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A Private View: the roar appeal of a wildly appointed Georgian townhouse in east London’s Limehouse

The first time she viewed her future home, Amnah Hafez knew she could make something special of its unloved rooms. Having collaborated with bright-eyed designer Benedict Foley, the creative behind frame makers A.Prin, she’s now fashioned a lavishly decorated family space that’s long on colour, character and leopard print

Photography
Boz Gagovski
A Private View: the roar appeal of a wildly appointed Georgian townhouse in east London’s Limehouse

Amnah Hafez is proof that you don’t have to know a place inside out before you fall in love with it. Before she moved to her house on Commercial Road, Amnah admits she hadn’t heard of Limehouse. Oddly enough, she had spent time here, often visiting Troxy, Stepney’s fabulous Art Deco cinema-turned-music hall, but as an adoptive north Londoner – she moved here from Haverstock Hill, near Chalk Farm – this patch of east London was relatively unchartered territory.

In 2019, Amnah, was editing and publishing the fashion/arts magazine Cause & Effect until she had a baby, and her husband, furniture designer William Knight, were looking to upsize as they began to think about starting a family. The pair had looked at tons of places before viewing this one, having extended their search east after finding no joy in their stamping ground. Though the house was in good condition, it was a little overlooked. Amnah wisely recognised she might have just unearthed a bit of a diamond.

To confirm her suspicions, she sent the listing to her friend, the designer, frame maker and dealer Benedict Foley. “My phone rang two-and-a-half seconds later,” Amnah says. “Benedict just raved about how rare a thing it was.” No prizes for guessing who she called on for advice when it came to revamping its handsome rooms.

The pair worked closely on the radical redecoration, discussing ways in which they could incorporate Saudi Arabian-born Amnah’s childhood memories of home, for instance, into the schemes. The result of their partnership in this tall Georgian townhouse are vividly personal. Benedict, possessor of a masterly eye for incandescent colour, has injected his trademark sense of humour across its four floors: think chintz cushions, chartreuse walls and tangerine gloss details. The spaces are punctuated too by Amnah’s considered array of art and Surrealist objets (as well as lavish amounts of leopard print). “As a Saudi woman who never felt quite at home there, I’ve always been on a quest to find ‘home’; my collected items are a reflection of that search,” she says.

The time has come for Amnah, William and their five-month-old son, Hadi, to move on, however. As they prepare for their next adventure, Amnah describes the joys of collaborative creativity with her brilliant friend Benedict.

“What first attracted me to this house was both its age and its condition. Here was this 200-year-old house – with a 2,000sq ft floorplan – that didn’t need overhauling. And it had a working fireplace in almost every room. What wasn’t to love? The previous owner had clearly cared for it properly too, but because she hadn’t lived here full-time it felt a little lonely. It needed to be brought back to life.

“Our last place was a miniature version of this house – but with a lot less colour on the walls. It was also less polished – the finish here has a lot to do with Benedict! – but it was nonetheless filled with things we love.

“I had renovated that place myself. That was a top-to-bottom project that saw the entire flat being gutted. It was very stressful and took much longer than I wanted it to. I learned my lesson and, this time, decided I wanted to work with somebody to help me develop my ideas and organise the process. I was also conscious of honouring the building’s past, so collaborating with someone who understands historical design was going to be key.

“Benedict and I have been friends for many years. Funnily enough, one of our first conversations was about design: the importance of good light switches. He had walked into our flat, marched over to the ones we had there and said: ‘Good choice!’ I knew he was the right person for this job.

“I’m particularly drawn to the humour in his work. When it comes to design, Benedict is discerning but not laboured: he sees the value of nearly all design, as long as there’s evidence of a sense of humour. He’s the kind of person who loves original panelling, but also appreciates my love of leopard print. That said, it does depends which one it is… Benedict does not believe that all leopards are made equal! I share the mentality of Diana Vreeland, who said: ‘I’ve never met a leopard print I didn’t like’.

“I was very keen to finish the works quickly. Who wouldn’t be? And, in the end, we did manage to get things done at some speed. But Benedict was keen to encourage me to take the time to think carefully about decisions, to make sure they were the right ones for the house. Many of our discussions were about sustainability and about how we could reinterpret the fabric of the building to work in the modern world, while making it personal to me and William. We talked about the fact that rushing decisions can often mean you have to redo things too – and that’s definitely not sustainable.

“We began with the flooring, before we had even moved in. Lassco restored all the original floorboards, then William – who has very exacting standards – painstakingly painted the chequerboard pattern across the ground floor. It wasn’t an easy job, considering the floors aren’t level, but he has an amazing eye for detail.

“The kitchen already had fantastic cabinets that had been installed by the previous owner, but they were made of quite dark, rough wood. Coupled with the stone floors, they made it feel a tad too Game of Thrones for me, so we refinished them in the same white gloss we used on the walls and ceilings. Benedict was inspired by the canalside homes in Amsterdam, where glossy surfaces bring in light and move it around the room. The kitchen is everyone’s favourite room in the house. We’ve spent so many brilliant nights here: cooking, drinking, sitting round our dining table cackling with friends.

“Throughout the house, we used art and furniture from my past as starting points for the palette, before marrying the paint choices with the Georgian architecture of the house. Benedict has an excellent sense of colour that unites all his work, whether it’s interiors or making picture frames. But he also has a fantastic knowledge of English interior design – one you can’t just copy and paste from Instagram. The decoration here sums that up. In some senses, it’s very traditional – but the colour choices aren’t at all.

“I’m a fan of Surrealist artists like Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning and Dora Maar and I love collecting pieces that are in any way reminiscent of that movement, from torso sculptures to Italian and Mexican ex-votos. One of this house’s earliest occupants was a master rigger on ships, so it felt appropriate to fill the house with seashells wherever possible, which are also very Surrealist. Benedict also loves a mix of the expected and the unexpected, which works very well with my tastes.

“I often think about what home, which can be a tricky concept for those who have had to leave the country of their birth, means to me. There’s a heavy emphasis on ‘stuff’ here that isn’t just born out of a madness for collecting. I once read an article about the link between leaving one’s own country as an emigrant or refugee and the need to hold on to objects and memories as a way to deal with displacement and loss, which really struck a chord with me. While I was very fortunate with the circumstances that saw me arriving in the UK, I am familiar with the sense of not quite belonging anywhere, which is why my immediate surroundings and what I fill them with are quite so important to me. I want my space reflects the things I love and the places I’ve visited along the way.

“This is such a wonderful house to entertain and host in, but it’s also a great place to raise a family, should you wish to have one. It’s cosy in winter, when we sit by the fire in our living room and watch movies or chat about how we’ll decorate for Christmas, and it comes alive in summer. We spend the warm weekends in the garden and conservatory, picking blackberries and tending to our roses, or drinking cocktails and barbecuing with friends. This house is built for every season and every occasion – and with that you get to enjoy every aspect of it.”

Further reading

Benedict Foley/A. Prin

Benedict Foley on Instagram

Commercial Road, London E14§

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