Inside an Eclectic London Flat Designed by David Netto Full of Charm and Visual Trickery

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Ask David Netto about the ground-floor maisonette in London that belongs to close friends and he’s unforgiving. “Queen Anne architecture of the 1880s, that whole Gilbert and Sullivan thing, depresses the hell out of me,” the interior decorator says. The floor plan of the terrace house, a few blocks from Kensington Palace, shocked him: a central hall measuring more than 100 feet long and flanked by high-ceilinged square rooms, one side opening to a shared garden, the other facing the street. “It made me think of being in a hospital corridor during World War I and looking for your wounded son,” he observes. Despite pleading with the expat Americans not to go through with the purchase, “I was powerless to stop them,” Netto admits, throwing up his hands. “They know their own minds.” The wife concurs, devilishly noting this is the fourth appalling residence they’ve handed over: “I like to challenge him.”

Seeing the two in conversation is pure Nick and Nora Charles: The dialogue is sharp but affectionate, the opinions gently scalding, and the teasing expertly targeted. Each knows precisely which button to push, and properties with aesthetic drawbacks seem to be a particularly touchy subject. Netto disliked the couple’s Hamptons beach house, too, largely on the grounds of its McMansion immensity—“He was aghast,” the wife says with a laugh—but he managed to give it coziness as well as soul. Gut reactions aside, the designer allows that once he accepts the drawbacks, troublesome houses “always end well.” At least, that seems to be the case when he’s in charge.

A colorful series of prints by John Baldessari brightens a corner of the living room. (© 2021 Broomberg & Chanarin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Daniel Gordon.)

Working on the apartment with a favorite ally, the low-profile architect Simon Templeton—whose projects include historic properties for high-profile Brits—Netto approached the London flat’s lofty spine by imagining what the Italian modernist Gio Ponti might have done with a similarly featureless passage in a Venetian palazzo. “It had to become a completely theatrical space,” he says. Today it’s just that, transformed into a cabinet of curiosities given structure by spatial trickery. “I wanted to divide the space into something you can digest visually,” Netto explains of his brilliant decision to segment the space into a rhythmic parade of bite-size set pieces. White beams and crown moldings organize the ceiling while quartersawn oak wainscot, inspired by photographs of 1970s boats, panels the walls, the latter hosting vintage Italian sconces. Arrangements of choice flotsam and jetsam—at the far end of the hallway stands a grandly scaled Egyptian Revival console backed by a wall-spanning digital C-print by Idris Khan—stop visitors in their tracks for closer examination. One can stroll past 18th-century Northern Italian armchairs dressed in olive velvet, beefy antique Minton jardinieres, a welded-steel Julian Mayor chair that resembles a spiderweb, and arresting art and photography by the likes of William Klein and Marco Breuer. “I wanted the effect of a family collection in a palazzo,” Netto says. “That’s the mission of the room.” To amplify that script, he had hoped to install a terrazzo floor, but structural concerns led to him to pave the space with wide English oak planks instead, as bare as the day they were milled.

Black marble clads the guest-bath walls.

©simonupton

A Swiss railway clock keeps time in the kitchen, where the walls are clad in tile from Exquisite surfaces.

©simonupton

The rooms on either side of this theatrical sweep are a continuation of the gallery’s mixmaster aesthetic, Templeton says, from drawing room to bedrooms to music room. (The couple and their 14-year-old son are hobby musicians, the guys on guitars, the wife, who also sings, on piano. “It’s pretty wholesome,” she explains, noting that they love to perform when guests drop by for dinner.) Imagine interiors assembled by the coolest art-history professor you never had or a freewheelingly subversive museum curator. “Every room has to be a good room, even a child’s bath: It’s all about demolishing hierarchies,” Netto says of the furnishings that he and the clients assembled and placed everywhere. Think giant 1960s gelatin silver-print portraits by Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, a Tulip table paired with Scarpa chairs, a gutsy chimneypiece channeling Thomas Hope set against a mirrored wall, organic bits of abstract sculpture, custom-made sofas with a seraglio air, and a healthy amount of what Netto calls “good English homegrown stuff,” like the reception room’s rug. “I wanted to do something Edwardian in style, like the carpets on the Titanic,” the designer says. Add to all that a casual way with placement—pictures, for instance, are propped against windows and walls, largely because, the wife says, “It’s wonderful to not have to commit”—and you’ve got an apartment that, to architect Templeton’s mind, looks like nothing else in London. “A bad designer will make you something pretty,” the wife explains, “a great designer will challenge you.”

Though treasures of all times, periods, and materials surround her, she hastens to add that she does not consider herself a collector. “To be a collector, you need a focus, and I don’t have one,” she, once an aspiring museum curator, says. “I have serial obsessions. You just go down a rabbit hole and emerge later.” Netto has a magpie mindset, too, though he’s much better at arranging things than she is, she admits. “When David does an installation, he’s like a docent; he unveils it with a narrative that nobody else can match. Plus, he’s super fun. I wish I had an unlimited number of houses and could do them with him.”



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