With its boxy, geometric lines and bold use of colour, aficionados of international architecture might trace the inspiration for this English country house to that of the Dutch De Stijl movement or the German Bauhaus aesthetic, both highly regarded modernist movements that were prominent in the early 1900s. So it’s hard to believe that almost a hundred years later – in the late 1990s – this incredible contemporary home was something of a pariah in the Essex village of Wivenhoe, inciting rancour and outrage in equal measure from neighbours and villagers who saw it as nothing more than a hideous eyesore.
To be fair the house was not designed to fit in or court favour with its neighbours, a tough prospect at the best of times in a conservation village such as Wivenhoe. Designed by award-winning British architect Simon Conder for a Dutch couple with a passion for modern architecture and a penchant for perfection, it was built as a retirement home for them on what was the tennis court and vegetable garden of their existing property. Sadly, that dream was cut short when they were both tragically killed in a plane he was piloting and the house was put on the market.
By the time South African-born Graeme Roberts, a decorator and design consultant, who lives between South Africa and England, saw the house advertised in a local supermarket, it had been on the market for a year. Intrigued by ‘it’s incredible contemporary design’, Graeme and his late partner, the acclaimed South African artist Deryck Healey, took a drive out to view it. ‘I immediately loved it but it took another six months before I clinched the deal,’ recalls Graeme.
‘I’d lived in a Queen Anne rectory for 20 years previously and so the flat-roofed, asymmetrical design offered a wonderful opportunity to open myself up to not only a new aesthetic but to the lifestyle that came with it,’ recalls Graeme, who got rid of all the antiques he’d acquired over the years, bar one table, and filled the house with a whole new collection of contemporary pieces, ‘The house seemed to demand it, it was built with such care and pride, and I wanted to honour that.’
Laid out over two floors, the house has two en-suite bedrooms (one on each floor), a generous open-plan living, kitchen and entertaining area, a sun lounge, a yoga studio and a gym. The lower level is below ground, concealed beneath the deck. In the original design it was meant to just be a cellar but the architect cleverly built it one metre higher so that the space functions as another part of the house with a library and storage space.
While the exterior of the house is exactly as it was when Graeme bought it, the interiors have been tweaked with a few structural changes to bring it up to date. ‘In front of the house, the main living room had a wall running down the middle that we knocked down and made into a whole new kitchen, while a small art studio at the back of the house with double volume height and wonderful light opened up,’ explains Graeme. The bathrooms were also modernised.
‘When I bought the house it was hemmed in by an imposing hedge of evergreen cypress leylandia that the previous owner no doubt planted to appease the neighbours,’ says Graeme. The size of the property was much smaller then too and literally stopped where the pool ends. Since then the hedge has come down and Graeme bought the field in front which has opened up the home’s view to the river to spectacular effect.
‘The original garden was nothing more than a slab of concrete and so I put a lot of work into digging up the concrete and planting a garden,’ says Graeme, who was inspired by British garden designer and plantswoman Beth Chatto, whose nursery is in the neighbouring village. Another great inspiration was Dutch garden designer Pete Oudolf, now best known for planting the 2.8kms of open woodland, prairie and meadow plantings on the High Line in New York. Graeme’s main criteria, considering that he travels a lot and has to spend a certain amount of time out of the UK, was that he wanted to create a waterwise garden that would suit the sandy soil. ‘I planted the garden in about 2006 and I honestly haven’t had to put anything else in it since which is remarkable.’
Although he was born in South Africa and still has a house here, Graeme loves being in England. ‘The house has a lot do with that,’ he adds. ‘My time spent here tends to revolve around the garden.’ And although it’s not your average English country garden, it’s one that works perfectly with the style of the house. ‘When I’m here I’m constantly in the garden, it’s really where I feel most at home.’
This article was originally published in HL’s Jan/Feb 2017 issue.