Smita Patel, a documentary maker for BBC Radio, lives in a beautiful double-fronted late Victorian house in Peckham, near Nunhead Green. It is a masterclass in calming neutral tones and a minimalist approach to living in a Victorian space. We caught up with Smita to find out more about her home.
What do you know about the history of your house?
The house is called Elm Cottages. The story goes that there was an asylum nearby and the manager built this house for himself in 1870, and the two detached houses on either side for the asylum supervisors, so my house is one of a kind on a very long road. I bought the house from Roz, co-owner of Review, the Peckham bookshop, and Roy Middleton, a master cabinet maker. I saw the house on a sunny October day and made an offer without seeing the inside, just viewing the garden was enough to know I wanted it! I'd been looking for a house for over 10 years and within seconds this felt like home and Roz and Roy have become good friends. They left the house in such good structural condition that I feel I owe it to them to maintain the beauty of the house and garden. I was determined not to knock through rooms or extend out or up. It is stunning just as it is so I've simply pared it back letting the original features – of which there are many – speak for themselves.
How long have you lived in your home for?
Since October 2012 and it’s been bliss, I can't imagine living anywhere else in London! I love Peckham and at weekends I hardly venture beyond it, it has everything you need – green open spaces, galleries, great cafes and restaurants, cheap cinema and shops catering for my Indian cooking. The only down side is the litter, which is a big bugbear.
Did you design each space in its entirety, or have they has the interior evolved over time?
As an entirety! I knew what I wanted – simplicity, no clutter, lots of light. I pared back everything, put in reclaimed radiators, painted everything one simple colour and then added a few lovely paintings and vintage furniture, which I had collected over years. I also visited Kempton Antiques Market, a favourite haunt, to pick up the odd vintage beauty – such as glass, old mirrors, linen and zinc garden pots.
Have you consciously balanced the need for practicality and everyday life with aesthetic choices?
I'm a believer in living with only the basics, plus I live alone so it’s easy to have pale painted floor boards. I'm also not a great one for gadgets, so I have no television (I watch programmes on my laptop) and in my kitchen, I have no excess of cupboards crammed full of stuff I never use. I'm very good at living with little and everything is used and practical. Even my treasured collection of beautiful ceramics by Tomoko Abu. I use them daily, they're not just for show – I love good design married with practicality.
The palate of soft neutral and off-white shades paired with stripped wood brings a calmness to the house. Is that something that’s important to you? It also creates a lovely contrast to the gentle colour in the study at the back of the house.
I have a very busy job making current affairs radio documentaries for the BBC and work in a big, untidy open plan office, so I need a calm and uncluttered home. Colour is a great way to achieve that – or rather an off-chalk white with painted floorboards. I did think of stripping them and using lye but painting was cheaper and easier, and I wanted all the rooms to flow into each other. But the study, which is off the kitchen, overlooks the patio with zinc containers planted with a range of silver/green plants and white climbing roses. So I chose a grey/green paint colour, which reminds me of old watering cans – a weathered zinc – which helps to marry the out- and inside spaces. Plus, I wanted one room to have colour, but muted – not loud and bright. I love colour but find it hard to live with.
Your home is full of beautiful objects arranged in interesting still life displays, can you tell me about your collections and whether you play around with composition and different configurations?
Ceramics are my passion – I have a collection of pots by Sophie Cook and plates and bowls by Tomoko Abu. Plus artwork by Tom Hammick, Wilhelmina Barns, and Graham and Huw Griffith which take pride of place. I never buy anything that is simply ok, I must love it. Even if it’s a small £2 vintage green glass vase. And yes, I do move things around, especially from summer to winter.
Your house is used as a location house. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
An antiques dealer friend came to visit, and a few weeks later I got a call from a stylist friend of his asking if she could use my home for a photoshoot. The photographer asked if the house was on with a location company and if not, why not? So it went from there, and the house is now registered with JJ Locations and 1st Option. It's hired by magazines for editorial spreads and companies for advertising – from Canon to Sainsbury to magazines like Home & Gardens, and book publishers. It’s interesting to see how they change it for a shoot, it’s also a good way to pay for the upkeep of an old house!
Do you feel part of a community where you live?
Definitely, Peckham/Nunhead is a very friendly place to live; as I live alone, so that’s very important to me. Our road is very neighbourly and we pop in and out of each other’s homes a lot and help each out where we can. There are lots of initiatives which have been community-led which is great, like our new local community centre in Nunhead, food weekends and artists’ open days, to name a few. Also, my end of Peckham is still very mixed in terms of race, class and professions but that is changing fast, which is not great. Gentrification has its downside for sure.
What are your favourite SE places?
I'm a big foodie and since I moved to Peckham there has been an explosion of amazing eateries. They are all great, but my favourites are Miss Tapas, Mr Bao, Peckham Bazaar and Babette’s which has the best veggie platter ever!
I'm a big cook so I can't live without Khan’s for my bulk buying of Indian food supplies and the Pakistani-run grocery store on Bellenden Road, which has a great selection of fruit and veg. The only takeaway food I buy is from Cravings, which does lovely homemade Mexican food, and the Afghan takeaway stall down an alley opposite Peckham station, which is great value. They do lovely freshly made naan, a fab dhal and potato curry for the days I can't be bothered to cook!
Simply walking around Peckham's green spaces is lovely. Regular haunts covered most weekends with my neighbour Adam and his Battersea rescue dog Guinness are Nunhead Cemetery and my own 200ft back garden, which is my own oasis in the city. From April to October it becomes my dining room, full of friends eating homemade Indian food!
PHOTOGRAPHS: Peckham-based Ian Skelton.
Smita's house can be hired for location shoots through JJ Locations and 1st Option