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Matt Gibberd on the importance of space in design

Inspired by our co-founder’s book, we’ve decided to theme our stories for the coming months, starting with space in January. You’ll still be getting the same inspirational interiors features, lust-worthy round-ups and through-the-keyhole tours, only now you might spot a little leitmotif… And to kick things off, we’re delighted to be publishing an excerpt of Matt’s writing, in which he looks at why space – small, big, beautiful – matters

Matt Gibberd on the importance of space in design

It’s a commonly held belief in the Inigo offices that good design can be broken down into five simple tenets: space, light, materials, nature and decoration. It’s an idea we’ve adopted from our co-founder Matt Gibberd, who even wrote a book on the subject, ‘A Modern Way to Live’, published by Penguin. His focus in that book might have been on more recent classics, but where do you think those architects got the ideas from? Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that… It turns out such principles are, in fact, timeless. 

Last Sunday, we went to the pub for a roast and an overdue family get-together. While the children busily inserted crayons into each other’s nostrils, my brother-in-law, Thomas, asked me how my book was coming along. “I’ve finally handed it in to Penguin, and they’re publishing it at the end of October,” I said. “Oh, and you’re in it.” Panic flickered briefly in his eyes, before I reassured him that his former flat – on the first floor of a converted school building in east London – has simply been used as an exemplar in the chapter about space. It measures less than 50 square metres, has only one window, and the ‘bedroom’ is a mattress on a mezzanine level with a curtain around it; however, because it occupies part of the old school gymnasium, the living room has the most wonderful volume, with full-height bookshelves and a pendant light that plunges down through the two storeys like a bucket in a well.

Despite its modest footprint, the flat expertly supports the needs of its occupants, providing a light-filled space for working, eating and socialising during the day, and an intimate nest that allows weary minds to unwind at night. Indeed, the most effective living environments are those which offer a mixture of large spaces for congregating and small spaces for retreating. This harks back to the habitats that once supported our evolution. If we imagine Homo sapiens casting around the African savanna throwing stones at hyenas, they would have depended upon the natural topography for survival – a lofty vantage point on top of a hill allowed them to assess threats and opportunities from a distance, while a cave or a clump of trees provided a welcome place to hide. Within the home, this same combination of ‘prospect’ and ‘refuge’ makes us feel settled.

Back in my university days in Edinburgh, my friends and I had more space than we knew what to do with. Inexplicably, many of the city’s most distinguished terraces were rented out to students, and we bagged ourselves a flat on the piano nobile of a Georgian mansion in a UNESCO World Heritage site. It had so many rooms that the ‘library’ was promptly repurposed as a venue for late-night darts. The sitting room was big enough to accommodate several chintz sofas and a banqueting table; it became the thrumming focal point of our social lives, where lasagne was slopped on to mismatched crockery and Finley Quaye’s casual reggae cascaded off the cornicing. If I’m honest, though, it wasn’t exactly cosy. My bedroom was strangely long and narrow, which made it impossible to know where to put the furniture, and the ceiling was so high that the cast-iron radiator could never push out enough heat. The walls also proved inadequate in the face of my flatmate’s seismic snoring. Yes, we had a lot of space, but it was the kind of unsatisfactory space you get when buildings have been divided up without any thought for atmosphere or experience.

A number of years later, my first step on to the housing ladder was a ground-floor flat in a 1930s mansion block. The only way I could afford the mortgage was by convincing people to live with me and pay some rent. My tallest friend took the box room; he slept with the door open and his size 13 feet sticking out into the hallway. The flat had a rectangular front-to-back living space, with a window at each end, which I divided into two squares to create an extra bedroom for another friend. As an architect, my dad had seen many builders at work over the years, so he kindly volunteered to help me create a stud partition, which we filled with sand for sound insulation. I can only assume that he hadn’t been concentrating, because we ended up with a wall shaped like an oxbow lake. Still, it succeeded in giving us the number of rooms we needed, and we lived together in relative harmony for two very memorable years.

With hindsight, I probably should have installed a sliding partition rather than a permanent wall. Many of the most successful city flats are those that offer flexible space. The studio flats at Pullman Court in Streatham, for example, which is a 1930s ocean liner of a building designed by my grandfather, Frederick Gibberd, have a walnut sliding door on runners that can be pulled across at night for privacy and opened up during the day[…]

My current home was built by a Victorian landowner using an early method of in-situ concrete. Nobody understands exactly how it has been put together, which is why, when we asked the builders to create a new doorway between two of the rooms, they discovered a solid concrete ring beam rising out of the floor as they were drilling. Rather than block it up again, we decided to keep the opening and accept that we would need to step over a threshold. We have made a virtue of it by giving it a curved cupboard frontage, so that there is a Narnia-like experience when you enter.

It’s funny how happy accidents like this often end up being the most engaging areas of the home. In my view, anything that generates a feeling of contrast is to be encouraged: narrow corridors, dramatically tall entrance halls, surprising staircases, and hidden doors like something from a Scooby-Doo cartoon. Indoor environments that are overly uniform can mimic signs of neurological breakdown. The Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan summarised it perfectly when he wrote: “Space, a biological necessity to all animals, is to human beings also a psychological need, a social prerequisite, and even a spiritual attribute.”

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