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A Home with a History: the elegantly restrained interiors of Georgina Mann’s Victorian terrace

The east London-based architect says it was all about balance when it came to restoring and reworking the period rooms of her Leytonstone home

George Upton
A Home with a History: the elegantly restrained interiors of Georgina Mann’s Victorian terrace

Georgina Mann’s family and friends were understandably surprised when the architect and her husband suddenly upped and moved around the corner from the Leytonstone home they’d carefully renovated together, despite having only lived there for a few years. To the untrained eye, their new home was almost identical to the handsome Victorian terrace they were leaving behind. Yet, as well as being five metres deeper (and 60 centimetres wider), the new house crucially offered a fresh canvas for Georgina to continue exploring her interest in merging conservation and contemporary living.

Georgina, who founded her eponymous architecture practice in 2015, takes a reserved and deferential approach to every project, including the renovations of her own homes. While some other practices may try to shout over a building, Georgina instead lets it speak for itself; eschewing major interventions like extensions and removing internal walls, she works in collaboration with a structure to preserve its fabric and simultaneously ensure it is fit for modern life. Below, Georgina explains how she created a calm, light-filled dwelling that balances the demands of family living with a sensitivity towards its architecture and history.

“The original internal plan works well for modern family life.”

“My husband and I had already been living in Leytonstone for a few years when we bought this house. We had moved to the area because we both worked on the Central Line and it was easy to get into town, and we found that we loved it here. You’re just a short walk from woodland that leads to Wanstead Park and ultimately Epping Forest. It feels as if these are the last streets in London.

“We had refurbished and extended the Victorian terraced house we were living in but sometime after the birth of our first child we got itchy feet. We had enjoyed working on the project and wanted to do something like it again. When this house came up for sale just around the corner, it was the worst possible timing – I was pregnant again – but it was slightly bigger and fronted onto the woods, so we went for it. It was a mad dash, getting our old house on the market, but we managed it just in time.

“A lot of the projects I’ve worked on as an architect have been Victorian terraces, and I’ve found that the original internal plan works well for modern family life – just not always as it was initially configured. The kitchen, which was never a priority historically, is now often moved to the back of the house, fronting onto the garden, but I don’t think there is any need to knock through and create one huge, open space.

“This was the approach we took in the new house. Where the kitchen used to be is now a snug TV room, and what is now the kitchen is large enough to accommodate everything we need without extending. It can often be a mad, messy place and it’s nice to have somewhere separate to retreat to.

“As well as being light, a good interior should be flexible.”

“When we first visited the house, our initial concern was how dark it would be. As the plan was five metres deeper than our old place, we knew light was going to be an issue, and so we took a different approach than we did for the previous house. On the ground floor we replaced all the internal doors and enlarged the openings to 2.4 metres. Even just increasing their height by 20 centimetres allows so much more light to travel through when they are open, and all but one door is now glazed.

“We also introduced glazed timber doors between the front and rear reception rooms, and between the front reception and the hallway, opening up what can be quite a narrow space. With new windows and the utility door on the side elevation, light is pulled in across the house. We then used white paint that has a slightly green hue in all but one of the rooms to bounce the light around, playing with it being either matt emulsion or high gloss.

“As well as being light, a good interior should be flexible. Downstairs all the rooms are linked but they can be closed off and their function is never defined. It suits us as a family – you can see a lot but not necessarily hear everything – and it means I’ve had a great place for home working, that can also be opened up to the hallway or the other reception room when it is needed.

“A lot of the decisions in the house had to be made quickly. I was either heavily pregnant or had a newborn and a toddler when I was making them, but they came from years of experience. I didn’t labour over the small details and I think the house has benefited from that. I’ve kept it all very simple – there isn’t a lot of fitted joinery and the rooms stick to their original form and shape. I would never call myself a minimalist but what we’ve done to the house, and the furniture we’ve brought into it, has been quite restrained.

“These historic properties have a soul, a sense of permanence.”

“Victorian architecture can be very fancy and ornate, but I’ve tried to pare that back, retaining the original cornicing and corbels but painting them the same colour as the walls and ceilings. For me, it would be a huge shame in any project to remove the character of a room. The period details don’t need to be ripped out. There’s always a way to adapt a space sympathetically to work in a modern way.

“It can be tricky to draw the line between what you should conserve and what could be improved upon, and in some cases you can actually improve a space by removing historic elements. I’m not a purist, and I wouldn’t advocate putting back features in a way that could seem like a pastiche. The fireplaces we put in here, for example, are more simple than those that would have originally been installed, but they are sympathetic to the house.

“Conservation is one of the best ways we can be sustainable. The construction industry is hugely damaging and we can reduce that impact by using the beautifully considered buildings that are already standing. That’s why it’s so important not to follow trends that will fall out of fashion when working with an old house – you have to avoid doing something that will just be stripped out and sent to landfill in five years time.

“It’s something I feel quite strongly about. These historic properties have a soul, a sense of permanence; they are ingrained in our experience of places like London. We have to do everything we can to minimise unnecessarily ripping out and remodelling these buildings. In any case, when it comes to proportions, Georgian and Victorian buildings can’t be improved.”


Further reading

Georgina Mann – Architect & Interiors

Georgina Mann on Instagram

The Victorian House Book, Robin Guild, 2007 (Out of print – find on Abebooks)

And there’s more…

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