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A MID-CENTURY MODERN DESIGN MASTERCLASS

Sixties glamour meets the mid-century modern revival at the Forest Hill home of period furniture dealer Ben Adams. Isobel Diamond takes a look around…

A Forest Hill townhouse has been transformed to reflect the owner’s passion for mid-century furniture and design. From the lighting and pictures to the sideboard and sofas, Ben Adams’ two-storey, three-bedroom home exudes bygone glamour. The style is a nod to sun-dappled Los Angeles, with a touch of cool, London formality thrown in. 

Ben bought his 1960s property a decade ago. Since then, he has carefully restored the interiors to their former glory, replacing historic details where the previous owners had stripped them out. ‘This row of houses would have been listed by English Heritage, but the alterations were too substantial,’ he says. 

If there is one man who knows how to successfully achieve the mid-century aesthetic, it’s Ben. As the founding owner of furniture outlet Designs of Modernity in Crystal Palace, he has given expert advice to companies including Jimmy Choo, American Apparel and Whistles and supplied furniture for high-profile ad campaigns and film projects. His shop has been featured in just about every national design publication, from Elle Decoration to the Observer interiors pages. 

And he’s still learning. Ben describes developing his expertise as an ‘on-going process’ and he’s also interested in the architecture, graphics and popular culture of the time. The 1960s gave birth to tape recorders and cash dispensers and saw the first man walk on the moon. It was also at the centre of a design style, now termed mid-century modern – covering the period from 1945 to 1975. In later decades this Modern look fell out of vogue. But we are firmly in the midst of a retro revival. ‘The style is finding its place again,’ he says. 

‘When I started the shop people didn’t get it, but its popularity has increased since then.’ When buying mid-century pieces, he suggests, ‘don’t rush, take your time and do your homework. Don’t buy on price. Mass manufactured pieces are cheaper, but quality furniture is a good investment. Mid-century furniture is all about showing off materials and clever design hand-in-hand.’

The mid-century modern style is finding its place again. It’s about showing off materials and clever design

The overall look he has created is stylish, minimal and functional, highlighting the beauty of natural woods in the furnishings and fittings. The walls are painted pure white throughout. The house is in a row of eight properties set back from the road, designed by Norman Starrett. The award-winning British architect also designed a number of ‘flashier’ houses in Chislehurst, which Adams visited, copying some of their ‘higher spec’ design features.

The floor-to-ceiling glazed sliding doors add natural light to the downstairs open-plan living area. ‘I’ve tried to add features that are in keeping,’ he suggests. The teak parquet flooring is original but has been restored. In the small partitioned kitchen, the worktops are old teak school science benches. 

The Douglas Fir staircase makes a striking feature. At the top of the stairs there would have been a bookcase originally, but this was removed before Adams moved in, so he fitted a handmade balustrade made from reclaimed church pews, ‘a designer idea inspired by Alvar Aalto’, the lauded Modern Finnish designer. 

‘I like a lot of the early pieces, which are quite masculine,’ says Adams, whose favourite item is a Hans Brattrud slatted curved reading chair. ‘It is one of those chairs that has pretty much disappeared off the face of the earth.’ Around the dining table is a set of Brattrud’s classic rosewood Scandia chairs. Two matching sofas, upholstered in charcoal grey, are by Dutch designer Martin Visser. And under the stairs, a teak Arne Wahl Iversen desk fits perfectly. Books and framed film posters add splashes of colour to the downstairs living space.

Upstairs, the master bedroom has floor-to-ceiling windows. This bright, white room has built in wardrobes and light grey muslin curtains, creating a serene and calming effect. The rosewood bedside tables are wall hung, as is the desk. The two additional bedrooms have become an office and music room.

Creating the mid-century look takes ‘time and work and passion’, says Ben. This retro style, reminiscent of cult TV series Mad Men, may draw on the past for inspiration, but it is firmly back in fashion for 2015.

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