Despite having lived in England for more than thirty years, Joel Bernstein has infused his home with an earthy sensibility that is very un-British. Sure, you’ll find classic Anglophile touches, but the clues to another life lie in his love of dusky monochromatic hues and a thread of the artisanal that runs throughout this space. It’s no surprise then to learn that Joel, a creative director in both the fashion and interior industries, was born in South Africa.
‘I don’t think about it too much but I suppose there must have been an influence,’ says Joel of his rather understated yet sophisticated style. ‘As hard as I might try to get away from it, I inevitably err towards a subdued palette punctuated by the textural layers of wood, fabric and naive collectables.’ It’s an aesthetic that has earned him much success.
After studying textiles, Joel worked as a fashion buyer and then did a seven-year stint at Liberty department store where he was head of retail concept. Since then he’s branched out on his own and ‘dabbled in various fashion and interior projects’ as a consultant.
And then there is his passion for renovating houses. Over the years, he has transformed many a dank and depressing London space. His North London home is no exception. First off, it is entirely at odds with its location, considering it’s only a mere five-minute stroll from Kilburn high street. Tucked discreetly behind a handsome Georgian house that Joel plans to renovate, it’s also set on a gargantuan 1.5 hectare plot that would be a rarity in a semirural commuter-belt town, let alone central London.
Joel first came across the property more than two years ago and was immediately attracted to its otherworldliness. ‘I loved the charm of the place – not to mention the tranquillity I felt every time I came by. It was totally seductive,’ he says. ‘And then, of course, the fact that the house looks onto a wonderfully overgrown and ridiculously huge garden with the feel of a secret garden is something I found totally irresistible.’
The garden, with its two conservatories, a plethora of established trees and a few wonderful sculptures left over from the previous owners, will be a lifetime project for Joel. ‘I’m a naturally impatient person and I have a feeling that the house and garden will help me change that since the pace is much slower here.’
‘I suppose I’m more of a frustrated artist than an interior designer,’ he muses. ‘Renovating houses is a form of expression for me, a way of getting my ideas out into the world.’ So it’s just as well that he doesn’t find renovating daunting. In fact, he enjoys the evolutionary process of working with builders and accepts that delays are part of the process, particularly when renovating old houses.
For his own house, he kept things simple. ‘You could tell that this was a creative space for the previous owners so I’ve really just cleaned things up a bit and added my own personal style to it.’ He also brought in a lot of greenery to help blur the boundaries between indoors and out.
Joel’s love of handmade and natural things is evident everywhere but most notably in the yellow chaise longue in the living area, which he upholstered himself, and in his collection of ceramics by South African ‘artist-potter’ Hylton Nel, which takes up a wall in the dining room. Then there’s his collection of textiles that gives ban informal sense of colour to the space when hung from the mezzanine landing in the bedroom.
The furniture, art and collectables throughout are a mix of old and new, things that Joel has been carrying around for a while in search of the perfect setting. And if the ease with which all his things have fitted into the space is anything to go by, it most certainly seems like he’s found it. ‘I can’t imagine that I will ever leave here,’ adds Joel. ‘I’ll make some changes in time but for now I just want to enjoy the charm of the place and soak up the energy it offers.’
Originally published in HL August 2016.