November 12, 2020

Stay at home with James Barley in his stunning East London ex-council flat.

james in pink hoodie and jeans on kitchen countertop
modern sixties-style kitchen with green wall and wooden herringbone flooring
James lives with his partner, David, and pooch Buster in this two-bed ex council flat.

Ever wondered what moving into an ex-council flat looks like? Well, you’re in luck. Today I’m kicking my ‘Stay at Home’ series back off with a look at freelance PR Publicist, James Barley’s two-bed ex-council East London flat.

James originally moved into the flat in April 2019 with his partner, trainee Psychotherapist David, and their five-year-old adopted French Bulldog, Buster. After renting locally for just under two years, the pair saw the flat in January 2019 and knew instantly that it had to be theirs. It was the third place the couple saw, and fortuitously was chain-free, so there was no painful moving exchange.

In just 18 months, the home has seen a number of interior changes, and I love that the boys have remained sympathetic to the original 60s architecture. As you’ll see throughout, the shapes, colour palette and furniture used all give a slight nod to nostalgia, but also remain modern. Are you ready to see it? I bet you are. Scroll for the full tour and some wise words from James.

mint and pink kitchen with olive green wall
mint and pink kitchen with olive green wall and wooden cabinets
retro coffee containers and organised pantry
James worked with an architect on the kitchen to bring to life a retro-style kitchen with pops of pink and mint.

First thing’s first, can you give me a little insight into what your home is like?

Our flat is an ex-council flat based in East London. Built in the the late 60s. It was built at a time when space and storage was a consideration of architects and planners. Nowadays new builds (which I have lived in) have paper thin walls and don’t hold their value; they’re two a penny… an expensive penny at that. 

Our flat wasn’t cheap but what we’ve got for the price is incredible, I sometimes have to pinch myself that I live in Zone 2 London! It has two bedrooms, a bathroom with separate WC, a good size kitchen, small balcony and lots of storage which we have utilised with the help of independent carpenters, Pure View Carpentry – they did our wardrobes, shelving and kitchen.  

Although we are on the fifth floor, we do have an upstairs as the flats in our building are maisonettes. I have always enjoyed living in properties with an upstairs, it reminds me of the house I grew up in. 

neutral living room with brown leather sofa
neutral living room with hula girl lamp and neon pink art frame
The living room is neutral with pops of colour and pattern via objects, cushion and artwork.

Sounds incredible. Can you tell me what home means to you?

‘Home’ has taken on a new meaning for me, as I’m guessing it has for a lot of people this year. Living during the lockdown in an unfinished flat has been frustrating, but has made me fall in love with it more. I can’t wait to have it done, but have found the imperfections and unfinished parts don’t bother me like they would have a year ago – if we can get through 2020, anything is possible!

dog sitting in rattan basket
mid-century shelving with vinyl player and magazines
A mid-century shelving unit is a styling playground for all of of James’ objects and plants.

How would you describe your interior style? What/who influences you?

I would describe my style as equal parts mid-century and modern. Luckily David and I have very similar tastes in style and decor, if thrown into a showroom or shop we’d more than likely choose the same thing. I lend myself to a neutral colour palette and pops of colour.

Spending most of 2020 out of work – I am a freelance PR Publicist – left me with a lot of time instagram scrolling and looking at design blogs. I like to think I am influenced by many who reflect the finished look I am after. 

Yours of course, but don’t want to ‘fan girl’ – besides, you know how much I love your style. Your use of colour is dreamy! I draw inspiration from Hollie + Mat, they have great taste; Sarah Coonan who can create lovely tablescapes and arrangements. I am in awe of the minimalism of Cate St Hill and Donna Howell but am too much of a hoarder to have that in my own place. 

mid-century sideboard with fringed mirror
fringed mirror and penis vase
You know I’m a fan of raunchy objects. This vase is perfect!

Feel free to fan over me any time you like! You’ve taken on a lot of the refurb work in your home. What has been the toughest part so far?

