After several years of looking for a proper mid-century property (first a flat as a single person and then a house as half of a couple) and documenting the process on this blog, we finally completed a purchase on a mid-century house last week. The house and modernist estate that we ended up choosing is a matter for a whole other blog entry and the renovation job will provide me with material for a whole series of blog entries (which I will need given that I won’t have any more flop viewings of unsuitable properties to write about).
In the meantime, if anyone is looking (or knows anyone who is looking) to rent a nice, vaguely mid-century two-bedroom flat in an Greater London postcode, let me know. It’s been a really great place to live over the past five years (quiet, well maintained block, nice neighbours, leafy street, close to the station) and has never caused me any problems. It will also be significantly less cluttered/more spacious once I’ve moved all of my tat to the new house.
Out of all of the rooms in my flat, I’ve long found the bedroom to be the least satisfactory. Something about the way I’d lined the majority of the furniture against one wall (this being the only feasible configuration) and the huge expanses of bare wall gave it a slightly unfinished feel. My solution was of course to acquire yet more design store tat, including some new String shelving, a wooden picture hanger (from the Artek store in Helsinki), a Stendig calendar and a Northern light lamp and affix it all to the walls. I was a bit concerned that this might take the room from unfinished to uncomfortably cluttered but I think it’s an improvement overall.
Having recently upgraded my dining table to a Saarinen tulip table with a marble top, I thought it was time to do the same with my dining chairs (a cheap and cheerful mismatching collection of Eames knock-offs and Habitat), which were starting to look a little shabby in comparison.
One of the things I like about the Saarinen tulip table is that almost any kind of chair goes with it, not just the Saarinen tulip chairs it was intended to be paired with. While I quite like tulip chairs, I thought that a whole set of them would be a bit too space age for my liking. I decided instead to go for a set of white Bertoia side chairs, which I’ve always wanted despite being fully aware that they are not at all comfortable and resemble patio furniture (they’re actually used as outdoor seating in the courtyard at the V&A museum).
Tracking down affordable Bertoia side chairs that weren’t blatant knock-offs (I discovered that there are a lot of decidedly unconvincing knock-offs of this particular chair floating about) or extortionately priced (Skandium charges £766 for one chair, unupholstered) took patience. After a couple of months of checking eBay daily, I finally managed to get hold of a slightly shabby, rusty set of four for £270. The chairs were a vintage set, possibly decades old, and weren’t branded with an official manufacturer’s logo. Comparing them against the real thing and numerous unconvincing knock-offs, however, they looked like the genuine article with all of their proportions correct and everything in the right place. In terms of condition, the chairs were a bit rusty and there were bits where the nylon white coating had come loose, exposing the metal frame underneath.
At this point I really should have consulted an online tutorial on how to restore Bertoia chairs properly (this article, which I read long after the event, recommends specific nylon-specific products and taking the chairs to a specialist company to sandblast off the existing finish and then repaint through a powder-coat process). Instead, I thought I’d just glue any bits of nylon coating that were hanging off back onto the frame, sand down any rough patches, cover any metal hardware with masking tape and then touch up with a primer, white spray paint and a glossy top coat and hope for the best.
Halfway through this amateurish process, however, I discovered that spraying the nylon coating with spray paint was making the surface of the chairs unpleasantly powdery to the touch (and that no amount of glossy topcoat would rectify this). Rather than stop and source an alternative product more suited for use on nylon surfaces, I chose instead to only spray the really damaged bits of the remaining chairs (as a result, only parts of these chairs are powdery to the touch than the whole thing).
To finish them off, I bought some wool-covered seat pads specifically designed for Bertoia side chairs from this German online retailer (Knoll also produces official versions of these pads but they’re ridiculously expensive), which means that the chairs are now almost comfortable – as opposed to quite painful – to sit on.
Given the amateurish and slapdash nature of my restoration job, you can see all of the paint runs, uneven patches and bits of metal that I’ve effectively coloured in with spray paint when you look up close and when you touch two of the chairs, it feels like paint is going to rub off onto your hands. That said, I don’t think they look too bad (from a distance) and I do feel a sense of achievement that I would not have felt if I’d bought a full price set from Skandium for several thousand pounds.
