Her dark materials: how a designer made her mark on a tiny rented flat

A small living space without much light is a challenge. But for the owner of cult brand Darkroom, it just made her more inventive

When it comes to creativity, the blank canvas can have a paralysing effect. More often than not, the brain gets going when we’re facing a few restrictions. So it’s no surprise that Rhonda Drakeford’s east London rental flat has ideas by the bucketload, because there has been no shortage of limitations.

The interior designer moved here 18 months ago following a change of direction at her cult brand Darkroom, and a relationship break-up. A friend, renting next door from the same landlord, told her about this flat in a former baker’s shop. “It’s not big enough for dinner parties so it is more of a sanctuary, which was very timely and just what I needed,” says Drakeford. “But it was such a hole: small, long and thin, not much light, peeling laminate and cupboards hanging off the wall. On the plus side, it’s on a gorgeous street close to Victoria Park, where I love spending time.” Crucially, the landlord was hands-off and relaxed about Drakeford making her mark – up to a point: “If I owned this place,” she says, “I would gut it and start again, but I’m renting so I have to compromise.”

Her pragmatic spirit is grounded in her past. Before her family settled in Preston, Lancashire, Drakeford spent her early childhood shuttling between different army-base houses. This fired her up with a make-do-and-mend mindset and an ability to thrive on change. She came to London to study graphic design at Central Saint Martins and co-founded a successful creative agency, Multistorey, before starting the lifestyle store Darkroom with her friend Lulu Roper-Caldbeck in 2009. When soaring rents forced them to close the shop in 2016, the pair parted amicably and Drakeford continued with Darkroom alone. Now she concentrates on her own-design pieces which sell online and through outlets including the Design Museum, as well as pop-ups and collaborations with the likes of Bert & May and Somerset House.

A patchwork of different colours and shapes on big square plant pots and a table in the garden.
Plant an idea: a patchwork of colours and shapes in the garden. Photograph: Rachael Smith

Right now she’s working with Made.com and doing more interior design under the name of Studio Rhonda. “This has been an opportunity to explore areas of my aesthetic that fall outside the strict parameters of Darkroom,” she says. “Each project is site specific and client specific, too – I enjoy getting to the heart of a space and the people who will inhabit it.”

Darkroom is known for its liberal use of black, and Drakeford’s previous flats all had black walls. But that didn’t feel right for this light-starved layout. “Black is a neutral for me but it wouldn’t work here in this long, narrow space and I was keen to explore some new ideas here anyway.”

So, to create a cohesive look that unifies the space, the whole flat has been painted white, and black is confined to the floorboards – which were discovered, to Drakeford’s joy, when she peeled back the dodgy laminate.

The flat’s huge front window looks straight on to the street and was covered in frosted-effect vinyl when Drakeford moved here. She stripped this away but has carved out some privacy, while holding on to the light, by installing scaffolding plank shelves arranged with plants and interesting objects – both found and made. “Plants cover a multitude of sins,” she laughs, “and I encourage all my clients to introduce some because they bring life to a home.”

The small bedroom with a teak wardrobe and bed
Teak practice: multipurpose cupboards in the bedroom. Photograph: Rachael Smith

The same scaffolding planks have helped Drakeford make her mark on the kitchen, where she removed the rickety upper cabinets in favour of open shelves, dividing up her stuff into what she likes enough to have on show and what stays out of sight. Luckily, the existing black tiles and worktop are OK by Drakeford, who has swapped the twee cupboard handles with functional Ikea designs.

In the bedroom she has created a dressing area by backing her grandparents’ teak cupboards on to her bed, creating a headboard and displaying plants and pottery on top. Drakeford has made use of painted panels of colour to zone the flat: warm terracotta surrounds the sleeping area while a yellow arch highlights the kitchen table.

A black triangle painted on a wall with missing tiles in the bathroom
Shape shifter: an ingenious solution for missing tiles in the bathroom. Photograph: Rachael Smith

The bathroom has proved the biggest challenge. The room had swathes of missing tiles and Drake feared the landlord would replace them with mismatches, as he did with the property next door. So she opted to paint the gap with epoxy floor paint, creating a graphic black triangle that puts the room on the right side of habitable and makes a feature of a former flaw.

In this tiny home, all Drakeford’s “stuff” has created another challenge: “I’m a sentimental maximalist and I’ve collected many objects and pieces of art and furniture over the years that mean a great deal to me,” she says. “I love having lots of them out on display as they create dialogue in the space, telling tales of my travels, friends and family.” It has been a challenge to find space for it all but she believes that this is the key to making the best of rented housing. “I found it much more liveable here than I expected and I think that’s because once all my things are out, wherever I am becomes mine.”


Kate Jacobs

The GuardianTramp

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