Classic Austin Vernon mid-century home

With a love of mid-century design and architecture, Helena Rivera found her natural style in this Fifties home. Photographs Rachael Smith

Mid-century home
Published: January 26th, 2022 at 11:00 am
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'We really wanted a change from the area’s Victorian houses,’ says architect Helena Rivera of the sleek mid-century home she shares with her husband, Hernando Alvarez, and their sons, Teo and Otto. ‘The rooms in Victorian houses can feel quite closed off from each other – that era’s architecture was all about privacy and closed doors rather than openness.’

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The same cannot be said of the couple’s three-bedroom house in Dulwich, south London, which clearly sprang from a very different mindset. No space has been wasted on a long, dark entrance hall. Instead, good-sized, light-filled rooms open off a central living room on the ground floor, while upstairs, a square landing creates a similarly generous sense of space.

Helena and Hernando were immediately taken by the seamless layout. ‘I loved how you walk straight into the shared areas,’ Helena recalls. It was exactly what they had been looking for and it felt like a perfect fit, not least because they had an eye for mid-century design and already owned a Saarinen coffee table and two Penguin armchairs by Theo Ruth.

The house is part of an iconic estate, built in 1959 by Austin Vernon & Partners to provide well-designed, affordable housing on what was then the edge of London. Given its heritage, the couple didn’t want to alter the structure of the house: ‘When you find a good example of Fifties design, you want to take care of it, not change it,’ Helena believes.

However, she could see that a few small design tweaks would improve it, while still honouring the original architecture. The first was reinstating the window seat in the living room. To do this, Helena went back to the original 1959 drawings and discovered that what had been used as a deep window sill for plants was marked as a day bed. ‘It’s a sunny spot with a view of the garden, so it makes sense,’ says Helena, who had the new seat upholstered in orange wool for a late Fifties, early Sixties feel.

She also designed a screen made from sections of buffed and polished black walnut, which looks every inch an original feature. It was inspired by a structure that once flanked the porch, but had long since disappeared. Fortunately, a neighbouring house still had theirs intact, which gave Helena the starting point for her design.

The screen works as a subtle divider between the hallway and the living room. ‘As you move further into the seating area, your angle changes and the panels make a more solid screen,’ Helena explains. The bold paint shade they chose for the feature wall completed the Sixties feel. ‘I’d never have a monochrome home,’ says Helena. ‘Colour is just more interesting and uplifting.’

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Paintings, posters and offbeat finds, gathered over the years, are displayed around the house, ensuring that it feels like a home rather than a mid-century museum. Helena has a collection of vintage Colombian bus route signs, which she tracked down in a depot in downtown Bogotá. ‘The garage boss couldn’t see why I’d want them, but he was open to my offer,’ she says.

The set of vintage Russian posters in the kitchen turned up in the loft of their previous home. ‘They’re from a series of 32,’ explains Helena. ‘The owner travelled a lot in Russia. Maybe he took his favourites, but we love these as they are less well known.’

A huge 1909 map of Great Britain hangs in the dining area. Bizarrely, it once hung in Hernando’s primary school in 1970s Colombia. His brother went on to become a teacher at their old school and, when the map was finally deemed obsolete, he rolled it up and sent it to Hernando in London.

A final item that feels particularly personal is tucked away in a frame in the corner. It displays two sheets ripped from a reporter’s notebook. When Hernando was just starting out in newspapers, he attended a workshop by Gabriel García Márquez, set up to encourage new journalism in Latin America.

‘On the last day, I plucked up the courage to ask Márquez for some advice,’ remembers Hernando. ‘He invited me to lunch – which continued into the night. Those pages are his scribbled list of the literary classics every aspiring writer should read.’

With personal collections at every turn, this is a home with a fine design heritage. ‘We decorated this house in a way that is sympathetic to its era,’ says Helena. ‘But I also wanted to add touches that make it our own home.’

The sitting room

The floating shelving system by Vitsoe enhances the sense of space in the sitting room. ‘Because it’s wall-hung, you see more floor, which makes the room feel bigger,’ says Helena.

Mid-century home

The reinstated window seat allows light to flood the space.

Mid-century home

The dining area

In the dining area, vintage Ercol chairs are arranged around a G Plan table. The ceiling lights are by Secto Design, available at Skandium. Hanging above the sideboard is a limited-edition print by Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei.

Mid-century home

Fitting neatly under the stairs, the mid-century drinks cabinet came from a vintage shop in Crystal Palace. The painting on the left and the sculpture in front of it are by Graciela Ruiz. On the trunk, the old bus route sign came from Bogotá.

Mid-century home

The kitchen

The bold Russian posters add colour to the monochrome kitchen. ‘The previous owners bought the Boffi units on Gumtree,’ says Helena. ‘They had come from a house in Notting Hill and hadn’t even been taken out of their wrapping.’

Mid-century home

The bedroom

In the couple’s bedroom, a throw by Edia Suarez is a patchwork of Bute fabrics and scraps of Miu Miu material, left over from interior design work carried out by Helena’s architects practice. The life paintings are by friends. The chest is vintage Heal’s.

Mid-century home
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Artworks by Catalina Ortiz remind the couple of their families. ‘Hernando’s grandfather always had a transistor radio like this by his bedside and my grandmother had a bible, so they felt very fitting,’ says Helena.

Mid-century home
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