The Georgian architecture of Helen Leask’s Margate home is the perfect backdrop for her mid-century finds.
When, in 2011, architects Helen Leask and Peter Thomas booked a weekend in Margate to visit the recently opened Turner Contemporary, little did they know it would start a new chapter in their lives. ‘We were both living in London, and wanted to buy a home together,’ Helen recalls. ‘We fell for the town’s intimate scale, and a seed of an idea was planted.’
They both worked in the capital, but saw a move to the Kent coast as the chance to change their lifestyle. ‘Our work-life balance was proving unsustainable,’ admits Helen. ‘This was an opportunity to set up my own practice, while Thomas would continue to co-run his London-based firm Studio Gray by working remotely from Margate, cutting his site visits back.’
Six months after their first visit, Peter put his flat up for sale and the pair started looking in earnest, honing down their search to a historic Georgian square close to the old town centre. ‘We had stayed in a boutique bed and breakfast in the area the first time we visited and we became quite single-minded about wanting to live there,’ Peter remembers. ‘We loved the proportions and aspect of the period houses, and it is all just minutes from the beach.’
An enquiry about a particularly handsome house led the couple to its executor, a college friend of the artist owner, Aleksander Werner, who had sadly passed away. ‘There was already someone interested, so when our offer on a neighbouring property fell through, we wrote to her and were told the previous buyer had pulled out – it was fate,’ Helen recalls.
The house, which is Grade II listed, had not been touched since the 1970s and the lower ground and top floors, which had been used as art studios, were not fully habitable. The couple’s approach has been to reinstate many period features, returning the kitchen to the lower ground floor and removing a mid 20th-century rear extension in order to recreate the original opening with French doors to the garden; a second pair of double doors was reinstated at the front of the house accessing the square. The upper ground floor was restored as a double reception (the rear half of which is Helen’s office), and the cornicing and ceiling roses were replaced with designs more in harmony with the room’s age. On the first floor, Helen and Peter created their master suite, while the second level houses a guest bedroom, bathroom and utility. The top floor, which was opened to the pitch of the roof, has a further bedroom and Thomas’ office.
Having two architects on a project can be fraught with tensions, but the couple insist all the decisions were unanimous. ‘We had formed quite strong ideas about what we wanted,’ admits Helen, who cites experimental post-war houses in California as their inspiration, most notably the for the Moderniststyle kitchen and wardrobes that were handmade by a joiner. ‘It was great that we were able to use a fantastic local contractor and tradesmen,’ she adds.
The lower ground floor had rising damp and had to be stripped to its chalk bed in order to install a breathable floor construction; it was then laid with grey-hued Danish Petersen bricks. ‘These were more slender than English styles,’ notes Peter. On the levels above, the old carpets were lifted to reveal the wood floorboards, which were sanded and stained.
Colours have been used to bring in warmth, and include an enveloping near-black in the kitchendining room, and a comforting sage in the reception. ‘We love the Danish concept of hygge, which roughly translates as cosiness,’ Helen explains, adding, ‘This is a home we want people to relax in.’ Continuing the Nordic theme, the couple’s possessions are primarily Scandinavian and include a number of fine mid-century pieces. ‘Georgian architecture is quite pared back, with handsomely proportioned, well-lit rooms that provide a great canvas for this style of furniture,’ says Peter. Local vintage shops are regular haunts, and ensure the interiors are always evolving.
They have also included things that belonged to the late owner, including a plan chest, two Sixties Danish sofas and one of his paintings, which hangs above the sideboard in the dining room, beautifully offset by the dark walls. ‘It was important for us to keep some of Werner’s work here,’ Helen explains.
Reflecting on leaving London, the couple admit it was a leap of faith. ‘But it was a no-brainer,’ she affirms. ‘We’ve received a wonderful welcome.’
Photography: Rachel Smith