Updated November 2017
When it comes to interiors, there’s nothing I like more than a good mid century-inspired wall-mounted shelving system.
I’m a bit obsessed – even though I already have that overbearing Poul Cadovius royal system and various other bits and pieces hanging up in the flat, I’m constantly on the lookout for more and have amassed a useless collection of random String brackets and shelves from sample sales over the years as a result (this will all of course go up in the mid century house that I will probably never live in).
Not content with clogging up my own flat with this rubbish, I have taken to persuading any friend who asks me for interior decorating/furniture advice that their living room/study/bedroom/kitchen would greatly benefit from installing a wall mounted shelving system somewhere. Happily, there’s loads of choice these days – from Vitsoe to Ikea, there’s an option to suit every budget.
Here are some of my picks:
1. DK3 Royal System (from £160 for a rail to £2,200 for a workstation unit)
While I prefer the original, chunkier version of the Cado royal system, the modern slimline version reissued by dk3 is also pretty gorgeous, if eye-waveringly expensive. It comes in oak and walnut but unfortunately not rosewood.
2. String shelving system (from £40 for a rail to £330 for a drawer unit)
Ok it’s totally ubiquitous and a bit of a Scandi cliche these days but I still think a bit of string shelving elevates any room. Having put some up in my study, I would say it looks great but it’s a little flimsy – I don’t think I would rely on the wall-mounted version to bear the weight of anything heavier than a few ornaments and paperback books.
3. Vitsoe 606 system (prices unclear on website so I assume very expensive)
These are a tad officey-looking but I’ve seen them in various high-end homes and they always look great. If I ever decide to downsize to a studio flat in the Barbican, I would totally use a Vitsoe system to divide up the room like this guy has.
4. La Redoute Taktik system (from £10 for the brackets to £500 for a large cupboard unit)
I have no idea what this system looks like in person but based on the photos on the website, it looks really high end and sophisticated-looking for the price. Something about it, perhaps the finish or the fact that the rails are made of metal rather than wood, gives it more of a modern than mid century appearance, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
5. Maisons du Monde Sheffield tv and shelving unit (£804)
This isn’t quite like the others as it isn’t modular/configurable and instead all comes in one piece but I do like the rails and the cabinetry going on at the bottom. It’s been styled horribly (very “show-flat-in-a-new-build-development”) in the in situ photo on the website though I’m sure it’d look alright surrounded by the right stuff.
6. Ikea Svalnas system (from £20 for a shelf to £60 for a cabinet)
I’m actually surprised it has taken Ikea so long to bring out something like this. For the price, I think it looks amazing. I particularly like the range of accessories (desk, sliding cabinet, drawers), which are definitely String-inspired. I’m not entirely sure about the colour and grain of the wood – it’s a little orange-looking in some pictures – but I will reserve judgment until I see it in person.
7. LaRedoute Watford system (£329 – 599 per piece)
LaRedoute has now brought out a second mid century-style shelving system alongside the TakTik system it brought out last year. The new Watford system is only made up of three constituent parts: a walnut desk with shelves, a narrow shelving unit and two large shelving units with cupboard storage. These parts can be used individually or combined in modular fashion to build a larger wall unit. It’s much less customisable than the TakTik system (which pretty much allowed you to build a system to meet your own specification) and the Ladderax-style rails don’t connect to adjoining rails or other parts of the system. At £329 – £599 per piece, it’s not cheap either. It does, however, look nice and must be much less of a faff to assemble than the TakTik system and most of the other systems in this blog entry.
8. Made Jory system (£149 – 499)
Made’s new Jory shelving system is blatantly “inspired by” the modern version of the Cado system: everything from the use of oak and walnut, the width of the rails and those metal bits which attach units and shelves to the rails look suspiciously familiar. Everything is a little less refined and blocky than the Cado system though – more Duplo than Lego, if you will. Price-wise, it’s £149 – £499, depending on how much you buy.
