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This Thoughtfully Designed, Tiny London Loft Has Big Tricks

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This 500-square-foot loft in Hackney, East London, has all the good light and airiness you'd hope for in a loft, but it isn't an open floor plan or a structure built within one. Plus, it has secrets. The custom joinery for the walls and built-ins features an astounding attention to detail—and to the owners' lifestyle—resulting in flexible rooms and inventive storage solutions on end.

"Multifunctional without looking like it," is how they describe it.

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Shutters allow the light to flutter in (and lend privacy, as the apartment's at street-level).
Shutters allow the light to flutter in (and lend privacy, as the apartment's at street-level). Photo by India Hobson

The couple who renovated this apartment, Catherine Verna Bentley and Louis Hagen Hall, met two years ago on Tinder, fell in love, and founded the design firm Bentley Hagen Hall to put their skills as an architect and stylist, respectively, to use together. "The shared interiors/architecture interest was a happy coincidence!" Catherine told me in an email.

They're already up to the gills in projects, with six in the works right now, and are getting married this summer.

Details in the living room, including that glorious filtered light from the shutters.

The apartment was Catherine and Louis's first home together, though they've just recently sold it and moved into a new studio (their workspace is in Sheffield, England, a few hours north of London; they work between the two places).

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Photo by India Hobson

These finished pictures were taken last fall, when the couple still lived in the apartment, and they supplied renovation and process photography in addition to show how far it had come. I Skyped with them earlier this week to hear more about the clever little space, how they renovated it, and why they made the decisions they did.

Whitewashed oak floors, one of the only original features they kept intact.
Whitewashed oak floors, one of the only original features they kept intact. Photo by India Hobson

in the beginning

Clocking in at just 500 square feet, the apartment needed to somehow be many things for the couple: a studio for their work, a place to sleep and store Catherine's wardrobe ("which is quite... extensive," she said with a smile), a place to cook and entertain and have overnight guests.

So they started by tearing down a few walls... and then a few more.

The living room (foreground), bedroom (back left), entryway (by door), and bathroom (to the right) after they tore down the existing walls.
The living room (foreground), bedroom (back left), entryway (by door), and bathroom (to the right) after they tore down the existing walls. Photo by Bentley Hagen Hall

"I thought I’d do the demo work in a couple days," Louis remembers, "and three weeks later I was still pulling down walls."

At first, they expected to remove just a few, but it proved easier to start rebuilding on a clean slate so they took down the rest of the walls while they were at it—and would advise that anyone renovating a small space do the same. "You'll discover so many problems [in old walls]," Louis says, which prompted Catherine to chime in about a shower vent they found that piped steam "to nowhere."

After the new walls went up, to section off the (left to right) bedroom, entryway, and bathroom.
After the new walls went up, to section off the (left to right) bedroom, entryway, and bathroom. Photo by Bentley Hagen Hall

As you can see above, the original floors were kept intact, one of the only elements Louis and Catherine decided not to replace entirely. Laid in a herringbone pattern, the whitewashed oak slabs aren't just pretty to look at, they're tough—engineered to not warp or distort over time.

Louis recalls the jigsaw-like process of moving around small end pieces to get the flooring to work with the storage they were building in. But even so, keeping them saved money.

an entryway that beckons

The lights in the entryway are from eBay, found in a science lab in the Czech Republic in the 50's and 60's.
The lights in the entryway are from eBay, found in a science lab in the Czech Republic in the 50's and 60's. Photo by India Hobson

Once the existing walls came down, the exposed, structural I-beams that spanned the width of the apartment showed themselves even more clearly (see the "before" pictures, above).

Rather than leave them out and about in the classic industrial loft look, Catherine and Louis decided to use the drop in height to their advantage: They built a ceiling in the entryway across the lowest point on those beams (without the drop, the ceilings are over 11 feet tall, so they had airspace to spare without it feeling too cramped), and created openings to that newly covered overhead space from the adjacent bedroom, perfect for storage. It's where they keep their winter clothes.

The other benefit to the drop ceiling is the experience it creates. When a visitor enters the apartment through that front hallway, they're greeted with this enchanting view—the light and height from the main room beckoning you to come in, come in to the more open space.

"I'm obsessed with shallow shelves," Catherine tells me—this one in the hallway is one of four in the apartment.
"I'm obsessed with shallow shelves," Catherine tells me—this one in the hallway is one of four in the apartment. Photo by India Hobson

storage to spare in the kitchen

Through the foyer, you enter into the living space, two walls of which were transformed into an inviting kitchen. The pink plaster was one of the first features I asked about, and it turns out to be "totally standard builder's plaster"—raw here, rather than covered in paint the way it's often seen.

A poured concrete counter was deliberately left unpolished, for a rough, natural texture and light color.
A poured concrete counter was deliberately left unpolished, for a rough, natural texture and light color. Photo by India Hobson

The rosy color is the plaster's natural tint, which so delighted the couple that they tested out five different finishes to see which would alter it the least. A wax finish proved tricky to apply and it darkened the color, whereas a plain matte painter's finish was easy to apply and didn't change the look. (A good reminder to test plaster finishes before you spring for one!)

