When the art-world’s leaders need a cool new studio, or somewhere urban and gritty to live, they call Marta Nowicka — queen of the industrial conversion and arbiter of luxury urban living
In a city where tower blocks are rising at lightning pace, Marta Nowicka has a knack for hunting down the antithesis – the forgotten remnants of London’s industrial past. These she turns into light-filled temples for modern living.
‘I like to take something rough and gritty, then transform it into a warm and appealing environment,’ says the designer, whose style is well suited to housing sizeable installations and pieces of art, which might explain how she has created homes and studios for art-world big guns such as Karsten Schubert, Michael Landy and Gavin Turk. ‘Concrete and brick are like velvet to me.’
So don’t ask her to give your stuccoed Chelsea home in the Boltons a spruce, nor your One Hyde Park penthouse. ‘I only take on the projects I’m really interested in,’ she says. Brick factories, concrete warehouses and brutalist buildings are her conversion projects of choice, but the houses she creates are far from the loft-living clichés you might expect.
Instead there’s a richness and subtlety in their visual language, with brick and steel juxtaposed with softer textures and fabrics. ‘Purity of materials and space is essential,’ she says.
It’s a mantra that chimes with her art-world clients, who come with a certain visual rigour. Young British Artist (YBA) Michael Landy destroyed all his worldly possessions during a performance piece (Break Down) in 2001, so the Shoreditch home he shares with fellow YBA Gillian Wearing verges on the monastic. Proportion and material choices were therefore paramount.
‘Michael is the “arbiter of nothingness”, so every detail had to be perfect because there was nowhere to hide,’ Nowicka explains. Art itself is often a reference for the designer, who likes to create a narrative for her clients. For Landy’s home, she took cues from performance artist Marina Abramović’s film The Artist Is Present, imagining him as the Serbian subject, seated opposite Wearing in an open, gallery-like space.
At other times the story engages directly with the site. Nowicka’s latest venture is a rare new-build home in a wooded garden in London. Here she’s created the Rolls-Royce of ‘woodland cabins’, a three-bedroom, cedar-clad family home with a finely honed interior.
Nowicka started her practice in 2004 after selling her stake in Nowicka Stern – her joint firm with Oded Stern-Meiraz – but she has no interest in global domination. Instead she prefers to keep her studio small and agile, enabling her to exert the same exacting standards on every home. ‘Design is such a personal thing that it’s vital to me to keep a one-to-one relationship with each client.’
That client is often herself, which only ups her level of precision. Since 2004, she has steadily been buying up historic treasures in London and beyond, transforming them, then renting them out on short- and long-term leases. Next year they will become part of the new development arm of her business, named Dom (which means ‘home’ in Polish – while Nowicka was born in England her parents are both from Poland ).
All this activity is overseen from her studio on the ground floor of her home off Old Street: another warehouse conversion with a difference. Nowicka crowned the 19th-century structure – stripped back to its brick fabric – with a zinc-clad glass box, offering cinematic views over London rooftops and St Luke’s Church.
‘I like to take people on a journey when I design a space, creating a procession through a building to a final destination,’ she says. ‘In this case it’s the tranquil top floor, with its beautiful views, but it could also be a piece of art.’ Nowicka’s home is a robust yet refined backdrop to her busy life. That’s part of the appeal of industrial buildings for the designer. ‘It’s the volume of space they offer – the vast floor plates and high ceilings that are so rare in London,’ she says. ‘To me, that’s what luxury is today… the ability to have a large living space that enables flexibility in your lifestyle. A home should be a space where you can relax with your family, but also host meetings, events, happenings and parties all in one place. It’s about celebrating life in its different forms.’
At night the eyrie atop her home is entirely illuminated by light from the surrounding cityscape, which bleeds into the interior. With the beautifully spot-lit St Luke’s Church as a backdrop, it wouldn’t be hard to find reason to celebrate.