Photos courtesy of brand websites
After ten years of daily use, the faux-tulip Docksta table in my living room was starting to resemble a slightly grubby and scuffed piece of garden furniture (Ikea furniture isn’t generally built to last) so I thought it was time to invest in a replacement.
I’d long admired and lusted over that Hans Olsen dining set with the triangular-shaped chairs that slot neatly under the table, especially after having seen a beautiful white topped version in a flat in Stoneleigh Terrace on an Open House tour. However, I recall sitting on one of the chairs at a furniture fair and finding it really uncomfortable, especially across the back. I also thought that the combination of wooden Royal system and wooden dining set in my living room might be a bit much.
The other option was to upgrade my faux-tulip table to the genuine article in Arabescato marble, another design item that I’ve been lusting after for a long time, which would allow me to keep my hotch potch of dining chairs.
It so happened that a really nice example of both a white-topped Hans Olsen dining set and a genuine Knoll marble-topped tulip table in exactly the right size appeared on eBay at the same time.
After a bit of pondering, I decided to maintain my current living room aesthetic and went for the tulip table, which as luck would have it, ended up being a bit of a bargain. As you can see, it looks almost exactly the same as the old one, just a bit nicer.
At the time of writing, the Hans Olsen set is still available to buy on eBay.
Photos of Hans Olsen table above courtesy of retroliving.co.uk
SCP is known for stocking eames chairs manufactured by Modernica rather than the official licensors Vitra and Herman Miller. Although this means that Modernica chairs are not the official licensed versions, the build quality is generally considered to be better (their shell chairs are made of fibreglass rather than mounded plastic – image below courtesy of the Modernica blog) and there is more of a variety of shell and base combinations, including the combination of wire chair shell on a rolling base that I bought.
I really liked the way my new wire chair looked uncovered but after two days of actually sitting on that unforgiving wiry seat, it became apparent that I’d need some kind of cushion. I considered various options but decided nothing would look as good as an eames-designed bikini seat pad. I found this US website which sells bikini seat pads in a variety of fabrics (I particularly liked this retro Eames pattern) but at USD$150 plus $30 shipping, it would have cost more than the price I paid for chair itself.
I eventually bought a blue vinyl bikini pad from a very helpful eBay vendor who sells official Vitra bikini pads at a slightly less extortionate price (where he gets them from I do not know). It was a bit of a struggle to get the bikini pad on but I actually really like how it looks and the fact that the chair no longer leaves imprints on my thighs is a bonus.
Wall-hung storage system
Designer: Poul Cadovius
Year designed: 1948
Updated in 2017 with better pictures
One of my most prized possessions is the rather imposing rosewood Royal System shelving unit that spans one of the walls of my living room.
The Royal System was conceived in 1948 by Poul Cadovius, a Danish designer. One of the first wall-hung storage systems, it’s comprised of a series of vertically hung wooden rails onto which shelves and drawer, cupboard and work station units can be attached using a screw-free system of interlocking brackets, precisely-angled pegs and slots. The extent to which this system of rails and pegs is relied upon to bear the weight of the solid wood units, the shelves and all of items on the units and shelves (big hardback books, knickknacks, a TV) still confuses and worries me a bit. I still half expect to come home from work to find the whole thing on the floor.
The Royal System has been a constant and reassuring presence in my life. My dad bought the unit from Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road in the 1970s and it has followed him (and later on, our family) from home to home until he kindly bequeathed it to me when I bought my first place.
Whilst it looks pretty modish in these 1970s photos (when it was fully assembled, complemented by furniture of a similar style and sparsely populated with my dad’s (now) stylishly retro possessions), my 1990s childhood memories are of it partially assembled (we used the drawer and storage units as random bits of occasional furniture in various rooms of the house) and otherwise crammed full with rows and rows of TDK video cassette boxes containing recordings of my mum’s Chinese soap operas. I remember thinking it looked a bit unsightly and dated and wondered why my parents couldn’t replace it with a nice bit of flat-packed Ikea. It has only been in recent years that I’ve come to appreciate what a great piece of mid-century design it is and I feel very lucky to have it hanging in my living room.
