A Stunning New Chapter for a Historic London Townhouse

Kate Jacobs

England is a country where the sense of history can hang a little heavy on certain homeowners. Rules abound regarding what is and isn’t appropriate to the age of one’s residence—especially here in Hampstead, a beloved London “village” with a rich cultural past and present. None of this seems to trouble American architect, interior designer, and educator Bruce Irwin. “I think it’s all right to break the rules, if you do it with love,” he says of his home, a five-story Georgian terrace built in 1735 on one of the area’s loveliest streets, where he lives with his husband, Pedro Font-Alba, another architect.

Their historic house, with its bold Pop-y vibe, feels fresh and fun, far from a museum piece. Fitting for a somewhat unconventional backstory: When some of Irwin’s clients—an American family whose plans changed during the final stages of the renovation—offered him the chance to move in, he turned them down. A few months later, when it was offered again, “I thought I’d better at least check with Pedro, or he might divorce me,” Irwin laughs. Given the couple’s proximity to the residence throughout the renovation, Irwin and Font-Alba felt at home right after moving in.

1781 The Bowery Hotel

By moving the kitchen to the upper ground floor, overlooking the garden, Irwin has recentered this five-story home. To protect the room’s 18th-century paneling, the sleek white Bulthaup cabinets are mounted on a hidden steel frame. The large painting is by Spanish artist Javito Ruiz Perez while the lamp is by MK. The ceiling lights are vintage glass designs, from LASSCO. And the vintage chairs are from Howe London while the Saarinen dining table is from Aram.

At the beginning of the project, Irwin was unfazed by taking on a house that’s nearly 300 years old. “I love places with atmosphere and I was drawn to the scale, the peaceful neighborhood—and the wonderful clients,” he says. The house, which had been in the same family for the last century, was relatively untouched. “It was like a treasure chest,” he says, looking back.

With these pluses came minuses, partly because of the building’s Heritage Grade II listing. The prestigious status brings with it innumerable rules regarding what one can and can’t do on the premises, and drawn-out approval processes. Irwin used that extra time to educate himself, visiting Georgian buildings and meeting experts. “I had to learn enough to find the right people,” he says, “from structural engineers to traditional plasterers.”

1781 The Bowery Hotel

In the master bedroom, where the paneling is relatively recent, Irwin used muted khaki linen on the upper walls to create a restful mood that cocoons its occupants. Above the bed hangs a photograph by Ecuadorian artist Oscar Santillan; the oil paintings by the windows are by Basque artist Joseba Eskubi. An elegant pair of club chairs from Somerville Scott perch on the Rug Company rug.

The lower ground floor was once the domain of the servants, with a kitchen and washing room, or “scullery.” Irwin recentered the home by moving the kitchen to the upper ground floor, where it now sits beside the dining room. To keep the inspectors happy, Irwin had the sleek white kitchen hung from a steel frame that sits just in front of the antique wood paneling. The kitchen move freed up the lower ground floor to become a guest suite—ideal for the couple’s many visiting friends—comprising a bathroom and steam sauna in one of the vaulted rooms that extend out under the road. The three upper floors are given over to a living room and study, a master bedroom suite, and more guest bedrooms at the top of the house.

Having visited many comparable buildings as part of his research, Irwin felt that conventional Georgian color schemes were too dark and oppressive for this project. Knowing that the owners liked Scandinavian style, he took inspiration from the soft pastel tones of the Swedish Gustavian era. “It’s a similar period to this house, with a light and summery feel,” he says. Irwin wanted the furniture to be functional and resilient, so he opted for reissues of 20th-century design classics, with tubular metal and leather upholstery as recurring themes—and lots of bright color.

A Stunning New Chapter for a Historic London Townhouse

The Hampstead, London, dining room in a 1735 home owned by architect and designer Bruce Irwin and his husband, Pedro Font-Alba, is the first space that visitors encounter, and it sets a playful tone for the house. Hot orange and "insanely comfortable" Cassina Hola chairs, from Aram, cluster around a Pinch Design table under a light by Adolf Loos for Woka Lamps. The large work in acrylic to the left of the fireplace is by Spanish artist Alan Sastre.
By moving the kitchen to the upper ground floor, overlooking the garden, Irwin has recentered this five-story home. To protect the room’s 18th-century paneling, the sleek white Bulthaup cabinets are mounted on a hidden steel frame. The large painting is by Spanish artist Javito Ruiz Perez while the lamp is by MK. The ceiling lights are vintage glass designs, from LASSCO. The vintage chairs are from Howe London; the Saarinen dining table is from Aram.
The living room sits level with the leaves of the London plane trees that grow along the street outside and are reputed to have been planted by one of the house’s former owners. The B&B Italia sofa has been custom-upholstered in a vibrant mustard yellow and teamed with a cluster of design-classic chairs, including a Cassina LC7, in front of the fireplace.
The large living room opens onto the couple’s study. The mirror is one of several around the house by Marianna Kennedy; many of the lamps are hers as well. Irwin had the B&B Italia modular sofa custom-upholstered in a vibrant mustard yellow.
Pops of color enliven the study, with a B&B Italia desk flanked by LC7 and Hola chairs, both for Cassina and from Aram. Below the oil painting by José Carlos Naranjo sits a sunshine yellow Knoll bench.
Looking through the hallway to the study, an Utrecht chair from Aram is glimpsed in front of one of the house’s corner fireplaces. Over the fireplace is a painting by Rubén Guerrero. The Ballfinger wall-mounted light came from Howe, Pimlico Road; the pillow on the chair is from a favorite shop of the couple’s, Chiarastella Cattana in Venice; and the oil painting to the left of the doorway is by Basque artist Alain Urrutia.
In the master bedroom, where the paneling is relatively recent, Irwin used muted khaki linen on the upper walls to create a restful mood that cocoons its occupants. Above the bed hangs a photograph by Ecuadorian artist Oscar Santillan, while the oil paintings by the windows are by Basque artist Joseba Eskubi. An elegant pair of club chairs from Somerville Scott perch on the Rug Company rug.
The fourth story of the house is dedicated to the master suite, with a sculptural freestanding Agape bathtub. Between the windows, a folded metal sculpture by Spanish artist, Imma Femenia.
Irwin opted for a Georgian-style celery green in this library niche, where the couple come to browse their collection of architecture and travel books at the foldaway desk. A fragment of the water-damaged William Morris wallpaper that once lined the hallway has been preserved in a frame, maintaining a link with the house’s rich history.
The staircase was a major restoration project, having sustained damage from a long-term leak. The walls are painted in a celery green shade, with the original wood paneling picked out in soft white. The circular copper-pipe artwork on the wall, by British artist Tom Dale, captivates visiting plumbers.
Once the scullery where the servants washed pots and pans and did the laundry, this room, which opens out onto the garden, has been transformed into a "rumpus room" where laid-back furniture including a Sinus chair and Tufty Time B&B Italia sofa that create a striking contrast with the original stone flag floor.

The couple’s main contribution as custodians of the house is arguably their art collection. Both are passionate about emerging Spanish art: “We’re drawn to pieces that have a strong aesthetic, whether that’s through color, geometry, or materials—and a powerful political agenda too.” Indeed, the provocative art collection—and the homeowners themselves—have breathed new life into these centuries-old rooms.

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest