We all know Great British Bake Off
alumnus John Whaite can decorate a cake to perfection, but what about his home? John and his partner Paul moved in to their converted military hospital apartment in South East London around 18 months ago, and have since been getting their hands dirty making it their own with classic colour schemes and quirky items from all over the world. We sat down with John in his beautiful sitting room, with its 12-foot high ceiling and arched sash windows, to chat organised clutter, DIY and bargain hunting.
What drew you here when you were house hunting?
We weren't even looking for a house at the time because we were living with a friend's mum in Greenwich, and then my partner Paul - he's a graphic designer for a branding company so he's really obsessed with homes and home layouts and buildings - he saw this place online, because he's always looking at places to buy, and said to me, "John, go look at this flat, it's amazing. It's in an old hospital!" So that day I came to see it and by that night we put the offer in. Well, I put the offer in, he wasn't even here... He didn't know what I was getting us into. I think it's the high ceilings, it's got character. I really like places with character, and the stories about the hospital are interesting too; Florence Nightingale - she helped design it. It's all that individuality, that’s what I like about it.
Was it important for you to have a bit of a project, so you could put your own personal mark on it?
It was, although Paul's more of an interiors person than I am. That said, this is more my style. He likes things to be white and light and minimal and more mid-century modern, whereas I like the depth and the darkness. I like it to be womb-like and cosy. But I think he came round to that, and we developed this style together, so it’s a mix of my style and his. I like bits of clutter but they have to be well-placed. It's cluttersome but it's got its place. Organised clutter.
Have you or Paul ever bought an item of furniture, and the other's been like ‘No, that's not happening’?
Erm, there was something, I think it was that lamp that you said you like. He saw it and I was like, "No, that won't go in the flat" and he was like "I'm getting it, I'm getting this lamp" and now it's one of my favourite things. There have been other things, like God knows, but I do listen to him, he's quite good with things that look right. He has the final say, I guess.
That’s a Ralph Lauren lamp from TK Maxx, where else do you go bargain hunting?
Oh, we go to flea markets and retro markets and interiors markets. We do buy things from a high end shop sometimes but I think if you buy everything from one place, it looks sort of like a glorified Next catalogue. I'd rather get little things you see along the way and collect them. I like to see something and say, "Ooh, let's get that." It's like in the kitchen, the lamp on the wall, we got that from an antiques market, it's an old French brass lamp we've rewired. I just like little bits and bobs. The candleholders on the wall, we found them in Stockholm. The mirror by the window, we got that for eight quid from Greenwich retro market. You can get some real bargains out there.
And how much shopping do you do online, when it comes to furniture?
Very little. I'm a traditionalist when it comes to shopping. I like to go to a book shop and I like to go to a furniture shop, and a clothes shop. I don't like to shop online that much because I can't visualise. I need to see it, and I also want it then and there.
Talk me through the book shelf; that’s your newest addition.
Well, what it is, there's very little storage space in these flats. The ceiling is 12 foot high so we thought we may as well make use of the space and go up. So the bookshelf, we had all these books anyway, they were all over the place, so it saves spaces, and if we wanted to we could make the top two shelves into cupboards and use that as more storage. It just makes great use of that space; it divides this room, and it's quite a big room, into a living room and a dining room. I'm obsessed with books and bookshelves so I like the idea of having a little library.
Who's better at DIY, you or Paul?
I'm better at DIY, I'm really quite practical actually. I didn't think I was until we bought this place. I wallpapered the wall; I can re-wire plugs, all sorts. I'm really neat at painting which is nice; I never knew that about myself, so you learn something new when you move into a house. I'm quite manly actually, I'm quite butch [laughs].
That practical side of you showed when you were on Bake Off too.
I think it was always in me but I didn't know how to use it. I just thought it was sheer luck. I'm not very analytical about things but as I've been writing articles and been in live situations, I realise that I can be creative, but I need to think about it. It's a natural trait but to exercise it you need to put your mind to it and use it. That's what I've learned.
Is there anything in your home that you got outside help for?
Well, the bookshelves, we obviously didn't build them, and we didn't re-tile the bathroom. But we've done all the painting ourselves. I'm really tight, I just think if it's something you can do yourself and save what... a grand, then I'd rather spend that grand on paying a bit more off the mortgage, or get some clothes, or save it, if you have to. I'm a farmer's son, so I'm really quite tight with my money.
What's left to do?
I want to put a new kitchen in. It feels like one of those temporary kitchens in a church hall. I want to get more cupboards in there; I want to change the units to dark units, 'cause I like dark. Maybe like dark grey, perhaps a similar colour to the walls in here. I want to get a really nice rustic oak worktop, unpolished, just really nice, rustic wood. And then we need tiles on the kitchen floor. The floor is horrible; it's all scuffed and dented. I also want to get inbuilt wardrobes in the bedroom, all the way to the ceiling, making use of all the space in there. We need to make use of that space. Because the bathroom and the hallway ceilings are lowered, we have the option of making the space above into a spare bedroom with a ladder. We can still do that, for people who come to visit.
So how long do you picture yourself being here?
I think we'll keep this flat forever. I really want to move back up North and have a house and a garden. I want to have my family around me, my family is all North-Western, and Paul is in the same situation too. We both really would like to move up North soon. When my cookery school opens it'd be the perfect chance to do that, but it's just a case of whether I can. When I moved to London it really helped my career, so I've got to make sure it isn't detrimental to that.
Do you see property purely as a place to go home and unwind, or do you look at the investment side of it too?
I think it's both. I think we bought this place initially as an investment because we though it's a property on the outskirts of London, it's a place that's up-and-coming and is becoming more gentrified as time goes on, so the value has increased quite drastically since we've bought it. We did think it was going to be a great investment place, but actually now we've moved in, we've put our mark on it, it feels like home. When we come home from work and we put our feet up and we've got all the lamps on, it's just the cosiest place in the world.
How do you go about deciding colour schemes?
Well I'm colour blind, so unless it's like a really basic grey or something, I couldn't tell you what colour it is. This colour in here, for me it looks really brown, but Paul says it's a grey brown, it's still nice for me, so we went for that. I think the darker colours are easier for me to grasp, that's why I like dark shades. I think you limit yourself if you have too much colour in a room. If you have fairly neutral backgrounds you can then dress it - we've got the yellow chair and that goes well with the tulips that Paul got yesterday. You can still have flashes of colour everywhere; sometimes it can be more impactful.
Do you have a ‘go to’ shop for when you’re looking for something new?
No, we usually go to Greenwich retro market first thing on a Saturday morning, or to Alfie's Antiques which is just north of Marlybone. Crystal Palace Antiques is a really cool place to go too. But shop-wise, we get bits and bobs in John Lewis, but I like individual things, like local producers. The whisky tray over there on the bookshelf, that's a London based manufacturer and trader; he's been making them since 1930, it's still a family run business and I love that. But you know, HomeSense is wicked too.
If money was no object, where would you live?
I think I would probably live in New York. A really nice flat in New York, and a country house back up North. Maybe a farm up North, growing our own produce. That's what I'd like.
Photography: Leon Csernohlavek
This is an edited extract of the At Home With John Whaite feature in the May issue of Attitude Magazine, available in stores now or to download from Pocketmags.com/Attitude