Architects have been known to take themselves extremely seriously, so it’s refreshing to meet one who pokes fun at his own profession. Matt White, 40, may live in a sleek white box and abhor clutter, but he’s aware of the cliché of the fastidious modernist architect. In his kitchen, rows of mugs adorned with letters are arranged perfectly to read: “I don’t have OCD.”
It’s one of several visual jokes in the playful contemporary home that White has just built for his family in Shepherd’s Bush, west London. Yet, at first glance, the exterior suggests he is a textbook fascistic minimalist: it’s a pure white cube tacked onto the end of a cosy red-brick Victorian terrace. The facade is so pristine, it’s hard to tell where the front door is. The only prominent markings are a chunky “23” carved into the render and a protruding picture window high above: the building resembles a hip art gallery, the kind with no sign where you have to be buzzed in. So you would expect its creator to be dressed in black Prada, with clinical, colourless furniture to match.
On the contrary, White is an unpretentious jeans-and-T-shirt guy, and the interior is fun, flamboyant and full of colour. The jokes start before you even enter: when you ring the bell, the word “Hello” flashes up on the door in lights. Inside the four-bedroom house, the aesthetic veers between nursery and nightclub.
Sure, there are clean lines and white walls, but they are a backdrop for eye-popping hues straight out of a crayon packet — a lime-green kitchen splashback, a turquoise Made sofa, multicoloured Eames chairs. It’s a welcome change from the usual designer palette of tasteful taupes and muted greys. The open-plan kitchen/living room is filled with blown-up canvas photographs of sunny family holidays and framed children’s artwork, while the terrace at the back has a brightly coloured wendy house that folds up and disappears into a wall at night, when the grown-ups come out to play.
And that’s when another white wall in the living room opens, revealing a gold-leaf cocktail bar with a neon sign that says “Boo!”. “It’s like the gold inside the jacket — I like to surprise people,” White says.
The chandelier is another talking point: it is composed of several layers of upside-down wineglasses, which are removed and used at parties. At the end of a raucous night, only a bare bulb remains. Parties are also the time when the multicoloured lights come into their own: the showy LED strips that line the windows are often set to flamingo pink, lending some Miami glam to this quiet Shepherd’s Bush backstreet. It’s no surprise to learn that White’s practice, Matt Architecture, is busy restoring the old Raymond Revue Bar, in Soho — now the notorious Box nightclub — to its full former glitz.
During the day, though, as the sun streams onto the primary colours and cartoons play on TV, the house reverts to its rumpus-room feel. As White’s three children — Mia, 7, Daisy, 5, and Arthur, 3 — tear around at full speed and full volume, he points out other youthful flourishes in the decor. Three model aeroplanes above the fireplace are a twist on the decorative cliché of ducks above the hearth. On another shelf sits a Lego Star Wars spaceship, but it’s not used as a children’s toy; it’s being displayed as a piece of art. Matt’s wife, Sophie, 39, the managing partner for his firm, jokes that they are like “big kids”.
They are also shrewd investors. The couple bought the end-of-terrace Victorian house next door in 2006, with an eye on the vacant plot beside it. It had been enclosed for almost 24 years by the home’s previous owners, and therefore, through a quirk of English property law, would soon be eligible to be converted to a freehold title, unless anyone came forward to claim it. Nobody did, so in 2007 they snapped up the 840 sq ft of land for a mere £40. They began construction on the plot in 2012, finished this year (they decline to reveal how much the build cost) and now let out the old house. And they’ve decided to put this one on the market for £1.995m, after being wooed by an estate agent.
Nonetheless, the new home was very much designed with the family in mind, rather than as a nice little earner. In the basement playroom, white cupboards open up to reveal a trio of children’s work stations in shades that require sunglasses. Beyond the ping-pong table, in the courtyard, is a climbing wall with candy-coloured rungs that add to the house-of-fun feel. White says he can’t keep the children off it; Sophie says her husband has been known to test his climbing skills after a few drinks.
If the children’s antics become too much and the adults want some peace upstairs, a sliding door walls off the basement. “We can effectively put the kids in a Tupperware box, so we can get a bit of relief,” White says. The basement also has a bedroom for a nanny.
Other family-friendly design tricks include a mini garage for buggies — an outside door next to the entrance opens directly into an internal closet, so prams and strollers don’t clutter up the hallway. Also beside the front door, inside, is a master switch that turns off all the lights in the house, handy for a fast exit: “That one button gives me an extra two minutes a day with my family.” And up on the first floor, the lavatory has that staple of American suburbia, a laundry chute to the basement utility room. Perhaps the most family-friendly measure of all is having electronically operated blackout blinds in the children’s bedrooms, so the sun doesn’t wake them early and “ruin my life”, White says.
Clever lighting is a hallmark of the house. Long angled skylights flood the three bedrooms with light. The tinted vertical window strip in the kitchen allows you to see out, but prevents pedestrians from looking in. The sun pipes in the basement have trumpet-shaped mouldings that maximise the spread of light. And the picture window on the landing turns opaque at the flick of a button, for privacy from the street; you can also opt for a half-glass, half-white effect.
Apart from that chandelier, there are no light fixtures on the ceilings: all the LED strips are hidden in recesses above shelves. “I read an interview with a designer from Star Wars, and his aesthetic ambition was that you would never be able to see the light source in a spaceship. He wanted to suggest a civilisation so sophisticated, you could bounce light around without seeing where it came from.” White admits that he originally wanted to be an astronaut.
The concealed lighting is one of many “cheap conjuring tricks”, as he describes them, to make the 1,700 sq ft space seem bigger. Others include skirting boards that are flush, stair handrails recessed into the walls and 10ft-high ceilings in the basement, as well as a mirrored wall at right angles to the sliding glass door to the courtyard. The bedrooms are small, but don’t feel claustrophobic, thanks to high-sloped ceilings and ample built-in cupboards. To reduce clutter in the kitchen, there is no kettle, but a tap that dispenses boiling water.
“What makes this building successful is the stuff you don’t notice,” White says. Its eco credentials, for instance — the house is south-facing, triple-glazed and insulated with an aerogel developed by Nasa for spacecraft. “It’s marginally more expensive than sheep’s wool, but performs about four times better.”
As a result, White says, they never turned on the underfloor heating last winter. The whole-house ventilation system also helps — as warm, stale air is sucked out, it heats up the cool fresh air being pumped in. And rainwater is used to flush the loos — not that White is preachy about going green. “There’s so much guff about environmental measures,” he says. “The only way to get people to go eco is to incentivise it financially. We save 80% on bills. But I don’t like houses that look too environmentally friendly. I want it to look good.”
In the end, that’s what you remember about this family house of the future: the light, the colour, the fun. “There’s always the temptation in modern architecture to rip the soul and joy out of it,” says White, who learnt his chops working for Norman Foster for 10 years. “I’m keen this should be entertaining and playful. Yes, it’s a modern building. Yes, it’s white and clean. But it’s also trying to have some personality.
“Homes need to have a degree of magic and humour. You’re only here once. Life’s too short, and if you don’t enjoy it, you’re an idiot.”