f all the millions of homes in London, how do you ever know you’ve found the right one?
Having viewed more than 100 properties in the hunt for a new home after a divorce, Melanie Rickey could feel pretty sure that her new house was the best of the bunch.
Even though it was “a building site” when she moved in with her young son, Horatio, two years ago, Rickey, a founding editor of Grazia and now an editorial consultant specialising in fashion and sustainability, knew she had found the sanctuary she needed.
Having been part of the glossy Primrose Hill scene, an experience she likens to living in The Truman Show, as one half of a media-anointed “fashion power couple” with retail guru Mary Portas, Rickey was looking for “something a bit more urban”.
She struck upon a three-storey Victorian house in Kentish Town and knew she’d found the one. “It was meant to be my house, everything about it feels guided,” she says. “In so many ways the pictures don’t do it justice, being in it is a true experience: the views, the location, the light.”
Rickey discovered the house had been home to Astrid Zydower, a German refugee who arrived in England on the Kindertransport and later fought to win a scholarship to art school, becoming a well-known sculptor and awarded an MBE in 1968.
Zydower lived there for 30 years until her death in 2005, amassing a host of glamorous clientele — rumour has it Mick Jagger’s phone number was scrawled on her studio wall — and giving sculptures to several of her neighbours. When she lived in the property she hung offcuts from her Harewood House Orpheus’s genitalia at eye level in the entrance hall, which is now painted a deep aubergine.
Rickey was gifted a sculpture by Zydower’s family when she moved in, and her legacy is also touched upon in the kitchen wall lights, arranged in the shape of the Leo constellation, Zydower’s star sign.
Together with Amelia Hunter and Anna Drakes of architecture practice Space A, Rickey set about restoring the magic to the house, which had been rented out for years with a patchily executed but well-designed and sensitive modern extension by architect Lisa Shell. She took a “burn-out break” and managed the project herself, which she estimates saved her up to £60,000 so she could work within her budget of £130,000.
“I subscribed to Which? magazine — I really am getting old giving up my Balenciagas for Which? — so all my appliances are the best I can have. I’m still really happy with them and I saved the builders’ cut.
“When I was married to Mary and we bought our house in Primrose Hill we had a bigger budget and were very flamboyant. We made mistakes and overspent on a few things and quickly realised we’re not in Beetlejuice, every single change of mind costs money. This time round I made sure it was as economical as possible.”
Ikea kitchen carcasses were upgraded with expensive taps, green conglomerate marble stands in for Connemara marble on the worktops at a quarter of the price and Rickey chose not to make structural changes but rather to update the 2008 renovation.
She describes the project as a “true collaboration” and “a really beautiful experience”. “It was an amazing, almost witchy evolution where we were feeling our way and seeing if things felt right, making absolutely microscopic changes. It was a communication between all of us and the house’s occupants.”
The team also fell in love with some of the house’s more unusual features, including several child-sized doors, which add an Alice in Wonderland absurdity to the interiors.
“We picked up on that playfulness and added an arched entrance between the hallway space and the living room space to make a cyclical route. Psychologically if you have a space with two exits it often sits better with you in your subconscious because you can escape. There’s always a nice vibe when you know there’s two ways out of a room,” explains Drakes.
The entire project took about six months and was finished in summer 2019 but the house has already changed beyond how it was originally envisaged, in part thanks to the way the pandemic has made us all reassess our homes. But for Space A part of the magic of a renovation project is that it’s never finished.
“As her son grows up, the house will have to evolve with him and her and what they need,” says Drakes. “We’ve provided the trellis and she’s the flower growing up it and adapting to it.”
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