Catriona Gray on Decorating A Studio

20th March 2016

Catriona Gray developed an appreciation of design early on: as a child, she was so appalled by the ugliness of the door handle in her bedroom that she plastered it in stickers in an attempt to improve it. It wasn’t a success. Twenty years later, she now edits the books section of House & Garden magazine. Her second book for House & Garden, Sixties House, has just been published by Conran Octopus. Here, she shares her tips for chic studio living.

In a world of flat-sharing, moving into a studio might seem like a strange choice, not helped by the cupboard-like properties you see listed on Rightmove. As a serial renter, I’d never considered it as an option until I started working on a series of interior-decoration books about House & Garden’s archives. In the 1950s and 1960s, studios were the place to have. Young, ambitious creatives flocked to London and rented a room that served as a space to live and work in. Each of them customised their interiors on a shoe-string, creating homes that were full of character. Bridget Riley made her studio in Earls Court entirely monochrome, Terence Conran filled his student flat full of furniture hand-crafted from tubular steel, while David Hockney enlivened his bedsit studio by cutting out trees from plywood and painting them bright green. Inspired by so many brilliant bedsit-dwellers, I found a studio in a Victorian terrace in Primrose Hill and moved in. That was nearly two years ago and I’ve loved every minute. Along the way, I learnt some lessons about how to make the most of a bedsit:

CURATE YOUR POSSESSIONS

This applies to any interior, but it’s even more essential in small spaces not to surround yourself with clutter. I’m not suggesting you channel Marie Kondo too rigorously: I’ve happily accumulated an assortment of art and antiques, while my collection of books has overflown from the shelves onto every available surface. However, my desire to live with the bare minimum of ugliness meant that I’ve thrown away many of the things that I had been mindlessly dragging about with me from flat to flat. I even got rid of my ironing board and drying rack because there wasn’t the space to store them. It does mean that my clothes are often draped over the towel rail, but that’s far better than having household equipment permanently lurking in a corner.

PAINTING THE WALLS

Tempting though it is to get carried away by the Farrow & Ball paint chart, if you’re renting it often pays to be conservative with the amount of redecorating you do – you never know how long you’ll end up staying there. If the walls are a particularly disgusting shade, there are few landlords who will object if you paint it white or a neutral colour (just check with them first). I was lucky in that the walls were already white, but the flat’s miniscule, dingy hallway looked awful. I ended up painting it in a deep emerald-blue from Emerie & Cie, and leaving the kitchen and main room white. Having a strong shot of colour in that central space really worked. Funnily enough, I subsequently learnt from Farrow & Ball’s chief colour consultant Joa Studholme that painting a hallway in a very dark colour is a common trick for creating atmosphere (her’s is in ‘Railings’).

DON’T HIDE YOUR BED

Studios only feel depressing if they’re trying to be something they’re not. To me, having a fold-up bed or a sofa-bed seems a little sad – as if you’re embarrassed by the lack of space or pretending that you don’t actually sleep there. I found it strange how practically all features on designing studios focus on concealing the bed, but it’s not conducive to comfortable living. Having spent months trying unsuccessfully to hide away my double bed, I gave up and stuck it right in the middle of the room. Immediately, the entire space looked immeasurably better. Instead of feeling like small bedsit, it now resembles very large bedroom.

TAKE SHORT CUTS

When I moved in, I needed to cover up a lot of hideous lino. The grey plasticky floorcovering gave the kitchen an institutional feel, while words can’t convey how dreadful the mottled black lino in the bathroom looked (especially when teamed with a lack of natural light and orange-grey tiles). As a tenant, I couldn’t get rid of it, so I covered the bathroom floor in self-adhesive cork tiles, which can be easily removed when I leave. The kitchen floor now has sisal matting from Crucial Trading: I laid it myself, without underlay and with no specialist equipment whatsoever – I cut the matting to size with a pair of kitchen scissors. Despite my less-than professional approach, it still looks good two years on. I wouldn’t recommend this DIY tactic for your long-term home, but if you’re renting, it’s an affordable way of transforming a space.

BUY ‘INVESTMENT’ PIECES

In a sense, renting is fantastic if you’re into interiors, as it enables you to invest purely in the decorative details as opposed to the structure. Instead of shelling out on a new kitchen, redoing the bathroom or getting your flat rewired, you can save up for more eye-catching things, such as a gorgeous quilt (Cassandra Ellis’s are beautiful) or a really good armchair (try Howe or George Sherlock). These are all things that can stay with you forever, no matter where you’re living in twenty years’ time.

Bridget Riley, pictured here in 1964 at work in her Earls Court studio that she had decorated entirely in monochrome. (Copyright: Conde Nast Publications Ltd)

David Hockney made a variety of plywood trees to enliven his minimally furnished Notting Hill studio flat, pictured in 1969. (Copyright: Conde Nast Publications Ltd)

In Catriona’s studio: a pair of paintings by Michaela Gall for The Shop Floor Project hang above an Arts & Crafts jardinere and a wicker chair from Ikea. You can just catch a glimpse of the emerald-blue paint from Emerie & Cie which was used to paint the hallway.

Above the bed hangs a painting by my mother. The cushions are in a Zoffany fabric, while the pillows behind were from John Rocha. The quilt was handmade from an assortment of textiles.

An old type tray contains my collection of odds and ends. I’ve got a magpie’s eye for old bits of broken china – as a child, I used to find them in the garden.

House & Garden Sixties House by Catriona Gray (Conran Octopus, £30) is out now. (www.octopusbooks.co.uk). Instagram: @cat.gray