Lizzie and Ion Florescu's idea to combine two adjoining Chelsea town houses has resulted in a unique home that maximises outside space and keeps work separate from day-to-day life.
In the hub of Chelsea, not far from the glossy clothes emporium of Stella McCartney, the design fest of The Conran Shop and the culinary excellence of Bibendum, lies a quiet, understated street. This is residential London at its best, a secluded oasis amid the swish and bustle of a sophisticated enclave. The houses in this pretty little street are modest in size and varied in style, some dating back to the nineteenth century. At the far end of the road lies a pair of very unassuming Thirties houses - one of only two matching pairs in the street. Lizzie and Ion Florescu had lived in one half of this pair of terraced dwellings for 15 years when the next-door property came up for sale in 2006. They loved the area and took the opportunity of buying it, with the intention of joining the two properties.
Frustrating times followed, when discussions with big-name architects proved to be fruitless and expensive. Inappropriately elaborate designs were presented and vetoed until the Florescus, in desperation, withdrew from discussions. 'We wanted to keep the whole thing incredibly simple; I hate gimmicky, showy things,' explains Lizzie. 'Our aim was to disrupt the space as little as possible and to join it up in a straightforward way to the building next door. In the end, I sat down in the dining room with a sheaf of photocopied floor plans and drew out some ideas myself.'
A friend then recommended Charlotte Santin, an independent project manager, who proved to be the Florescus' saviour. She quickly grasped their clear-cut concepts and brought on board Ron Crawford of Crawford Architects, who implemented the requirements accurately while adding bits of sound professional advice, along with the interior designer Margaret Greetham. Another collaborator was the Italian interior designer Francesca Anderson, a neighbour of the Florescus at their house in Sardinia, who provided the couple with advice on the proportions and layout of the rooms, doors and windows.
The resulting interior is charming and distinctive, while the exterior remains totally in keeping with the area. From the street, you can only tell the houses are joined together because there is now just a single door on the right-hand side. The buildings had an unusual formation in that they were each shaped around a courtyard garden in the centre. When the dividing fence between the two gardens was removed, the effect was to create a central courtyard in roughly the shape of a keyhole. This quirky feature has become the focus and defining element of the new layout. Inspired planning of fenestration means that, from every aspect of the house, you have glimpses and vistas of this intriguing space, as well as several points of access to it.
The original Thirties buildings had two storeys at the front, with a single-storey section across the rear boundary and stepped flat roofs. The single storey at the back of both plots has been knocked through to form a long, elegant kitchen, which has a decked rooftop terrace garden above it. This outdoor space is shielded by the rear boundary wall of the rest of the property, trellised and planted with climbing roses and glossy, evergreen confederate jasmine.
Prior to acquiring the adjacent house, the Florescus had built a third floor onto the two-storey part of their home in 1993. The more recent conjoining project has created a matching floor on the other building, although this addition slightly differs in that it has a terrace section at the back looking down onto the garden terrace above the kitchen. It allows the sun to shine through to the courtyard when it is not directly overhead. It also provides third-floor outside space next to Lizzie's office.
The Florescus' conversion retained the position ofboth original staircases, and they have knocked through on the upper floors, which means there is a circular progression around the house. The dual staircases work particularly well as Lizzie and Ion's offices are situated on the second and third floors of the new side of the house, allowing business access to be separate from the domestic living areas. Situated on the upper floors of the original house, these include the main bedroom and the bedroom of the couple's son Leopold, bathrooms and Lizzie's dressing room. A basement under both houses was another part of the conversion, accessed by a new staircase on the 'office side' and also from a stairwell from the street.
Restraint and quality define the space. Teams of Italian craftsmen travelled to London to lay French oak flooring and to fit the marble for floors and bathrooms, perfectly cut to specification in Italy, then transported and slotted straight into place. 'The beauty of the materials and the installation were faultless and it still cost far less than from high-end suppliers in London,' says Lizzie. 'These wonderful Italians turned up in immaculate white overalls every morning from their B&B, breaking at 1pm for a proper cooked lunch at Carluccio's, then working on well into the evening to complete the job to schedule.'
The Florescus have a keen interest in design and objects, and they are responsible for much of the decor-ation and arrangement of the interiors. They both have international backgrounds and have lived in many different countries: the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Switzerland, Italy and Romania. Wherever they go, they visit galleries, junk shops, antique shops and art fairs. Ion is of Romanian descent on his paternal side. He did not visit Romania until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but since then has developed both business and philanthropic links with the country and has a particular interest in its artists and craftsmen. 'I like to mix Romanian pieces together with other Western art to put it in a world context. It stands up so well to comparison,' he says. This well-thought-through conversion certainly provides a fitting backdrop for the diverse collections of the couple's discerning eyes.
Margaret Greetham: 020-7738 0144;
Taken from the July 2016 issue of House & Garden.