The faucet is from Tapwell, a Swedish company; a table can be pulled out from the built-in cabinetry to set up a meal for two. Photos by India Hobson, Bentley Hagen Hall

Louis advises using a high-quality plaster if you want it to remain exposed on the walls—and to remind your electricians not to write on it! ("Though they will anyway," the two laughed.)

The fluted, transluscent fronting they used for the cabinets is called reeded glass (which is different from fluted glass in that the edges come to a scallop rather than a flat line).

A carefully cut finger hole.
A carefully cut finger hole. Photo by India Hobson

The material is a little bit fussy to work with—the finger holes on the cabinets, for example, had to be cut with a very thin, fast-moving jet of water so they'd end up smooth on the sides. But the play between transparency and opacity it results in is uniquely playful (and more than a little bit nostalgic); to them, it's well worth the trouble and expense.

The lighting above and within the cabinets, at night.
The lighting above and within the cabinets, at night. Photo by Bentley Hagen Hall

On the inside of the cabinets, a recessed strip of LED bulbs backlights the silhouettes of the ceramics and lights up the shelves so that they glow, the whole row of cabinets acting like a lantern.

But this isn't the only kitchen storage: A recess at the far end of the counter was outfitted with a wall of thoughtful, quiet cabinetry (all their design, of course) that includes the fridge.

A wall of hidden cabinets at the end of the kitchen.
A wall of hidden cabinets at the end of the kitchen. Photo by India Hobson
Another I-beam they chose to cover with plaster walls; Louis for scale. Photos by Bentley Hagen Hall

the power of a platform

The most flexible room in the house, the studio is located just off the kitchen in a nook up against the wall of windows. The couple chose to line its walls with Elfa shelving, which Louis says, "costs nothing but looks good." The lowest of these, against the interior wall, acts as a desk.

Catherine likes oversized, geometric accents—"anything that looks like a spaceship."
Catherine likes oversized, geometric accents—"anything that looks like a spaceship." Photo by India Hobson
Books, plants, and objects they've collected over the years. Photos by India Hobson

And when guests come over, a table can be propped up in the room, its windowsill used as a seat...

Photo by Bentley Hagen Hall

...and when those guests stay over, the room also transitions—magically—into a bedroom.

Photo by Bentley Hagen Hall

If you look closely at the picture to the left, you'll see that there are two steps up separating this room from the rest of the apartment. Catherine and Louis had that platform built not just to delineate it visually; they also wanted to stow a spare mattress underneath.

"When it was first being designed, it was going to be a really intelligent joinery," Louis remembers, but then they realized that was overcomplicating the design (and therefore the cost): All they needed was a little pocket that the mattress could be slid in and out of easily.

The ceilings are plenty tall to allow for the step up, and since the windows sit unusually high on the wall (from the building's original design, as a factory) they end up coming to a normal height when you're in the room.

The couple simply drags the mattress out when guests come over, and draw the curtain closed for privacy.

The curtain hangs behind that same I-beam that runs the length of the kitchen, giving it a neat, pocketed effect. Photos by India Hobson

a tiny bathroom that feels double its size

Just off the kitchen on the other side, a pocket door leads to the bathroom. "The smallest room, but the one we spent the most time on," Louis says. Its walls are also plastered, but here they opted for tadelakt, a cool-to-the-touch, water-resistant Moroccan plaster that's rising in popularity.

A shallow shelf obsession, continued.
A shallow shelf obsession, continued. Photo by India Hobson

Another shallow shelf went up on the bathroom wall, its end butting up against the mirror—a positioning that has effect of doubling the size of the room, since you see its reflection as added length and space.

More reeded glass was installed for the shower door, echoing the material's use in the kitchen (and standing in for traditional but not-so-pretty frosted glass). To make the material strong enough for this application—so it doesn't bow if you slipped and leaned against it, for example—it needed to be laminated.

Photo by India Hobson
Photos by India Hobson

For the door leading to the bathroom (and the adjacent door leading to the foyer), Catherine wanted brass pulls, but they couldn't find any they liked. So they ended up taking a big brass pot and routing the base off, then planting that directly in the wood of the door to serve as a pull. They aren't finished, so the brass tarnished in a way they loved.

"That was my favorite detail," she says.

Photos by India Hobson, Bentley Hagen Hall

There are all kinds of other hidden moments of brilliance in the apartment's design—like the radiators that are covered up by custom cabinetry with slits in it, curved metal ballasts inside them directing the flow of heat.

There's even one in the hallway closet, down low where they store their shoes. "It keeps them warm!" Catherine told me, a little luxury they hadn't even planned for but loved so much they're thinking of applying in other homes they design.

Peep the radiator cover, in the bedroom.
Peep the radiator cover, in the bedroom. Photo by India Hobson

As for where they'll live? "We're constantly going to be moving," Louis laughed, "We've got great, interesting clients, but there's nothing like being your own."

Photo by India Hobson

See more of Catherine and Louis' work here.

What's your favorite feature in this tiny space? (I love all the celestial accents!) Tell us in the comments.

Tags: Bentley Hagen Hall, England