Nothing can quite prepare you for a visit to Abigail Ahern’s house. As you walk up this hilly residential street in Hackney your eyes are drawn to one Victorian villa which stands apart in a sea of white stonework. For this house is black.
On Saturday I was fortunate enough to attend one of Abigail’s master classes and was taken on a blissful journey into disorientation and drama, an adventure of delight and wonder that begins before you even reach the front steps.
There are plenty of images of Abigail’s house on the internet, most notably on The Selby, but as accomplished as these photographs are they do little to convey the incredible impact this house has on all of your senses from the minute you cross the inky threshold. I did of course take eleventy seven photos of the house but Abigail asked us not to post them as she’s having the house photographed again soon for her new book. So I’m afraid this is a rather wordy post (you can see old photos from the Selby here but the house has evolved since then).
I have never been to Sir John Soane’s museum (a shameful admission, I know) but I imagine it creates a similar impression on its visitors. As a testament to Abigail’s doctrine of not neglecting hallways and transitional spaces, the tone is set as soon as you walk through the door. I felt like I’d fallen down the rabbit hole and drunk from a bottle labelled ‘drink me’. The play on scale is surprisingly confusing but has a pleasingly odd effect. I felt oversized and Lilliputian all at the same time.
The darkness inside creates a cocoon of warmth and it made me feel a bit like a badger returning to its cosy set after a tumultuous night out in the winds of the wild. The colours create a sumptuous and inviting environment, I wanted to lie down everywhere and fall asleep but strangely at the same time I felt invigorated and alive.
The most surprising thing about the enveloping darkness is the profound effect it has on the display of nature. Even taking into account the glorious weather and the fact we are in early summer, the dark window frames make the greens of the gardens more vibrant and the colours of the flowers more intense. The garden felt larger and the plants move abundant and fecund, the outside was encroaching and welcoming. I resolved never to paint a window frame white again.
My favourite room was Abigail’s bathroom, painted in Farrow & Ball’s London clay. This beautiful dark taupey-brown provides a surprising foil for the ubiquitous natural and imitation stone tiles found in bathrooms all over the world. It warms up and enriches the in a way I’ve never seen before and the brings out the beauty of this often mis-used medium. Abigail’s bathroom has the decadence of a bathing suite in a Sultan’s place and there was something about it that made me very reluctant to leave. I don’t think I could ever paint a bathroom white again after being in there. Dark, cosy bathrooms are perhaps the last word in luxury and indulgence.
I also loved the kitchen, with the walls painted unconventionally in a deep grey and cabinets of the darkest navy. I’m not a fan of sleek white kitchens anyway and this room was somewhere I wanted to sit for hours and flick through the cookbooks stacked on the island and drink coffee out of a tisane. With Moroccan rugs on the polished concrete floor and exposed brickwork, it is an evening kitchen, somewhere to hang out with friends and pick at food all night long. It is so much more than a functional place in which to prepare food.
Abigail’s style is by her own admission quite masculine, more than mine certainly, and her home beautifully illustrates the point that dark walls make everything look better. Colours ping and textures seem more sumptuous. Everything seems better co-ordinated and detail becomes king.
There is something slightly impersonal about Abigail’s house if I’m honest. Much of the paraphernalia of life is missing, the handbags thrown on chairs and the shoes in hallways, there are no photographs, none of those things that we all have lying around. There is no television. Of course Abigail’s house is essentially her showcase and so it has to be kept looking professional at all times but I got the impression that it would be like that regardless. This is definitely the house of someone who is tirelessly dedicated to her mission.
When I left the house I felt a little glum, the rest of the street just looked disappointing. In the way you can feel when you exit a beautiful art gallery and the world outside looks pedestrian in comparison. I spent the evening reading shelter magazines and I was surprised at how uniform and conformist all the interiors appeared to me. I found nothing that displayed imagination – instead there were pages and pages of ordinary white interiors with obvious and predicable arrangements.
When I returned to our flat I wanted to throw out everything I owned (and everything of Richard’s too) as it all seemed so boring and uninteresting. I’ve got over that now, I’ve fallen back in love with (some of) my stuff. But I’m not sure I will ever quite get over that extraordinary house.
I’ve been on the path to the dark side for a while now, since a study of low-key paintings by old masters on the exposure module of a photography course last year made me see things differently. I’m not quite there yet, for me there are some hurdles to cross. I don’t really like that all the lights needed to be on on a blisteringly hot day like Saturday and I’m not sure that my preferred colour palettes of mid tones would work against the dark backdrops. But I know that I am one step further forwards to embracing it fully. Tomorrow I will write about the master class itself. But for today, some questions. Do you like Abigail’s aesthetic? Have you been to her house and what were your impressions of it?