Crafting a new tradition

The late-19th- and early-20th-century charms of Arts and Crafts houses have kept them in perennial demand. Now aficionados are discovering their 21st-century adaptability, says Dominic Bradbury.

November 07 2011
Dominic Bradbury

Walking through the doors of The White Cottage feels like coming home. As with so many of Charles Voysey’s houses, it has a warm, welcoming feel, as well as a strong sense of character. Sitting on the edge of Wandsworth Common, in south London, this house is one of the delights of the Arts and Crafts movement, with its familiar mix of crisp, white render and stonework on the outside and well proportioned, beautifully thoughtful spaces inside.

Voysey’s houses are perennially in demand for all the right reasons. He is known for his striking level of detail and everything from the door latches to the air vents are exquisitely designed and handmade – small artworks in their own right. The White Cottage was built in 1903 for the Coggin family and still flaunts many original features, including the oak staircase, timber panelling and stunning fireplaces, which are graced with ceramic tiles in celadon, jade and navy blue.

The house has been sensitively restored and updated by architectural design firm Collett-Zarzycki, which responded to the quality and spirit of the original Voysey structure. “The whole atmosphere of the house is really pleasing, with this warm, homely comfortable feeling,” says Anthony Collett, who worked on the house with architect Giles Quarme. “The Arts and Crafts movement has been one of the influences on our own work and has a particular personal interest, so the owners chose us for our knowledge, but also because of our desire to pick up where Voysey left off, in a sense, and create a continuation.”

Collett and his clients opted for a restrained approach that allowed the integrity of the house and the beauty of the natural materials to shine through. It’s an aesthetic that has an element of Shaker-style simplicity, but spliced with a sophisticated eye for bespoke, tailored pieces of new furniture – mostly in timber – that sit so well with Voysey’s interiors.

Given the more relaxed nature of family life now compared to 100 years ago, much work was done around the kitchen and dining area, which was reinvented as an open-plan space with timber floors, bespoke dressers and a new bay window, completed by an oak dining table by Collett-Zarzycki. This freed up the old, formal dining room for use as a family room.

“The brief was to create a seamless change to accommodate the lifestyle of our clients with their three daughters, as well as bringing the house up to date without disrupting the atmosphere or mood,” says Collett. “The new kitchen, the furniture, the light fittings – all were specifically designed for the house. It’s simple with no gratuitous, frilly decoration. It’s about allowing the materials to speak and express their own beauty. Our interiors and furniture don’t copy Voysey, but they do follow a similar approach to materials and detail.”

The White Cottage, like so many other houses of the Arts and Crafts movement, which spanned the period of around 1860-1910, has a special character that lends itself to contemporary living. These houses appeal to historicists and modernists and many in between.

They have, in short, something for everyone. No wonder that Arts and Crafts houses are much in demand, while new homes are also being built in the Arts and Crafts style more than a hundred years on from the movement’s heyday.

One of the leading lights of the Arts and Crafts movement – at least in the early part of his career, before he moved towards neoclassicism – was Edwin Lutyens, who designed Sullingstead in Surrey in 1897. It has recently been restored and updated by interior designer John Minshaw, who has created a highly individual home within a beautifully crafted shell.

“It is a very important house within the British Arts and Crafts movement,” says Minshaw, who worked on the project with architect Michael Edwards. “Lutyens was very young when he did the house, around 24 years old, and it was one of the few houses that he revised later in life, adding the music room [in 1903]. But we didn’t want to slavishly fill the interior with Arts and Crafts furniture. It’s eclectic. The master bedroom, dressing room and bathrooms especially are quite modern.”

The house had been much altered over the decades, but Minshaw’s client was keen to restore the exteriors and the Gertrude Jekyll garden, with some additions, while creating interiors that suited family living today. Nine bedrooms became four bedrooms with ensuites, a family room was introduced in the attic and a generous kitchen created from a collection of smaller rooms. A pool house was added in the garden, with a sympathetic Arts and Crafts exterior. Inside, Minshaw took inspiration from any original Lutyens elements that remained, but without feeling constrained by them. The house embraced the ambition to create living spaces that are sophisticated, elegant and luxurious.

“The house needed more restoration than we really wanted to undertake, but I have become an admirer of the Arts and Crafts movement as I have learnt about it through this project,” says the owner. “The end result looks very natural and conceals the amount of skill and mathematical precision that underlies it. Somehow the house works in perfect harmony within itself, the gardens and the landscape. Perhaps that is what we can learn from Arts and Crafts.”

Tony Salmon, at Yiangou Architects, has added contemporary spaces to a country house in the Home Counties by Ernest Gimson without affecting or undermining the original Arts and Crafts interiors, which include a striking timber staircase that winds its way up through the heart of the house. Among the new elements are a generous wine cellar and contemporary bathrooms slotted into existing spaces in the house, as well as a modern, family-sized kitchen and dining room, which was created from an adjoining outbuilding linked to the main house. “Given that the Arts and Crafts building work was done over 100 years ago, it still has all of the original windows, floorboards, internal doors and so on, which look as good as they did when they were first put in,” says Salmon. “We integrated the contemporary elements into the house very easily and the interiors, being plain, provide a really good foil for modern furniture and fittings. And they evoke an atmosphere that is lacking in some contemporary architecture.”

Architect Simon Henley, of Henley Halebrown Rorrison, was seduced by a 1907 Arts and Crafts house in Winchester that has now become his own family home. Pyotts Cottage was designed by Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, who also created the sublime Blackwell house in the Lake District, overlooking Windermere. Like many of his contemporaries, Baillie Scott made romantic living spaces that looked backwards and forwards at once.

