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Above the clouds: lighting up an imposing London home | Life and style

Step into the study in Della Burnside’s five-storey home and a clementine corner sofa and matching partition wall, a crimson rug and poof and an exuberant pink feather flapper girl lamp vie for your attention. “The colours all over the house are shocking and bright,” says Burnside. “They suit my personality better than my old house, which was more restrained.” That was a late-Victorian property, also in Clerkenwell, central London, and it was “dark, with lots of wood panelling and traditional furniture”.

Fog House, which she bought in 2016, gets its name from the sandblasted wall of glass on the top floor of the converted warehouse. Once occupied by Marc Quinn, the YBA who made a sculpture of his head out of his own frozen blood, the building has itself been given fresh blood, courtesy of leading architect Sir David Adjaye, who added a glass-clad parapet and a cantilevered glazed extension on the back.

“I tell visitors to look for the house that looks like a prison,” says Burnside, an investor and solicitor. It prepares them for the stark black exterior with frosted windows. Cross the threshold, though, and you might think you’re in a funky library-cum-lifestyle pod. Almost an entire wall of the double-height space is lined with bookshelves that sit on a steel gantry, the titles ranging from travel to politics to old favourites from Burnside’s childhood. “I like the feel of having books in a house,” says Burnside. “You can’t beat it.” Peer over the railings and you’ll see a blob of blue, curves of steely grey, rounds of black and flashes of red and white – it’s Burnside’s home gym, the equipment bouncing off a mirrored wall.

A wall of bookshelves with books on
Case study: the library. Photograph: Taran Wilkhu/The Modern House

“This space was previously used as a lounge,” she says, “but I wanted a lounge in the light. I use th e gym every day – I’m very disciplined. I like constantly going up and down stairs, too,” she says. “It keeps me fit.” She’s less keen on the twisting plywood staircase that leads to the top floors. “Apparently it’s a very fancy design,” she laughs. “Personally, I don’t like it that much. I might quite like to paint it, I mentioned when I was looking round. There was shock and horror at that.” It’s what you get if you buy through the design-led estate agency The Modern House, as Burnside did.

Each gleaming floor is open plan, with colour functioning as a focal point or room divider – sometimes both. In the showstopper top floor, glazed on three sides and home to the kitchen, dining, living area and roof terrace, purple is the eye candy. It is a hand-me-down from Elton John, an old friend of the previous owner, Janet Street-Porter, who commissioned David Adjaye to create Fog House. The story goes that the broadcaster was at Rocketman’s for dinner, too skint, mid-renovations, to have put in a kitchen of her own. The star had a boxed-up set of kitchen units that his new chef didn’t like, apparently, and handed them over. So here they are, more than 15 years later, resplendent on a poured concrete floor.

“I love it up here,” says Burnside, who divides her time between Clerkenwell and her partner’s Gloucestershire home. “David designed the whole place so that you have an amazing view of St James’s Church from every window. I am a spiritual person but it’s the space between Fog House and the church that I particularly love. To have a park in the foreground and this large, imposing church is really lovely. Plus, I don’t need a clock in the house because wherever I am I can see the one on the church tower.”

Della Burnside in her kitchen with purple units
Cupboard love: the purple kitchen is a hand-me-down from Elton John, a friend of the previous owner, Janet Street-Porter. Photograph: Taran Wilkhu/The Modern House

But no one can see her. “People can’t look in from the street or even from the park,” says Burnside, “and the top balcony is not overlooked.” While she has thrown parties up here, she’s more often tending to her plants. “They make a house, and I wanted to make this one more homely than it had been previously. They take a lot of watering though – it’s a sun-trap up here.” There are cacti everywhere – in the stairwell, on the shelves, in the kitchen – some of them so big and cartoon-perfect they look like props from a western. “They absolutely thrive up on the top floor, though I’ve had to experiment with all the plants. I’ve got a lemon tree on the terrace, which I bring in in the winter.”

Most homeowners stamp their identity on a property, but for Burnside the existing colour schemes served as a welcome springboard for a new way of living. “I decided to work with them,” she says. “You have to – otherwise you’d have to rip everything out. I like the fact they have forced me to be bolder in my own design choices. I ditched all my old furniture and furnished the house around the colours that were here. I inherited pretty much all of them, and I embraced them.” She bought the orange wing chair that overlooks the roof terrace from Street-Porter, but the art is her own. Some of it, including the feather lamp, are on loan from newly formed furniture and art rental sharing platform Harth. Renting means you can take risks, says Burnside, an investor in this sharing economy initiative.

A clementine corner sofa, matching partition wall and pink feather lamp
Colour fest: a clementine corner sofa, matching partition wall and pink feather lamp vie for your attention in the study. Photograph: Taran Wilkhu/The Modern House

In the bedroom, a wall of sky blue built-in wardrobes runs the length of one wall and the space is divided by a bright mint green floating wall. Her bed, which looks on to the park, is attached to one side of it. A roll-top bath holds court on the other side. A keen art collector, Burnside has an Antony Gormley painting in her bedroom and another of a mother and daughter by American artist Kim English. “I bought it in Martha’s Vineyard, my favourite place outside the UK,” says Burnside. “I love original art.”

Percy the Dalmatian and Arthur the whippet share her bedroom when she is in London – as do her partner’s two Labradors when they are all down for an urban break. But for Burnside, the Great Wen is kept at bay. “What I love about this house is that you don’t feel like you are right in the centre of town – I am always facing light and open spaces.”

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