The interior design of many of our most treasured country houses in many ways reflects the characteristics of the English themselves. Restrained, understated, subtle and, occasionally, elegant.
These are all traits the Artichoke design team tries to inject into the kitchens and furniture we design for our client’s country houses. Many of these attributes are successfully delivered through the physical form of the furniture we design, such as the period mouldings we create for each piece, the width of the door frames we design and the proportion of the furniture. Achieving elegance through form can quickly be tarnished if the materials then chosen to adorn it are not well considered.
Our view here at Artichoke is that if a designer creates beautifully detailed kitchen furniture, very little else needs then to be added to detract from it. This is particularly so with classical furniture where mouldings and shadow inject a wonderful flow and ripple into the face of the work. Contemporary kitchens are so often adorned with striking and flamboyant marbles because the furniture itself has little creative substance to it. By introducing a bold patterned marble, the designer is simply deflecting attention away from the fact the furniture is principally flat and lifeless.
It is inevitable that as designers and makers of kitchens and domestic areas of country houses, we have a view on which marble worktops look most appropriate in traditional environments. Despite our work being principally in English country houses, we tend not to suggest English stones for many of our kitchen worktops. While many of them are extremely hard wearing (such as slates available from Lancashire), few of them can be used for pieces such as cook’s tables or islands. This is mainly due to the nature of their extraction from the rock bed. Most English stones are blasted from the quarry face with explosives, resulting in eccentric sized blocks usually no wider than two metres. By contrast, marble slabs are cut from the quarry face in huge rectangular blocks, allowing for a much greater size of slab (typically up to three metres in length). This makes marble much more practical to use in kitchen design. We explore which stones perform best for kitchen worktops in another blog ‘Ideas for Kitchen Worktops’.
In the Georgian and Edwardian periods of English architecture, Carrara was the favoured marble of choice. Not only was it readily available, but its quiet and understated graining also reflected the characteristics of the English themselves. It is luxurious without being opulent and it has a more understated veining compared to other more ‘vulgar’ marbles. It can be seen in many of England’s finest country houses such as Chatsworth. Marble Arch is built from Carrara. It has been described as the elegant workhorse of the kitchen, and it ages beautifully.
From a longevity point of view Carrara marble is also timeless. This works well with our designs which we create to sit comfortably and elegantly into their architectural surroundings for many years. If we are to create furniture today that will be admired by future generations (in much the same way that today we admire work created in houses like Chatsworth), then it is worth remembering Carrara for your project.
Every 15 years or so I become fashionable. My worn jeans and faded blue shirt ensemble becomes the look for that season, and for a brief moment, I’m on trend. The downside is that I live in Somerset, so when everyone’s realised what the trend is here, everyone in London’s wearing something else.
As a company, Artichoke also avoids trends. Our kitchen designs are naturally classical. As designers of bespoke kitchens, libraries and principle rooms, we like the elegance that classical order, balance and harmony produces, and as fine cabinet-makers it suits us too. Classical design is steeped in tradition, and we enjoy making furniture in the traditional way, using hardwood that’s joined together with mortice and tenons, mason’s mitres and halving joints. It’s a tried and tested formula.
Around 12 years ago we began to notice a significant shift in furniture and room style, particularly among the super-prime homeowner in London. These buyers typically came from countries such as Russia and India where they mostly hid their wealth. Arrival on the safer streets of London gave these wealthy incomers a new found freedom to become more ostentatious, and overt displays of wealth through interior design became a popular route for those wanting to make a mark on their newly acquired English home.
The consequences were often terrifying. Suddenly clients begun to request furniture made from metal effect spray coated panelling and Swarovski crystal covered shoe shaped baths. Interior design became a heady mixture of luxury hotel interiors crossed with theatre. Design became depressingly temporary.
These bouts of interior design bling one-upmanship became more and more extravagant, many in the quest for elegance. In many cases, it failed horrifically.
More recently however we’ve noticed a welcome renaissance, with more discerning clients beginning to understand that elegant design is actually best achieved through gentility and restraint. An introduction to the English countryside, its pursuits and architecture has also managed to educate some buyers to the more muted ways of successful English classical furniture and interior design.
Wealthy buyers are now beginning to understand that quality English interior design and architecture is about style, grace, understated beauty, and above all, permanence. They are beginning to realise that it does not pay to be on-trend with interiors. Libraries, kitchens and dressing rooms cannot be replaced every time a new fashion emerges.
Our clients homes are too important to be treated simply as temporary or artificial stage sets with shelf lives, and the furniture design work we undertake here at Artichoke needs to have this air of permanence before it can be presented to the client. For joinery and fitted furniture to truly deliver an air of permanence, it needs to look comfortable and natural in its surroundings.
There are many ways of introducing permanence into design, but one sure fire method is to deploy classically inspired design treatments, mouldings, shapes, balance and proportion. When executed well it delivers breathtaking glamour that far outstrips anything that a bronze and crystal adorned flat door panel will ever deliver in its short lifetime.
