My Modern House: architect Laura Dewe Mathews on designing the Gingerbread House in Hackney
INTERVIEWS , My Modern House
“A neighbour first gave it the nickname Gingerbread House, because of the round wooden shingles on the outside. When I told him that my husband and I were expecting our first child, he asked: ‘Will you be having a Hansel or a Gretel?’.
“We’d been looking for a site for about three years when we eventually found this place. At that point, it was a car-body workshop, with four brick walls and a tin roof.
“In researching the history of the site I found out that, in the 1890s, the house next door was owned by a man called Alfred Chinn, who made small wooden boxes for jewellery and perfume. Simultaneous to this, I became interested in using cross-laminated timber (CLT) – essentially structural-scale plywood – as the super structure for the house, and given the site’s history it seemed a fitting approach to put another wooden box back on the site of a former box factory.
“As I was building something in its entirety for the first time, CLT also appealed: I loved the idea of really seeing and understanding the structure, both as it came together and later once we lived in the house.
“We ordered the timber from Austria, from a company called KLH whose factories are close to the forest where the trees are grown. All 31 panels were pre-cut to size, put onto a truck and driven over. We had a road closure and a big crane. On the day of the build, children walked past on their way to school in the morning trying to figure out what was happening, and by the time they returned in the afternoon they were all saying: ‘Mummy, look: there’s a house!’ It took another week to consolidate everything, but we were able to stand upstairs in our new home that same day.
“Throughout the house I was keen to create a sense of fluidity, with natural light coming in from as many angles as possible, and the elimination of any corridors helped with this. The downstairs can be read as four distinct ‘rooms’ or as a single 15m-long space. Partition walls provide punctuation, distinguishing the different uses – yard, kitchen, living room and study – but they all borrow space and light from each other.
“The study is set up so that we can work from home when needed, but it also has a daybed that doubles as a spare bed, with a sliding door to separate it from the rest of the ground floor. No matter where you are, you can enjoy the light spilling into the kitchen and the yard, and have a sense of the outdoors, with the greenery of the climber growing across the end wall.
“The upstairs is also quite open-plan. It was intended as a single space with a number of different moments within it. You can be in the bath and chatting to someone on the bed, or at bath-time with our daughter, Rita, there’s a very fluid thing between hanging out on our bed, reading her a story, and being in her room.
“Being a small site, we had to make the most of the space we had. The opening between the bathroom and bedroom is stretched to create a mini laundry hidden by a pair of curtains: a stacked washer and dryer is on one side, with sheets and towels piled up opposite.
“I think architecture should allow the user’s personality to come across. I like minimal design, but it should still allow people to express themselves and reflect who they are. On the shelf above the kitchen counter, there’s a candle my brother brought back from Colombia, a glass decoration my sister attached to a Christmas card last year, and a little painting I got from Kenya when I was 18; they are things that’ll stay with us forever. We also have photographs by my sisters, Jackie Dewe Mathews and Chloe Dewe Mathews.
“We might add small things – my husband likes to buy interesting pieces at auction, or we’ll come across something when we’re travelling – but overall little changes. I’m not someone who moves through things, and it was a great relief once we had enough furniture to function and didn’t have to shop any more.
“The kitchen is my design. I wanted the elements of it to read as objects within the space, with the original proportions still being visible, rather than a fitted kitchen which redefines the volume it’s installed into. By contrast, the shelving in the living room is from IKEA. I often think basic pieces can be as good as any more expensive alternative – it’s about the objects you put with them.
“When I’m working on a project, the focus is on controlling the light that’s coming into the space, and how the openings are shaped and positioned. These are the big decisions and you can then, for the most part, have simple joinery inside.”
Laura, what’s your definition of modern living?
For me it’s about having spaces that allow you to have the flexibility to use them however you want, depending on the time of the day, the day of the week and the time of the year. It’s about being indoors yet enjoying dappled light spilling in, listening to birdsong and having a sense of openness, connecting with the outdoors.
If you were to move, what’s the first thing you’d take with you?
The large convex mirror, which we got from the antiques dealer Alex Macarthur. It was originally used for railway surveillance in the Czech Republic. It felt like a great indulgence at the time, but it works well in the house.
Which property on The Modern House website has particularly caught your eye over the years, and why?
I’m a huge fan of Marcus Lee’s Framehouse in Clapton, east London, having visited it during an Open House weekend a few years before he sold it. I loved the atmosphere and sense of space he had created for him and his family. That said, I was also very taken with the South Hill Park houses in Hampstead, and would be a very happy person if I could live in a well-designed modern house with those uninterrupted views over the Heath.
Find out more about Laura Dewe Mathews in our Directory of Architects & Designers.