” he tells me. But his main focus now is on the UK, and alongside his private client projects, Designed by Woulfe is talking to a number of developers. “I’m helping them change direction with their show flats. So many new development interiors are a bit characterless, with a very neutral palette. I think that developers could be braver with colour – interiors should have personality.” And personality is something this apartment certainly has in spades. (designedbywoulfe.com)