An Architect Scrapes Away Decades of Paint to Polish Up a Brutalist Gem

Oliver Grimshaw finds his modernist dream home, hiding in plain sight.
Photos by
Veerle Evens

In London, peppered throughout the rows of historic Georgian homes and Victorian towers, you’ll find some of the finest examples of modernist residential architecture in the world—though not all of the city’s residents see it that way.

"London is full of concrete and brutalist homes that were built postwar to fill in the gaps left by bombs," explains architect Oliver Grimshaw, principal of design firm OGA. "But Britain is a tiered society, and so these flats aren’t necessarily viewed as aspirational." For the design-minded, though, these homes couldn’t be more desirable.

OGA applied hardware store plaster to the walls and polished it with beeswax to bring in a rich texture.

Those in the know look at the building fabric, and how these flats work, and see how they can accommodate an enjoyable contemporary lifestyle far better than a leaky, drafty Victorian. "It’s like a little secret architects have," says Grimshaw. 

In the kitchen, a crisp white VOD tap pops against the warm plaster walls.

Unique notch handles give the flat-panel cabinetry a pop of character.

That’s why he was already very familiar with the design of Whittington Estate, a council-housing community built in 1972, when a brutalist three-bedroom mansionette hit the market in 2019. Despite the layers of carpets and a questionable ’90s renovation, he and his wife jumped on the opportunity to buy the two-story, 1,000-square-foot home, and they spent the pandemic working away on what Grimshaw calls a "modest-modern" restoration. 

The Brutalist estate is south-facing and placed on a steep lot, giving the home access to natural light. "During lockdown three, we were trapped at home with our beautiful cats, lounging the whole time, learning the way the sunlight would move through the space," says Grimshaw.

Vintage furniture looks right at home in the refurbished midcentury space.

"We wanted to reflect the austerity of the original design, and be redacted and honest," says Grimshaw. "It’s not particularly whimsical. Most decisions were about what was appropriate, and what felt right."

A sunny moment on a small-but-mighty patio.

Built-in benches line the living room.

To that end, Grimshaw did his homework, reading up on the history of the home (designed by Peter Tabori) and approaching everything from the finishes to the revised floor plan with the original architect’s vision in mind. 

For instance, Grimshaw took down a wall to return the house to its initial layout, and he introduced new sight lines simply by placing  mirror walls that make external space visible from every vantage. "It didn’t feel sacrilegious," he says. "These buildings were ultimately intended to reflect what the tenant wanted."

Four layers of carpet came out, and another four layers of paint were stripped down.

The couple pulled out four layers of carpet, and scraped off four decades of paint, too. "You do feel like an archeologist," Grimshaw says with a laugh "You can see the decades of fashion going backwards."

The new color palette is based on Corbusian color charts (Les Couleurs Velvet II, to be precise), in a nod to one of the era’s most respected architectural minds. The bedroom door is a dreamy Outremer Pale blue, and a Rouge Vermillion 31 pendant light hangs above a tulip dining table. Classic design pieces, like the Togo sofa and Bertoia dining chairs, similarly celebrate midcentury ideals.

In the bathrooms, OGA applied a different variety of plaster: Moroccan Tadelakt, selected for its waterproof application. ("You see it in most hammams," says Grimshaw, who has spent time working in Morocco.)

Grimshaw and his partner didn’t work with a mood board or go in with a big grand vision; rather, they felt it out along the way and let the home dictate decisions. "If I’d been left to my own devices, it would’ve been much more boring," he laughs. "She brought the richness."

But as much as the design honors history, the now-two-bedroom home also feels fresh. Clean concrete countertops sit atop ash cabinetry in the kitchen. The cleverly placed mirrors bounce light around the space to keep things bright.

If architects wanted to keep these not-so-hidden gems a secret, they would do well to stop refurbishing them so beautifully. With places like Grimshaw’s, the secret is out.

Floor Plan of Stoneleigh Terrace by OGA

Related Reading:

A Victorian Terrace House in London Gets a Bright, Brutalist Rear Addition

Peter Barber Explains How to Make Affordable Housing People Love

Project Credits:

Architecture of Record and Interior Design: OGA / @ogarchit 

Cabinetry: DRX Design / @drx.design

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