Modernist Love: Elegant 1930s Living in the Isokon Building | Houses


NOTe not everyone wanted Tom Broughton to buy the flat he now lives in. The tenant who was there when he saw him three years ago said, “You don’t want to live here. It’s cold. It’s musty. You cannot hang pictures. The Broughton surveyor “strongly recommended” that he not proceed with the purchase. And her parents were equally baffled: “How much do you spend on a one-bedroom apartment, old council?” But Broughton persisted. “I couldn’t not,” he says.

The apartment is on the fifth floor of the Isokon building, a sculptural concrete behemoth in north London that is considered a modernist masterpiece. Design-led estate agency The Modern House called it “one of London’s most important penthouses”. Broughton needed no convincing. He had spent more than a decade obsessing over the building, its history, its contents, and the life lived there.

Tom Broughton in his penthouse apartment. Photograph: Michael Franke/The Guardian

It was designed by the founders of design firm Isokon – husband and wife Jack and Molly Pritchard and architect Wells Coates – to create a model for modern city living. The block of 34 apartments was completed in 1934 and marketed as all-inclusive serviced apartments. (Broughton shows me an old ad for apartments that offers “A full house service: shoe cleaning, window cleaning, all done for you, meals in the apartment or at the club.”)

The development has attracted artists, architects and writers (Agatha Christie once lived here). The Pritchards also welcomed influential émigrés, including Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius; László Maholy-Nagy, the Hungarian painter, teacher and photographer; and modernist furniture designer Marcel Breuer. All of these are named on the building’s English Heritage blue plaque.

Residents relaxed in the Isobar restaurant on the ground floor – a club open to tenants and their guests (Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Piet Mondrian were regulars.) Leftist intellectuals could enjoy a meal of three-course meal prepared by Philip Harben, now recognized as the first celebrity chef on television. A sample menu reads: “vegetable soup, boiled cod and egg sauce, port type jellies (just like that).” Residents could also hoist their dinner directly into their apartment via a mute server.

But the party did not last. The building was sold to New Statesman magazine in the late 1960s and to Camden Council in 1972. Broughton first saw the block 20 years ago when he was new to London from his hometown of Leicester, and at that time he was in a terrible state. . Eventually, in 2002, it was sold to a housing corporation, then sensitively restored by Avanti Architects in 2004. Broughton – founder of eyewear company Cubits – set up an alert on Rightmove and bided its time…

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The front door to the Broughton penthouse, where the Pritchards themselves lived, is made of Plymax (copper plywood). As Broughton points out, the couple strayed from their ideals by having, essentially, a golden front door in their own apartment. They intended to live in one of the more “minimal” units, but, finding it too cramped, commandeered the communal roof terrace and built a penthouse.

The very compact kitchen of the apartment
A few modern downsides… the kitchen. Photograph: Michael Franke/The Guardian

Inside, it is a small, perfectly preserved plywood box. There is a tiny equipped kitchen – U-shaped, built for one person (the mute waiter has left) and a basic bathroom, with shower over the bath and an original glass door. A spartan paneled bedroom has a bed, two stools and the original built-in wardrobe. At the bottom is the main spacea generous living and dining room which opens onto a private terrace three times larger than the apartment.

Many original elements remain. The plywood panels are intact and have aged to a shiny golden brown; Broughton uses the same sock rack and trouser rack as Jack Pritchard; the saloon’s tempered glass shelves have been in place since 1934. Broughton has added his own collection of plywood furniture, most of which is Isokon-connected. There are three Penguin Donkey bookcases designed by Egon Riss for Isokon in collaboration with Penguin; two Marcel Breuer lounge chairs designed to “give scientific relaxation to every part of the body”. The sofa is by Robin Day, a friend of Jack and Molly, and the table and chairs are by Alvar Aalto, a Finnish furniture designer Jack visited in the 1920s.

One of Broughton's Gerald Summers tea carts.
One of Broughton’s Gerald Summers tea carts. Photograph: Michael Franke/The Guardian

Two of Broughton’s favorite possessions are 1930s tea carts designed by Gerald Summers. A third, much rarer design is found in the V&A. Wistfully, Broughton shows me a picture of it on his phone. I ask does the Grade I listed apartment feel like home, or does it feel like living in the revered past? A century after the birth of modernism, are the ideals cumulative? “You have to make a lot of concessions,” he admits. “A lot of people want comfort and convenience. Here, there is no elevator, you have to go down five floors to take out the trash. The windows are single-glazed, so it’s not the warmest apartment in the world, and the kitchen is so small there’s no room for a dishwasher or freezer. But these are only small ways in which you must change your life.

Broughton felt a weight of responsibility when he moved in. Not knowing how to maintain his “plywood box”, he sought the advice of designer and furniture restorer Nick Goldfinger – grandson of architect Ernö Goldfinger. He encouraged Broughton to apply Danish oil to the woodwork, which he dutifully did for two weeks, to give the panels a renewed shine. Broughton also repaired the flat roof, tinkered with the original underfloor heating and repainted the ceiling in regulation off-white. “I like the fact that we can’t really do anything else. It’s just a matter of choosing the furniture and living in it.

Isokon tea trolleys and bookcases remain a direct source of inspiration. “In the 1930s, they weren’t pieces that filled people with a huge amount of excitement, but actually that in itself is kind of a beautiful design challenge,” he says. “It’s the same with glasses. For most people, this is a functional item. But a good design shows that they can still be beautiful and interesting.

the Isokon Gallerytelling the story of the building, is open Saturday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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