What wealthy buyers have begun to understand it appears, is that less is more. Or to quote the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good.”
As a craft based design business focussed on creating bespoke kitchens and furniture to integrate successfully into the fabric of buildings, we need a thorough understating of them, their histories and English architecture in general. We spend a great deal of time in buildings of all types, surveying them, designing their interiors and fixing into their structures.
We spend a significant amount of our time working in period property, so a firm grasp of their architecture, why they are shaped they way they are, what their fabric is and make up is very important to us. In a geeky sort of way we also find it fun.
The First Architects
During the early 1700s and before, the building trade was actually run primarily by craftsmen; mainly by joiners and carpenters. This makes a great deal of sense; most buildings of the time were timber framed. These craftsmen all had at least seven years of apprenticeships under their belts and were people of considerable skill.
During this period, the term ‘architect’ was used by anyone who could get away with it. Prior to the introduction of formal Italian inspired classical architecture by Inigo Jones in the mid 1600’s, English architecture was essentially medieval in form, with most houses being built organically and of timber frames with no formal design organisation, proportion or layout to them. There was no real need for architects. Most new buildings were designed by builders. There was no such thing as English Architecture in a formal sense.
The introduction of formality in building design came through classical architecture. Classical English architecture’s more rigid design requirements meant the need for someone to plan and design buildings more carefully. It also required new materials to achieve the various shapes, mouldings, carvings etc and this meant a greater understanding of the materials capabilities, stresses and loads.
To begin with, this new role of architectural designer was taken on by the joiner or craftsmen (occasionally it was also taken on by members of the landed gentry, plump with inspiration from their grand tours of Europe).
As you can see from the architecture of Banqueting House, Classical and Georgian architecture is complex; its shapes, mouldings, facades, heirarchys, planes and orders require the use of knowledge, academic formulas and new geometry that wasn’t necessary in the construction of timber framed houses. It’s introduction to England presented an opportunity for many craftsmen to better themselves, and many stepped up to the plate.
Two things typically happen when a new and game-changing thinking is introduced to any society. Firstly, an influx of quasi-specialists on the new subject appear, and in this case these were the people closest to the coal face; craftsmen and builders. Secondly, there is a publishing revolution to support the thirst for knowledge (the same thing happened during the introduction of the internet on the mid 1990’s).
Both happened during the introduction of classical architecture, particularly in the publishing of building pattern books to help educate the uninitiated about classical architecture’s forms and functions. Initially, these books were written by craftsmen for fellow craftsmen, and later they were written by new architects for potential clients. These books were used by builders to copy from, and they formed the pattern around which London’s early classical architectural structure and then Georgian architecture was born. These books also started formalising the way in which these new building designs were physically erected, and the most famous reference book at the time, The art of drawing and working the ornamental parts of architecture, was written by Batty Langley. Click this link to see some of our favourite plates from the book.
Main Georgian Architectural Materials
A formality of design also led to formality of materials.
Brick – The primary material used to build buildings in Georgian London was brick made from the clay beds of London. The exterior bricks were the best quality, with garden walls, party walls etc often being constructed from ‘place’ bricks which were as much ash as they were clay and often prone to defects. Knowing the quality of what we’re fixing into is important for Artichoke; we often design quite technically complex architectural pieces such as minstrel’s galleries or large bespoke kitchens with heavy materials, and we need to know well in advance how robust the structure we’re fixing into actually is. There are a number of times I can think of when one of our installation team has attempted to drill into bricks that have simply disintegrated.
‘Place’ bricks were the cheapest, with the most expensive being ‘Cutting’ bricks, a brick made from fine clay and capable of being very accurately cut. These bricks were usually reserved for exterior decorative architectural detail such as door or window arches.
Timber – The main timber types used by builders of the time were English oak and Baltic fir (Russian Deal is another name for it). English oak was considered a premium timber, as it still is now, and Baltic fir was used for most things structural. It was also used for interior architecture and was regularly painted and gilded. Before Georgian times, Baltic Fir was scraped and left unfinished, only being painted with the introduction of the Georgians. Our finishers need to be comfortable in being able to match 300 year old Baltic Fir; we have had do just this for a recent project in Upper Brook Street in London.
Oak was reserved for the best and most visible structural work such as window frames and some interior architectural detailing. Mahogany bought back from the West Indies was often used on high-end residences for panelling, hand-rails, panelled doors and so on.
Stone – Stone was used less in Georgian architecture than one may think, certainly for many of the more domestic London townhouses. It was usually Portland stone that was sometimes used decoratively in London homes for items such as window dressings, exterior cornices and porches.
For Artichoke, a good understanding of these materials, proportions and the English architecture it makes up is vital, not just because it helps us gain an understanding of what we’re fitting our work into, but also because it often informs our design decisions.
We cannot design a bespoke kitchen or library in a country house unless we have a thorough understanding of that house, its architecture and materials. Architecture informs our work, and for us, this is vital, as with the classical builders and architects of the time, our legacy is in our work.