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A Private View: a taste of tropicana in a former workshop in Bloomsbury

Though it now presents as lush green oasis in the middle of the city, Neil McLachlan’s flat wasn’t always thus. As it comes on the market, the interior designer explains how he cultivated his verdant vision

A Private View: a taste of tropicana in a former workshop in Bloomsbury

“I didn’t want to play it safe.” Look around Neil McLachlan’s Bloomsbury flat and you’d be hard pushed to deny that the New Zealand interior designer has done himself proud on that front. Luscious palms crowd almost every wall, save for those lined with the vast vertical mirrors that bounce borrowed light and bunches of bananas around the space. A pair of vast antique French doors, wearing their age with great grandeur, stand sentinel either side of the fireplace. Huge avian prints à la Audubon cast beady, birdy glances over visitors. And all in a windowless room.

You might think that pattern, especially one with such personality, might make a bijou space feel even smaller, but Neil is a dab hand when it comes to decorative tricks (hence those vertical mirrors). This palmy print does the opposite, while the grid-like pattern overlaying the paper’s fabulous fronds, like the leading of an old hothouse, stands in for windows on the walls. That said, natural light is hardly in short supply, pouring in as it does from the large skylights overhead, which have the extra benefit of offering added privacy and quietude.

It takes vision to turn a former workshop in a behemoth of a building into something so bright, so ebullient, so brilliantly offbeat. But, as Neil says, “good design is good design. As long as you have the right principles, you can make it work.” As the flat comes on the market with Inigo, Neil takes us on a tour of his vibrant, verdant home ­and explains how his own principles of pattern, patina and playfulness have been brought to bear in this Bloomsbury bolthole.

“The flat is in a fascinating building, which was constructed in 1937 to designs by the architect behind Broadcasting House, George Val Myer. It’s a big, rather austere, grunty building – it originally housed 500 purpose-built flats, though I believe my apartment was one of the caretakers’ workshops that was at the back of the building, so it’s slightly more unusual.

“It was being used as a photography studio when I saw it advertised in 2018. I was hesitant at first, as I thought it was going to be dingy and dark. I was amazed ­­– it so wasn’t. Because it’s raised-ground floor and it has three large roof lights facing south, it’s really very bright indeed. Instantly, I loved the volume of the place. I’m always after high ceilings and a feeling of space when I start working on projects. That said, interiors-wise, it was pretty grim. There was no choice but to gut it, really, so I got the builders in and took it back to bare concrete and started from scratch.

“I have a design practice and work all over world, but I’m mainly based in the UK. This was my London pad and I decorated it very much for myself, which is why it’s perhaps a little more out there than lots of my work. My guiding principle was the feeling it had – it reminded me of a conservatory, with all the light pouring in from the top. And so, given its location, I thought it’d be such fun to do a take on a palm house, like one the Bloomsbury Group might have sat in, drinking and chatting. I came across some fabulous wallpaper from Mindthegap called ‘Orangerie’ – and that was that! It became a greenhouse.

“There are real palms in there too. They’ve gone mad! They just love the light, which moves around a lot – I use the old mirror trick quite a bit to bounce it around. There’s also the visual magic of the wallpaper itself, which has a grid like a glasshouse’s windows; you could be looking in, you could be looking out. I like that. It’s playful.

“I’ve always believed in working with the architecture of a space rather than against it – and that of this flat was strong. I did change one or two things, turning a sloping ceiling into a stepped one, but by and large, all I’ve done is accentuate the patina to give it a more aged, historic feel. Antiques really help with that. Here, I’ve brought in a pair of old doors that came from a large house in France. When they arrived, the builder said he needed to paint them (albeit begrudgingly – they’re huge). I said: ‘Don’t you dare touch them! They’re just right.’ They really are – beautifully beaten up, with the paint peeling off. That to me is perfect.

“I incorporate antiques a lot in my work, because they add layers that can otherwise be hard to achieve. But a sense of depth can come from new things too. I’m always striving to create interiors that make you question whether they’re old or new. Here I did that with the floor tiles. They look like ancient concrete encaustic ones but – I’ll let you in on a secret – they’re not. They’re new ceramic ones, taken from old Portuguese designs. I love that someone might walk in and say: ‘I wonder if that’s an old floor.’

“While on the one hand there’s this decorative patina, I do like mixing modern things in too. Houses in the 21st century have to be liveable, so there’s a great new kitchen here, and smart showers. But my favourite technical detail is the heating. I didn’t want great big radiators on view, so now the heat comes out of the skirting boards. It’s marvellous!

“The kitchen is brilliant. Even though the flat’s not big, it’s fantastic to entertain in, which I’ve done quite a bit. People feel very relaxed in here. Transported. My friends absolutely love staying here in the small bedroom I’ve put in downstairs. It has a single bed and a shower room – what more do you need when you’re visiting town? I like to think of it as one of those boltholes in members’ clubs. Plus it’s so quiet here that it feels incredibly private. The whole flat does. It’s an oasis in the middle of this amazing, diverse, challenging city. You can go out and have a crazy day in London, walking till your feet ache, then you open the door and it all floats away.”

Further reading

Neil McLachlan Design

Neil McLachlan on Instagram

Russell Court, London WC1

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