The Royal System has been reissued recently in more modern finishes (oak and walnut rather than the original rosewood and teak options) and with a slimmer, slightly more refined profile. I am probably biased but I prefer the chunky original (and best), which you can occasionally find knocking about on eBay.
My flat looks pretty much the same as it did at the end of 2014 when I last blogged about it but the combination of some sunshine and the need to test out my new camera ahead of some upcoming travels prompted me to take some new photos of the (very minor) changes and additions that I’ve made along the way.
The only changes that I’ve made to the living room are some new plants and an ever-growing collection of pointless wooden animals. I’ve been meaning to replace the rather tired looking faux-Tulip dining table and rag-tag assortment of knock-off chairs with a more sophisticated looking dining set (ideally something like the Hans Olsen piece that I once saw at the Kingston Antiques Centre) but I thought I’d wait until I’d moved before deciding. The move, however, does not look like it’s happening any time soon so I might just bite the bullet.
I was inspired to make the makeshift terrarium by this article on the Ikea website, which made it sound like: (a) I would be able to buy all of the components from a branch of Ikea; and (b) it would take less than an hour. I can confirm that Ikea misled me on both counts.
Looking back at the photos of my office from 2014, I think it’s looking a lot better and less spartan these days. The Varier rocking chair is a definite upgrade from that 90s birch Ikea job that I previously used and I’m quite pleased with the other additions, especially the Componibili unit, Uten Silo and that bizarre Flensted mobile of a pregnant chicken.
Thanks to my valiant efforts at various sample sales, I have collected enough random bits of String shelving by now to construct a system to replace that cheap Ekby Ikea unit but the sheer effort that this is likely to involve has been putting me off. I’ve also grown quite fond of the Ekby shelves: they’re quite strong and sufficiently shallow so as to be unobtrusive in what is quite a small room. I’ve grown similarly fond of the 90s John Lewis glass desk: it was always my intention to replace it but I actually think that it almost looks quite good?!
I have made a few green additions to the kitchen and balcony off the kitchen but my sub-par gardening skills means that I haven’t even been able to coax the potted ivy to climb the trellis that I fixed onto the balcony wall.
On the whole, my current flat is not my dream home by any stretch of the imagination (the compulsory carpeting, lack of original features and the distinctly non-central location all irk me to varying degrees) but if the move never happens, I can’t say I’ll be too devastated.
- Placemats – Marimekko from Skandium
- Uten.silo – Vitra from Haus London (WARNING: attaching this to the wall poses an unexpected level of challenge)
- Cushions – Hay (yellow), Donna Wilson (fox face) and Marimekko from Skandium (red spots)
- Orange Varier chair – kindly donated by XT
- Grey cross blanket – Pia Wallen from Haus London (it’s a total rip-off and is a bit scratchy to the touch but I just love it)
- Mirror – Normann Copenhagen
- Componibili unit – Blue Sun Tree (I’d get the £50 “replica” over the £100+ genuine article from Kartel – they’re exactly the same)
- Marble-topped tulip table – Blue Sun Tree for the replica or Vitra from TwentyTwentyOne for the genuine article (I think it may soon be time to replace my rather chipped IKEA Docksta dining table with the table that “inspired” it)
Architect: Unknown (to me)
Year built: 1960s (refurbished 2013)
I bought a flat off plan in this (re)development about a year and a half ago. An unscrupulous developer had bought up a boxy, slightly decrepit 1960s block with plans to turf out the existing residents, refurbish the facade, landscape the overgrown forecourt and gut the interiors. Looking at the floor plans and the building pre-makeover, it was clear that the flats were well proportioned with some old-fashioned features not often seen in new builds (separate kitchens, covered balconies, floor-to-ceiling windows) and I also liked the idea of living in a period block with refurbished communal areas so I put in an offer.
Unfortunately, the developer proceeded to modernise the block in a number of hideous ways. Given that the original building wasn’t exactly worthy of a Grade listing, I wasn’t expecting a fully sympathetic 1960s restoration but I could have done without the 90s-style red-brick wall with iron railings in the front, pine-cladded bike sheds plonked in the middle of the forecourt, random use of vaguely gothic typefaces all over the place and silver Juliet balconies bolted onto the front of the building.
