Life in a Modern masterpiece home

A rare intact British Modernist house has been decorated as if the era never ended

‘It’s personal expression, not faithfully reproducing an era, that gives a home character,” muses Niki fforde, ushering me inside her restored 1960s home. The concertina door swishes open to reveal an avalanche of colour. A toe-cossetting aubergine carpet clambers up the navy-walled staircase. Acid-yellow upholstery fizzles against mustard walls. Add a peppering of contemporary art and furniture and the odd midcentury find and you have a home that rekindles the iconoclastic spirt of the original without feeling retro.

It was the radical architecture of the house that first appealed to fforde. Designed by Edward Schoolheifer in 1964 the three-bedroom townhouse sits on the private Manygate estate in west London, a rare example of British Modernist housing. “After living in a claustrophobic London flat for 13 years I’d drawn up a precise property checklist,” explains fforde, who combines a job in television with an interior design business.

“I wanted light and space with a west-facing garden and a sense of community. This place has it all,” she continues, stepping outside to admire the terraced facade, its simple design defined by white weatherboarding with picture windows enhancing the weightless feel. A slate-lined garden, which fforde designed to “echo the linear feel of the house” leads to shady communal lawns. “I’m convinced that the shared space makes us more neighbourly. We’ll wave to each other as we walk past, but there’s also an unwritten code – when you draw your curtains it means ‘Don’t disturb!’”

A pine half wall built to house a TV and hi-fi.
Shelf life: a pine half wall built to house a TV and hi-fi. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

When the estate – now a conservation area – was first built, its breezy, avant-garde feel also appealed to actors working at nearby Shepperton film studios. Previous Manygate incumbents include Julie Christie, Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando, who rented or bought properties. Even now residents point out the house where Tom Jones lived for a spell, choosing green carpets to evoke the valleys of home and sprinkling celebrity stardust on suburbia.

But Modernism is not for everyone. “Over the years people have added partition walls or shrouded the windows with net curtains for privacy. I was lucky that my house was almost untouched,” says fforde, who found the property by chance. “One night an agent’s alert just popped up on my PC.”

With three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, the focal point of the interior is the open-plan ground floor where the kitchen is separated from the living area by a veneered half-wall, designed to house a state-of-the-art television. The original pine ceiling is intact as are the vinyl concertina doors, installed as insulation and to soundproof the hallway, where the telephone once had pride of place. The 1960s gas-fired heating system, which pumps warm air through vents, still works and is “surprisingly efficient and means you don’t need space-consuming radiators”.

The Edward Schoolheifer-designed exterior.
A design classic: the Edward Schoolheifer exterior. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Time had been less kind to the decoration. “It was dirty and cluttered with cardboard-coloured carpets and Regency striped wallpaper,” says fforde. “So I corralled a few friends and we began to restore the house.” Wrenching up the carpets fforde discovered the beech staircase and Jarrah hardwood flooring. Further excavation revealed original lead-based paint hues of yellows, purples and a clutch of forest-green tiles: “I’ll confess that at first I was tempted to paint everything white, but discovering these colours made me understand the house and inspired me to think differently, although I did draw the line at the dark green.”

Glass doors onto the garden.
Outside inside: glass doors onto the garden. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

To this spirited backdrop fforde has added possessions which date back to her art student days at Central Saint Martins. There is a photo of Mick Jagger taken by fforde’s tutor, the photographer Jill Furmanovsky. A recent addition is the striking aluminium sculpture by Jonathan Clarke, whose work can also be seen at Ely cathedral. Downstairs, the heirloom sideboard and sculptural lamp evoke her parents’ 1960s house. “My mother is extremely stylish. She’ll hold out for the right pieces.” A teak dining table stretches to seat 14 while a contemporary rug and lean daybed, hugged by an arched floor lamp, look at home in the living space. “I’ve used a mix of objects, some for nostalgic reasons, others because they suit the house or fitted my bank balance,” fforde explains.

Fiscal caution did not play into the original housebuilder’s sales ploy. “Buy now – pay later,” soothed the brochure describing its typical buyer as “Chris, in his early 30s, working for a comparatively substantial salary as an advertising executive…” Over ensuing decades the estate, predictably, fell out of fashion. But nowadays Manygate has taken on a new appeal, drawing professionals, young families and design-conscious commuters lured, once more, by the pioneering spirit of Modernism in suburbia.

Serena Fokschaner

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Window shopping: an amazing British modern classic house in Essex
WF Crittall’s 1934 house is a British modern classic, writes Joanne O’Conor, and not just because of the metal windows

Joanne O'Connor

11, Jun, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Modern history: a modular home in Camberwell
This immaculate single-storey house is still bursting with the design details that made it a 1970s classic

Kate Lawson

21, Dec, 2019 @4:00 PM

Article image
Bringing a 60s Dulwich house back to life
Midcentury homes can be uninviting from the outside, but they’re wonderful spaces within. Kate Jacobs takes a tour of Francesca Forcolini’s light-filled south London home

Kate Jacobs

29, Jan, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
The chairman: the dealer selling CC41 furniture to the famous
James Watkins set out to be a pop star, but instead found success dealing in Second World War utility pieces. By Phill Langhorne

Phill Langhorne

18, Jun, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
The modernist romance of a restored house in Ditchling
An artistic couple have lovingly restored a modernist house, bought from its first owner, aged 102. Kate Jacobs visits

Kate Jacobs

02, Oct, 2016 @5:00 AM

Article image
Full metal jacket: a striking home in Bruton
A steel-clad home in Somerset blends beauty and contemporary architecture in a pretty Georgian town

Jo Leevers

22, Dec, 2018 @4:00 PM

Article image
Stairway to heaven: Jimmy Page’s castle is his home
The founder of Led Zeppelin shows off Tower House, his beloved 13th-century Gothic castle in London

Annalisa Barbieri

08, Jul, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Boaty McBoathouse: a truly unusual seaside home in Poole
This architect’s holiday retreat is inspired by the upturned hull of a ship, writes Rich Cunningham

Rich Cunningham

02, Apr, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Loch living: a beautiful home on the banks of the Tay
A designer and her family had always relished their trips to Scotland, but when a field by Loch Tay went up for sale, their dreams became reality

Nell Card

07, Jan, 2023 @4:00 PM

Article image
Feat of clay: regeneration project bringing Liverpool street to life
Granby Street in Liverpool is a great collaboration between Assemble and the locals. By John-Michael O’Sullivan

John-Michael O'Sullivan

10, Sep, 2017 @5:00 AM