As they are the founders of the architectural salvage and design company Retrouvius, it is appropriate that Adam Hills and Maria Speake have reclaimed for their own young family the apartment where Hills grew up. The top-floor flat, built in 1973 by Hills’s architect father, Nicholas, is a classic Modernist design perching among the chimney-pots of an Edwardian mansion block in central London.
Although his parents divorced in 1982, Hills’s mother, Ann, lived in the apartment until her death 15 years later. Hills and Speake never thought that they would live here permanently. ‘We moved in for a few weeks in 1997 and just stayed,’ Hills says. ‘Nothing had been done to the property since the 1970s.’ Needing to accommodate two young children, Marcus and Hal, now eight and six, and a quantity of mainly Victorian furniture inherited from Hills’s grandfather, the couple have learnt to adapt their own historically inspired aesthetic to a modern architectural space. They did this by using colour and texture to link diverse forms and styles: in the living-room is a vintage rug and tapestry, and the kitchen walls are clad in teak strip flooring. This, too, seems fitting since the property was, as Speake says, ‘originally designed for what Modernism was meant to be about – flexibility and the possibility of change’.
At the heart of these changes lies the couple’s passion for re-using old materials in the boldest ways. Teak floorboards from an army barracks and teak laboratory units give the kitchen a mellow glow; a shower room neatly built into a dormer’s dead space is clad in polished fossil limestone salvaged from Heathrow’s Terminal 2 concourse. ‘Our motivation is basically about saving things,’ Hills says. ‘So much architectural material is destroyed. Wonderful things are disappearing right under our noses.’
The kitchen (DEBBI TRELOAR)
Reclamation is not, however, a job for the faint-hearted. Retrouvius has rescued 50 tons of cast iron from the old London Patent Office and bought the entire granite facade of the World Trade Centre in Canary Wharf. The Westmorland green slate cladding an eight-storey office block in Blackfriars was also salvaged. No wonder architects adore the company. Meanwhile the design side of the business (they both studied architecture at the Glasgow School of Art), run by Speake, puts salvaged materials into a modern context in clients’ homes. ‘You don’t always need to make a big statement – it’s about using what feels appropriate,’ she says.
‘We moved to London at a time when retro-modern furniture wasuddenly becoming popular,’ Hills says. ‘In Glasgow our work had all been about restoring old buildings, but in London we became interested in materials and the possibility of their re-use in a modern context.’ Twelve of their interior design projects are featured in Hills and Speake’s first book, Reclaiming Style, published this month, which takes readers on a visual journey from demolition yards to stylish, environmentally friendly homes.
Their own home remains true to Retrouvius principles. Take the carpet, which Hills’s father designed for the apartment in the 1970s. ‘When Gavin Stamp, our history of architecture professor at Glasgow, heard we were moving into the flat he said, “You must not get rid of that carpet,”’ Speake says. ‘It turned out he had known Adam’s father and visited the flat in the late 1970s. I’m grateful now that he made us live with it and learn to be sensitive to what already exists.’
The bold carpet designed for the flat by Adam Hill’s architect father in the 1970s (DEBBI TRELOAR)
And whether that’s a weathered enamel-shaded lamp, sun-bleached curtain linings acquired from a grand old house or the vintage copper-light windows now adorning the Retrouvius shop front in north London, Hills and Speake are determined to give these things a new life. ‘The beauty lies in their faults and imperfections,’ Speake says. ‘Leaving heritage and conservation issues aside, we have found that independent-minded people really warm to this look.’