Fortunately, the interior communal areas were refurbished quite nicely – I quite like the somewhat unusual red, grey and walnut colour scheme – and I also managed to intervene partway through the refurbishment of the interior of my flat before the developer started installing his stock fittings (though sadly not before he had ripped up the original parquet woodblock flooring).
For the floors, I was given a choice between carpet and karndean (a seemingly indestructible vinyl floor covering) so I opted for grey tile-effect karndean in the kitchen and bathroom and a neutral loop-style carpet everywhere else. For the kitchen, I went for a simple white gloss with butcher’s block-style work surfaces and white subway-style tiling with dark grouting (the kitchen cupboard handles are the short Blankett handles from Ikea). For all internal doors, I used a now-discontinued set of 1960s-looking handles from Ikea. I regret that I didn’t specify what I wanted in the bathroom – I’m finding the rectangular white tiling with the metallic silver trim a bit basic. I’d really like to retile it with square white tiles with dark grouting one day.
I spent about a year furnishing the flat gradually, going for a vaguely mid century modern look. I sourced furniture from eBay, knock-off design stores, more expensive design stores, my old flat and Ikea:
- Sofa – Mistral sofa from Heal’s
- coffee table – vintage from eBay
- picture frames – Ribba and Stromby frames from Ikea
- shelving unit – 1970s vintage Poul Cadovius
- black lamp – knock off Arne Jacobsen from Kingston Antiques Centre
- furry footstool – vintage
- spherical lamp on floor – Fado lamp from Ikea
- knitted green pouffe – Donna Wilson for SCP
- dining table – Docksta from Ikea
- white dining chairs x2 – Tallow from Habitat
- Eames-style dining chairs – knock offs from Cult Furniture
- white plastic chair – Dwell
- three-headed lamp – Heal’s
- ceiling lamp – vintage Poul Henningson from eBay
- picture hangers (holding posters suspended from ceiling) – TwentyTwentyOne
- black and white rug – Maduro in Copenhagen
- trolley – vintage
- pottery – vintage assortment from Berlin and Copenhagen and Kingston Antiques Centre
- yellow rectangular cushion – Hay
- square green cushion – Skandium
- roller blinds – Enje (cut to size) from Ikea
- alarm clock – design store in Hong Kong
- grey chair – knock off Eames Organic chair from A Modern World
- chest of drawers – vintage Stag
- bed – Studio (small double) from Warren Evans
- Grey and white Aztec cushions – H&M home
- white lamp – knock off Arne Jacobsen from Cult Furniture
- square clock – Habitat
- green chair – vintage Eames shell with la Fonda base (restored) from eBay
- round three-legged table – knock off Tablo table from A Modern World
- Boby trolley – vintage Joe Columbo from eBay
- orange lamp on table and alarm clock – flea market from Berlin
- ceiling pendant light – knock off George Nelson bubble lamp from Interior Addict
- shelving – Ribba picture ledges from Ikea
- blinds – Kvartal system from Ikea
- free-standing wall mirror – Hovet from Ikea
- low wall shelving – Ekby brackets from Ikea with pine shelves
- orange chair – knock off Eames from Cult Furniture
- wall shelving – String from Haus London
- desk – 90s John Lewis
- desk chair – 90s Ikea
- Japanese lantern-style lamp – Habitat
- white desk lamp – Vintage from Berlin flea market
- orange topped stools – modified Frosta from Ikea
- ceiling pendant light – George Nelson lantern lamp from SCP
- blinds – Kvartal system from Ikea
- coat hook – knock off walnut Hang-It-All from Cult Furniture
- white chair – restored Alvar Aalto chair 66 from eBay
- rug – paper carpet from Hay
- radio – Bush FM radio from Argos
Kitchen and balcony:
- wall clock – vintage Staiger from Kingston Antiques Centre
- roller blind – Enje from Ikea
- fish tea towel – Zara Home
- balcony table and chairs – Ikea
- white plant stand – PS 2014 from Ikea