My Modern House: entrepreneur and coach Remy Blumenfeld on the joys of 1970s Modernist architecture
Here, we speak to entrepreneur and coach Remy Blumenfeld about life in Capel Manor House, an outstanding example of 1970s Modernist architecture in Kent, designed by architect Michael Manser.
Remy: “Where we live is so linked to our sense of wellbeing. Capel Manor House is like living in the treetops and sleeping under the stars. It feels infinite because you can look out over the garden and see up to three miles away.
“I do think the kind of house people choose to live in says a lot about their personalities. I’m not sure what loving life in a simple glass house with no walls says about me. Perhaps it’s the people who inhabit a space and the energy that exists between them that defines the experience of a house even more than the architecture.
“Back in 1999, I set out to look for a small house with a big garden, about an hour away from London by train. Then, as now, there were very few small houses surrounded by large gardens; only vast houses, which didn’t suit my life.
“Having spent time in California, I’d always loved the architecture of Richard Neutra, but I’d never seen any good Modernist houses in the UK and I didn’t have my heart set on finding one.
“Then, one Thursday I saw an advertisement in Country Life with a picture of Capel Manor House. I didn’t know then that this house is considered by many as one of the finest examples of Modernist architecture in Britain, with a scale model of it in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
“In 1999 it had not yet been awarded a Grade II* listing by English Heritage. But I was completely seduced by the picture of Michael Manser’s 1970 jewel box in its Arcadian setting. It looked as though it had been created just for me, and I think there is something simple and optimistic about 1970s Modernist architecture.
“I went to look at Capel Manor House that same afternoon, just as the sun was about to set. My impression was one of being in a dream. Had I been transported to the Hollywood Hills?
“The views across the Kentish Weald were almost Tuscan but the house, glowing like a lantern on top of a terraced, hilltop garden and surrounded by Italianate-gothic features – a wide stone staircase, a Victorian winter garden, a folly – all left over from the nineteenth century house by T H Wyatt, felt at once incredibly modern and completely timeless. I remember picking and eating autumn raspberries from the kitchen garden. My offer was accepted the very next morning.
“It is a house which makes very few demands as it is simple and easy to maintain, and offers year-round joys. Michael Manser, who became a friend and visited us here, designed the house to be all about an indoor-outdoor experience.
“Because the house has no exterior walls, living here is like living in nature. I’m wonderfully present to the changing light moving around the house through the day as well as the passage of the seasons. From April through October we spend a lot of time in the garden and often dine under the Victorian arches.
“Although I still spend midweek days living in London, Capel is the perfect place for me to coach clients on the phone, as other people’s lives are often very frenetic and this is a place of complete serenity for me. Apart from the occasional deer or fox, there are no unwanted distractions to take me away from being utterly focussed.
“The small size of the house was, of course, part of original owners John and Maisie Howard’s brief – they wanted a home which was easy to run. This smallness, combined with the 360-degree integrity of the building, also meant there was no private space for guests to stay. With all of its exterior walls made of glass, the guest room and study in the house were not acoustically private. There was no space for guests to escape us, or us to escape our guests, and so we set out to create a separate guest pavilion.
“I’d seen a very beautiful Modernist house in Scotland, by the architect Ewan Cameron, who met with us to talk about the kind of guest accommodation we were hoping for. Our brief was simple: to create a separate additional pod in the same vernacular as the main house, where guests could not be seen (or heard) by other guests, or by us in the main house.
“Ewan ended up sketching the rough plans for what became our guest pavilion while he was sitting with us at our kitchen table. His final design for the guest pavilion was influenced by Japanese temples and gardens, yet also manages to incorporate all the elements we love most about Manser’s masterpiece, just built with more modern materials.
“So, there are glass corners and a shaded veranda that means rain doesn’t hit the glass and sunlight doesn’t blind you in the house. A simple palette of concrete and walnut wood keeps the interiors minimal, while the bedrooms open up to a paved terrace that offers views out towards nature. I was delighted when Michael Manser himself told me he thought that Ewan Cameron’s pavilion was just perfect.
“I love having friends and family to stay, but I also value my own privacy and space – as, I imagine, do they. Having a separate pavilion means guests can come and go as they please, or read, have tea, listen to music, watch films or simply rest.
“This makes for the kind of relaxed house party that is usually only possible in a much larger house than ours. The new guest pavilion has allowed us to also invite people who we would like to get to know better.
“In the main house interiors are simple and open-plan. Internal walls are of dark-brown facing bricks or painted render. Ceilings are wood-lined. Floors are tiled with under-floor heating and the glazed external walls mean that the garden is effectively incorporated into the house.
“We’ve chosen furniture which looks like it could have been around when the house was built in 1970, but it isn’t an easy space to decorate because every room is dominated by the views of nature.
“As you can see, there are very few interior walls on which to hang pictures or place bookshelves – luckily all my reading is on my Kindle. As for the artwork, there are works by my partner, Henryk Hetflaisz, who is a photographic artist, paintings by Alex Nichols and sculptures by my mother, Helaine Blumenfeld.
“It’s a wonderful space for sculpture and I’m very lucky to own many of my mother’s pieces which she has gifted me over the years. Because of their connection with the natural world and their timeless ethereal qualities, they feel very at home in the house and garden.
“If I had to save just one object, it would certainly be the sculpture, Flight, 2013, although, as it weighs several tons, I would need a huge crane to lift it out.
“After having lived at Capel Manor House for a while, I found etched into one pane of glass the Latin words ‘Hic Habitat Felicitas’: Here Lives Happiness. And this is somewhere it is almost impossible not to be happy.”
Remy, how do you define modern living?
“Living simply in a flexible open-plan space, with the greatest possible exposure to sunlight and the least possible maintenance.”
Is there a home for sale on The Modern House website that has caught your eye?
“If David Nossiter’s cathedral-like barn in Assington had been for sale in 1999, it would definitely have been a strong contender, as I love the way this ancient barn has been transformed with the use of vast panels of glass.
“I also adore The Treehouse in SE26 with its zig-zag staircase and opaque glass that leaves you hanging in the trees.”
Remy Blumenfeld coaches leaders to play the game of life with purpose, grace and ease. He specialises in sectors fuelled by innovation and creativity, including arts and culture, media, television, film, fashion and advertising. His clients include directors of national arts organizations, worldwide ad agencies and a wide range of entrepreneurs. Visit his website here.