Words: Jane Audas,
writer, curator and digital producer
John Harris and Camilla Nicholls moved into their rental Barbican flat in the City of London at Easter. But already it looks, and feels, like a home. Their move – and decorating the flat – has been hurried along by circumstance.
Barbican flats are undeniably a bit of a thing. The architecture of the whole estate is an acquired taste. Uncompromising, unusual and perhaps a bit brutal for some tastes. Camilla has been a resident here for nearly 20 years. It suits her. When she and John were looking for their first home together (he came to her from Brighton where he’d lived for many years) they decided to move into a new, to them, Barbican flat: “We really wanted a blank sheet. Otherwise, John would have been squeezed into my flat and my way of living and we felt that wasn’t right.”
Camilla works as a psychotherapist. John was in training to be one too, but things changed when he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) in late 2019. Although now retired due to his ill-health, John previously worked as a business consultant in learning and education and was a semi-professional jazz musician before re-training in psychotherapy. It was, he says, a “great, great shame” that the MND forced him to give it up. He is now writing. About getting to this point in his life. About the experiences he is going through now.
John and Camilla had drawn (not quite on the back of an envelope) a very detailed sketch of how they imagined their shelving system would look. It was complete with plants in-amongst the books, just as they are in the finished system. They visited the Vitsœ shop on Marylebone Lane to see things for themselves and to finalise the design. This led to a few changes with John’s mobility in mind.
On the TV wall, an up-and-over cabinet (which John might have struggled to grip) was changed for one with a fold-down door. And above the vinyl, a flipped 36cm shelf both houses the turntable and gives John a useful edge to grip when putting on records. On the opposite wall, the row of shelves with drawers work well, as the lip on the underside makes them easier for John to open. “We knew that John’s condition was going to develop, and it was very important that the shelving system wouldn’t become obsolete. Having things at the right height and a system that was really solid and wouldn’t wobble when John leant on it – these were things we talked about with Vitsœ planners Alistair and Robin. We knew how important music and television were going to be for us and we wanted them to be on something that not only housed them well but didn’t make us fidget.”
The shelves in John and Camilla’s flat are very much on show. The long and low interior proportions of Barbican flats seem custom-made for them. In amongst John and Camilla’s system, spaces have been left for art, trailing plants soften one corner edge, whilst smaller plants nestle in elegant contemporary ceramics along a top row of flipped shelves. The planting continues outside where a full-width balcony ‘meadow’ provides a moving picture, positioned at just the right height for them to watch the swishing grasses and flowers from the comfort of the sofa. The plants give a good shadow show, too, across the large glass window in the bedroom. The balcony gives way to impressive views of 88 Wood Street, designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership, now spookily quiet in lockdown.
John and Camilla have, of course, books on their shelves but those books change. John has been re-reading old favourites, which is a real treat, he says. The shelves also hold ‘some’ of John’s record collection, all tidily in clear plastic sleeves to protect their covers – a sure sign there is an audiophile in the house. Their Rega turntable happily announces itself with its bright yolk yellow wool turntable mat. They enjoy music together – a lot. From Michael Kiwanuka and Brittany Howard, to Billie Holiday and Brad Mehldau. “Very often in the mornings John will put on Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder. Which - especially if it is sunny - gets the day off to a fine start.” And both have developed an obsession with Scandinavian Noir television series, revelling in the crime and punishment played out in beautiful locations. They also enjoy French Noir television. Almost all Noir television, in fact.
Although John and Camilla found each other, in a romantic sense, relatively late in life, they have known each other (off and on) for a lot longer. They first met when they were at college together in the late 1970s, both studying for a joint BA Hons in English Literature and European Thought and Literature. Over the years, they kept in touch through Christmas cards. When a striking Andy Warhol card arrived conspicuously late one February, it sparked Camilla’s interest. John was a widower with 4 children, based in Brighton and they reconnected there one afternoon over lots of good food and talk. “And we have been enjoying them both ever since.” They married in 2017.
When it came to finding somewhere permanent to live together, the Barbican made a lot of sense. The flats are pretty accessible, says John, he is able to make his way around the estate with its multiple lifts and sloping walkways. They “did as much as they could” to find John a good-looking Rollator walking frame and a wheelchair for longer ambles. Scandinavian aid design outshone all the others.
Colours in this flat really matter. Their palette came from a Michael Stokoe artwork they own. Camilla explains: “For our wedding anniversary we went to stay at The George hotel in Rye. There was a lot of Michael’s work in there and we loved it. I tracked one down and gave it to John as a present.” It is an abstract composition of squares and circles: “We took the palette for our flat from that,” says John, “We really wanted it to be warm. I often wear blue, so the blue in the picture represents us. We took the rest of the colours for the furniture.” They are obviously delighted with the way their shelves allow them to play out their chosen colour story. As Camillia explains: “The system is very beautiful in its own right, handsome in its own right. But it doesn’t shout.”
Most of their other furniture is Scandinavian; chosen for its warmth, texture and, where upholstered, for its colour. There is a forest green Swedese Lamino Chair that came from John’s Brighton home. Underneath the TV a line of colourful Muuto baskets pick up the turntable colour, which in turn picks up its colour from the Stokoe. They have a few Muuto Leaf lamps, again in Stokoe colours - which are good because “the switch is so easy for John.” On the British design front, they have an Ercol sofa (layered with Eleanor Pritchard blankets) and an Unto This Last plywood dining table and chairs, both of which play nicely with their Scandinavian furniture.
There isn’t much work or buying left to do for the flat. A Wolfgang Tillman’s print (a ‘reward’ they earned after donating to the Art Fund’s Saving Prospect Cottage campaign) came with extremely detailed instructions for framing, so that will go up next. The smaller things that change from day to day are John’s collection of scents: “I’m healthy and happy apart from the MND. My senses are all intact and so we have lots of smelly things around the flat.” Eucalyptus candles are a favourite, as is a lemon cologne that reminds John of when he lived and worked in Istanbul for several years, where lemon was a lovely, ubiquitous smell. Textures are important for John, too. From the smooth rubber floor fitted throughout the flat (less tripping) to the Stokoe-colour co-ordinated wool upholstery throughout. The ceramics are all textured too, either in their glazing or in their surface patterns.
“When you are in a small space everything is important,” Camilla says, looking around at all the furniture, fixtures and fittings that she and John have carefully chosen together. One’s surroundings – the things you touch, smell, sit on and drink tea out of – really take on added importance when your life, for whatever reason, becomes less external facing. This is something everyone has been dealing with, in some small way, during lockdown. Camilla reflects: “We were anticipating our life was going to be more confined and we wanted our flat to be lovely, beautiful. Vitsœ was just perfect for us, it became the spine for everything else we did.” This calming, colourful, comfortable and delicious smelling flat has become John and Camilla’s chosen retreat, as they cope with John’s disease and treasure their time together. And they have furnished it with love; both literally and figuratively.