There were some elements – such as inglenook fireplaces, window seats and grand hallways and galleries – that echoed medieval architecture, while the emphasis on handcrafted, natural materials was a reaction to the machine-age production that had come to dominate the Victorian era. But Arts and Crafts houses such as Baillie Scott’s are also full of light and beautifully proportioned, and they accommodate many of the new luxuries of the Edwardian period, including ensuite bathrooms, central heating and electric light.

“The moment we set foot in the house we knew we wanted to live here,” says Henley, who is now in the process of updating it. “Our daughter sat down on the window seat, silhouetted in warm sunlight, and began to read her book, and we just knew this would be a great family home. Arts and Crafts architects were so inventive about space, and their houses are beautifully made, with a remarkable quality of light. These houses respond with incredible generosity to the human spirit.”

William Marslen-Wilson and Lolly Tyler also have a Baillie Scott house, in Cambridge, that has recently been updated by Anthony Hudson, of Hudson Architects, with a new glass pavilion, which functions as a garden room at the rear of the building. For Hudson, what is striking about Arts and Crafts houses is that each room has a very specific function and feel of its own. The contemporary pavilion is distinctly of today, yet fits in with the idea of each part of the house having a strong identity, while the rigorous design of the original house means it can easily cope with sensitive changes and additions.

“There are Baillie Scott fireplaces in most of the rooms and seats built into the walls of the inglenook fireplace in the middle room, as well as all the oak doors,” says Marslen-Wilson. “But what really pleases us is the feeling of light and space that lifts much of the ground floor, as well as having such a delightful new extension for daily life and entertaining.”

Arts and Crafts houses also have a powerful reputation in the United States, particularly in California, which developed its own regional take on the movement that had originated in England. In the US, too, Arts and Crafts houses have won over new admirers, who drink in the work of Charles and Henry Greene – architects of the famous 1908 Gamble House in Pasadena – and others.

Architect Tim Andersen has been involved in the restoration of a series of early-20th-century houses in Pasadena, including Bolton House, which was begun in 1906 by Greene & Greene, and Parsons House, designed by Arthur and Alfred Heineman in 1910. Threatened with demolition, Parsons House was saved by Andersen’s client, Phil Elkins, who moved the entire stone-and-timber bungalow to a new site a few miles away. It took a year and a half to reassemble.

“By the 1970s, the decorative aspects of California’s period Arts and Crafts houses were being lost due to changing tastes and fashion,” says Andersen. “But now everyone wants Arts and Crafts homes. Low and sheltering, with deep porches and overhangs, bungalows such as the Parsons House were a relief during the long summer season in southern California. Deep porches became outdoor rooms and a cool refuge, and the interior of the house is serene and warm, with each room having its own shape and distinctive character.” Restoration projects such as those at Bolton House and Parsons House generally cost between $300,000 and $600,000, adds Andersen.

The movement is also influencing the design of completely contemporary structures. In Surrey, architect Hugh Petter, of Adam Architecture, designed a new Arts and Crafts-style farmhouse for James and Sonya Maclean, replacing a 1950s building on a small holding specialising in rare breeds. The Macleans wanted a house that reflected local vernacular style, and they became intimately involved in the process of building the house. Made with red brick, hung clay tiles and an oak frame, it has a steeply pitched roof in the style of Lutyens, towering chimneys and a number of up-to-date eco-friendly elements, including a ground source heat pump.

“We were intent on building a beautiful family home,” says James Maclean. “Inside, we used combinations of traditional materials wherever possible, to give us texture and warmth, but the floor plan was a little more modern to suit the needs of a growing family,” continues Sonya.

Petter sees Arts and Crafts as a living tradition, capable of reinvention and adaptation, and as a style that is perfectly suited to new homes of character and quality. “We have always had a number of clients who are interested in Arts and Crafts design,” he says. “But, increasingly, they also want to experiment a bit, perhaps by incorporating some more sustainable features, and try and move the tradition forward. That can be challenging, but its also very stimulating and rewarding for the architect. Arts and Crafts certainly is a popular style for people wanting to build their own house, particularly if they want something a bit quirky and less formal than a classical design, but more traditional than a full-on modernist house.”

It is the level of thought that goes into Arts and Crafts houses, new and old, which makes them so endearing. Even those on a large scale have a degree of practicality, warmth and comfort that draw you in. Voewood, in Norfolk, is not just one of the most beautiful houses in East Anglia, it is also one of the most welcoming. It is inviting in a way that is hard to find in many other houses of similar size and scale.

Faced in local flint and brick, its sculpted chimney stacks twist upwards into the sky like confectionary swirls. Within, the interiors are brought alive by beautifully crafted woodwork and that wonderful quality of natural light that characterises the style; the house’s butterfly-shaped floor plan helps draw sunlight deep into the interior from all sides.

“It was the sheer thoughtfulness and quality of the building that drew me to it, and the sense of invention,” says Voewood’s owner, rare book dealer Simon Finch. “It was being used as an old people’s home before I bought it, but you could still see the astonishing thought that had gone into every single aspect of the design. No short cuts had been taken.”

The house, near Holt, was designed by Edward Prior for the Reverend Percy Lloyd and his wife in the early 1900s. Mrs Lloyd was in poor health and her attentive husband thought that the clear, gentle air of north Norfolk might be good for her. Extraordinarily, she never took to the house. But today it stands as one of the most beloved examples of Arts and Crafts style, which has easily adapted itself to 21st-century living.

“It was really designed as a space to live in rather than as a demonstration of the owner’s importance, which a lot of large houses had been designed as previously,” says Finch. “My grandmother had this lovely Regency house and that was the kind of house I thought I wanted. But then I saw Voewood, and it took me to another place in my appreciation of architecture and design. Most people’s immediate reaction to the house is that they feel they could live at Voewood, because it really does feel like a home. That’s a big tribute to its architect.”

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