Haha! Sorry if you’ve got the wrong impression… we’ve thrown money at it, if that’s the same thing!? The flat was more of a mess than I first realised on viewings, but thankfully David and I weren’t phased by the prospect of getting it done, we knew we had to make a mess to get to a point we were both happy with our home. I can’t quite believe the amount of work we’ve done in a short space of time. 

Our first project was updating the bathroom. The biggest struggle was finding builders to do the work. In the end we managed to find a small team to do it but if I am asked my least favourite room in the flat, it’s that room. I wish we had worked with an architect/designer to utilise the space. We often wonder what it would have been like if we had knocked a wall down and made the room bigger, as it’s the smallest room in the flat. Why is hindsight so cruel!? 

The toughest part of the refurb was the downstairs floor. The prep work we had carried out at the end of 2019 had to be ripped up and started again – a big hit on our budget and took an additional ten days for the new concrete leveller to dry. But, it was totally worth it, we love the downstairs flooring (which matches the one we have upstairs).

living room before renovation with concrete floors
kitchen pre-renovation with concrete floors
A few shots of the house renovation in action. This shows how much difference a floor can make.

What part are you looking forward to doing most?

We are at the final part of the refurb, our to-do list is short. We’ve got shutters being fitted (fingers crossed) this side of Christmas to our living room windows, which I am so excited about. I had the same company fit them in my old flat and know how they can instantly transform a room.

neutral bedroom with gold be frame and tan bed linene
sleek fitted wardrobes
The bedroom is a serene place to relax with seamless fitted wardrobes and minimal styling.

Any top tips for those looking to renovate their home? What do you wish you knew?

We had an architect, Alan Milliken, come in to design the kitchen. He talked to us about how we used the space as it was and how we’d like to in the future. He had a great understanding of our needs and wants for the kitchen. Nothing on the highstreet was practical enough and neither of us wanted to compromise on the overall design. 

It’s not quite finished; instead of a terrazzo worktop we’ve had to settle on wood with a floor lining on top. It’s a good compromise and is wearing quite well but we both know it’ll need replacing in the near future. My advice to anyone who can afford it is to work with an architect. Ours was brilliant and was very responsive to our needs. 

My second piece of advice is to get as many plants as possible, they’re good for uplifting your mood and look good on the eye! Anyone who says they have too many plants, doesn’t have enough! 

french bulldog sitting on bed in guest bedroom with statement pink headboard
guest bedroom with vinyl shelving
The guest bedroom ties into the living area with pops of pink and blue.

Sound advice. On that note, where are your favourite places to shop for homeware?

Where do I begin!? I love and would happily live in Liberty London, it’s my go to for inspiration and can lose hours wandering around the homeware department. 

Other strong contenders are John Lewis, MADE, Muji, ARKET, H&M Home and Earl of East, who are a small independent business in Hackney and Coals Drop Yard. I defy anyone to go into one of their shops and not leave with something!

neon light and dark gallery wall in ex-council flat
It’s all about the details. A gallery wall combines traditional and modern artwork.

Finally, I like to end on a small biz shoutout. Who’s your current fave brand that we all need to check out?

I have three, if that’s okay? As I mentioned, Earl of East, a lifestyle store run by two incredibly lovely guys who have impeccable taste! I AM NOMAD who has just opened a shop in the West End of Glasgow and Unto the Last who we bought our bedside tables from and who are currently making our bespoke kitchen table.

What do you think of James’ East London home? Tell me your favourite objects! Follow James on Instagram to see how his home progresses, and for more interior inspiration, colour clashing and general life admin, check out the rest of my blog. Follow me on InstagramPinterest and Twitter for more EJP in your life.


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Emma Jane Palin is a freelance art consultant, interior stylist and multi-award-winning blogger residing in Margate, UK. She has worked with various home and lifestyle brands not limited to West Elm, Apple, John Lewis, Habitat, MADE, Caran D'Ache + No.3 Gin. Emma is also a regular contributor to Hunker where she writes about design trends and interior advice.

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