It has been said many times that the architecture of 200 years ago is proving far more adaptable to the demands of modern working than the purpose-built office blocks of the 1960s and 70s. Warehouses and factories in London’s East End have converted easily into living and workplaces for the creative industries, but those with fatter wallets tend towards the more prestigious West End, and it is here we find the latest commercial project by architects and interior designers SHH. Standing in the outer reaches of Marylebone (but away from the bedlam of Oxford Circus) the building, an early Georgian townhouse, is typical of the area. Its owner, an international shipping firm that has asked not to be named, occupies the first floor and is planning to rent out the other rooms in the five-storey building. A serious sort, the company director has thankfully eschewed any lame nautical references in favour of clean unfussy finishes coupled with a masculine penchant for black and chrome.
Grade II listing meant that, aside from some spit and polish on the Portland Stone facade, structural changes were not allowed. Not that they were needed: arriving on site, lead architect Brendan Heath found a building in good-ish anatomical condition albeit with some questionable decor. “The previous tenant was a bank, I think,” Heath says. “All the walls were magnolia and they had put laminate floor in the offices. It looked like there had been someone smoking in here for 20 years. Not particularly attractive.” The project’s tone is set by the imperious black front door, which swings open to reveal the gleaming walls and polished stone floor of the foyer. SHH stripped back and whitewashed the wood panelling. The whiteness is almost clinical, but offset by the ornament of the cornice and overhead pedant light. An architectural black lamp stands to one side, with a quiet elongated form that could pass for a hat stand. It works well in this transient zone. The reception beyond is framed by a set of arched double doors that could have been lifted from a conservatory. Here, Heath removed the layers of paint that had built up over the years and discovered series of glazed elliptical frames above the doors; restoring this element re-established a line of sight from foyer to stairwell. The heavy black marble reception desk reveals the client’s machismo tendencies. No amorphous blobs here, just hard decisive lines. “It had the potential to be a little bit 80s so we played with light and reflection by using black glass to reduce the blockiness of it,” Heath says.
To counterweight his client’s desire for a monochromatic palette, Heath installed a beautiful herringbone-patterned parquet floor, which stretches all the way back to the lift at the rear of the ground floor space. Dangling in the stairwell is a glass pendant lamp comprising three different sized blown-glass globes suspended at various heights, which replaces a naff brass chandelier. This feature proved to be one of the building’s trickiest elements: building manager Rocco, our amiable chaperon for the day, lowers the pendant to demonstrate the motorised hoist in the roof, while Heath explains the structural difficulties presented. “We had to put big steels in to redistribute the load from the roof down through the building. It took a hell of a lot of work above to get this thing to work.” The original wrought-iron balustrade was still in good nick, as was the timber handrail, but for a few chips here and there. Both have polished up nicely.
The director’s office on the first floor is a suitably grand home for a shipping magnate. We enter via the main office through some majestic double doors and are immediately bathed in sunlight streaming in through the sash windows opposite. To the right is a charcoal-coloured Cassina sofa and coffee table, but commanding the floor is a formidable blackened-pine desk. Heath points out that anything less muscular would be lost in a room this size, but undoubtedly power games are afoot here. It’s alleged that the office formerly belonged to a fashion designer, which explains why it once featured more mirrors than a starlet’s dressing room. The design team wasted no time in chucking out most of these pointless accoutrements save for one framed mirror. One of two original fireplaces remains, a mosaic-clad beauty depicting classical scenes. Mixing original with modern details Heath illuminated this already bright space with a Medusa-like Flos chandelier. The only obvious hint as to what occurs within these four walls is a model cargo ship, sadly not in a bottle. Next door, two employees work silently at a bank of desks. One senses there are few histrionics in the day-to-day running of the place so any reverb from the hard surfaces causes little upset. Models of the impressive fleet are also displayed here, alas rather boringly in wooden display cases.
Towards the back of the building there is a meeting room where a table and chairs in matching black and chrome are the order of the day. The slickness is tempered by the warmth of the parquet floor, and a wonderful old map of the world on the wall. Gardener Kate Gould’s work can also be seen here: she has installed a window box to block out the looming brick fire escape of the neighbouring hotel, as well as a series of taut wires that will eventually support a tangle of climbing plants, further screening the ugly view. As is inevitable with a building this old, the major work went on behind the scenes. Fixing cracks in the structure, repairing joists, levelling off wonky floors and even filling in an old chimney consumed much time and money. But when called upon to make cosmetic improvements, Heath and his team invariably hit the mark. Careful restoration of the ageing fabric, paired with modern lighting, have proved a sound formula in a project that could have veered into pastiche. Credit is also due to the hands-on client, who set a clear brief. “He had very firm opinions,” says Heath. “And because his old office was just round the corner he was on site a lot. But you’d much rather have that than someone who arrives at the end and goes: ‘What the hell have you done that for?’”