A White London Mansion
Alison henry could be forgiven for never wanting to step outside the handsome brick walls of her plush London mansion. The Kiwi-born interior designer, who has an impressive list of creative achievements to her credit, has recently completed a renovation of her Chelsea Square townhouse that had more than a few similarities to open-heart surgery. She has certainly earned a stylish convalescence.
The expanded townhouse has quickly become a true family home for Alison, her financier husband Tariq Dag Khan and daughters Anna Cristina, two, Olivia, 12, and 15-year-old twins Sophie and Rebecca. “I decided to add what was missing,” says Alison, “so we could all hang out – especially in winter.”
On the list: a spacious cinema/playroom, a gym “large enough for reasonable equipment”, a study/library, a guest bedroom suite and an office. Her ambitious design for the home, which now extends over five floors (basement, ground, first, second and third floors), also called for a “parents’ suite” on the first floor and incorporated the attic to make room for a charming suite for each daughter on the top floor.
The two-year building project got under way only after winning planning approval from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea as well as the Cadogan Estates, owners of neighbouring Chelsea Gardens.
“It was important to maintain the feel and look of Chelsea Square,” says Alison, whose celebrity neighbours have included socialite Jemima Khan and Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone.
A massive excavation under the existing house created a basement floor – 186sqm of new floor space, including plant rooms for modern technology. “We added air conditioning, coordinated lighting, an audiovisual system and a cinema screen ‘with all the works’. Now the whole family, from our two-year-old to the twins, can be playing pop stars or band heroes, banging away on the drums or curling up with big bowls of popcorn to watch a favourite movie.”
Though Alison hasn’t lived in New Zealand since graduating from design school and coming to London to work, she and her family have an annual reminder of the less formal Kiwi lifestyle during summer holidays back home. In New Zealand, children are “part of our day-to-day lives, with everyone working in together,” she says approvingly. With that aim in mind, the walls of the formal dining room have been removed, creating a family dining/living space between the spacious kitchen and courtyard garden, complete with outdoor fireplace “made by the best Kiwi guy in London”.
“English houses have lots of little rooms. One of my goals was to expand into bigger spaces so that the family room flowed into the kitchen and outside to the courtyard. I opened the walls up with large glass doors and mirrors to reflect the garden greenery and installed roof lanterns in the family room and kitchen to make the rooms light and bright.”
Alison used a pale palette throughout, with chalky white Farrow & Ball paint for the walls and white oiled oak floors.
A neutral silk carpet was laid on the stairs and in the bedrooms, with a slightly lower grade used in the girls’ rooms; silver sisal leads down to the basement. Purple was used as an occasional accent colour. “I have used natural linens for the curtains and blinds and, to make it more of a home, I’ve added bits and pieces that I have collected or the children have made.”
But the house also glows with more opulent pieces – crystal, candles, glass and silver – many proudly displaying the insignia AH, for the Alison Henry Collection, the result of a move to set up her own design house after the death of her first husband, David Davies. The magnificent chandeliers over the staircase were made to Alison’s design from photographs of antique originals. In the family room, one mirror is a Venetian antique and its twin is a 21st century replica.
With a portfolio of work that takes in commercial, hospitality, residential and even marine design, Alison Henry has made an international name for herself since leaving Auckland. She’s also no stranger to the pages of NZ House & Garden. Readers have had glimpses of three of her former homes: an elegant Hong Kong apartment (July 1998), a Cotswolds manor (July 2001) and a magnificent holiday house looking out over Kawau Bay, north of Auckland (January 2003).
Alison is often asked by clients – referred by word of mouth and many with second or third homes in London – if she can recreate her own home’s distinctive style for them. Flattering though that might be, she prefers to emphasise the importance of treating each design brief individually.
“If you’re good at design, you shouldn’t just roll out a formula. You have to try to understand what people are passionate about. In making a real home, you add value. The client will want to sell it at the end of the day.”
Since her 2008 marriage to Tariq and the arrival of their daughter Anna Cristina – “my good Kiwi girls abbreviated her name to AC” – Alison has scaled down her office to spend more time “on me and my family”. She now works from home with assistant Ewa Dryzner.
“Our house is finished now, so it’s more about living in it, using it. I’m not precious about any of it. Last weekend the girls and their friends were here. Olivia and three girlfriends slept in the cinema room and next morning there were 16 around the table for breakfast. It was great fun.
“I love cooking – all my New Zealand cookbooks are in the cupboard. We have lots of family parties, smart casual kitchen dinners with friends. I lay the white linen tablecloth on the [4.5m] table and use the good glasses, or my girlfriends come here for a buffet lunch…” They must love it.
My renovation high point: Our first real dinner party, with 14 seated around the white oiled oak table. The doors were open; the breeze, flowers, mood and ambience were just perfect.
The best money we ever spent was: On our six magnificent gas fireplaces, built by New Zealander Neville Stephens.
The bravest thing we did was: Use large slabs of statuary marble for the kitchen worktops; the enormous size and weight made installation difficult.
If I could do one thing differently I would: Avoid the fine silk carpet. Oak floorboards are much better with four girls and their make-up.
A well-kept secret about this area is: Chelsea farmers’ market. It has restaurants, an ice cream stand, clothing, books and a nail bar.
For more images click on the "photo gallery" link above.
Story: Sue Moody
Photographs: Brent Darby