Life Unstyled - How to Embrace Imperfection and Create a Home You Love

Extract from Life Unstyled by Emily Henson, published by Ryland Peters & Small.

Brixton Bijou

You'd never guess, but a mere five minutes' walk from this tranquil apartment is bustling Brixton Village, one of South London’s most vibrant areas. For six years now, Stephanie Zak and Ben Johnson have called this bijou flat their home, creating a stylish and calm haven in the centre of town. When Stephanie bought the flat – it was her first home – it was an unfinished shell and over the years she has transformed it into the cosy retreat it is today. A photographic shoot producer working mostly in interiors, she has clearly picked up a few pointers along the way and found the perfect balance between a styled and natural look. Ben is a music producer who often works from home, so it’s important that the flat is calming and inspiring, both of which are true.

Despite its small size, a huge amount of personality has been packed into the living room. Shelves flank the chimney breast and another was added above the non-working fireplace to provide more surface space for this globe-trotting couple’s collections, largely picked up on their travels. Potted plants and vases of branches bring the room to life and last longer than cut flowers.

Despite its small size, a huge amount of personality has been packed into the living room. Shelves flank the chimney breast and another was added above the non-working fireplace to provide more surface space for this globe-trotting couple’s collections, largely picked up on their travels. Potted plants and vases of branches bring the room to life and last longer than cut flowers.

Located one flight up in a 1930s red-brick block, the flat is petite – one small bedroom, an open-plan living room with a galley kitchen and a bathroom. The couple have added storage wherever possible: there are built-in units in the living room, a large mirrored wardrobe in the bedroom and stacks of vintage suitcases filled to the brim.

Open shelving in both the living room and kitchen allows the couple’s style to shine through. The fireplace shelves display decorative items like small plants, pictures and books, while the cupboards beneath serve as a drinks cabinet and storage for extra glassware, candles, vases and other things they’d rather not have on show.

Open shelving in both the living room and kitchen allows the couple’s style to shine through. The fireplace shelves display decorative items like small plants, pictures and books, while the cupboards beneath serve as a drinks cabinet and storage for extra glassware, candles, vases and other things they’d rather not have on show.

Home and travel are priorities for Stephanie and Ben, who have found a way to combine their two passions. They rent out the flat to other travellers and the additional income they earn allows them to feed their insatiable desire to travel. Playing host has encouraged them to create order in their small home without sacrificing style. On display are cherished mementoes – photos, art and small collections – but care has also been taken to make it a well-functioning space so guests can find what they need.

In the small galley kitchen just off the living room, storage is limited. Shelves are organised into cookbooks, pots/pans, dinnerware and glassware. A large framed poster hangs on the wall, adding further to the personality of the home.

In the small galley kitchen just off the living room, storage is limited. Shelves are organised into cookbooks, pots/pans, dinnerware and glassware. A large framed poster hangs on the wall, adding further to the personality of the home.

The flat is decorated with a charming mix of vintage finds, furniture found on the street and then refurbished, and accessories collected on their travels. The Moroccan wedding blanket on their bed was found in a souk in Marrakech and was a birthday gift from Ben to Stephanie, while the turquoise sari repurposed as bedroom curtains was picked up in Malaysia. Also thrown into the mix is artwork inherited from Stephanie’s Swiss grandparents and sculptures made by her sculptor mother. All in all, it makes for an enchanting home, the kind of place that compels you to stop and take it all in.

In the small bedroom, every inch of space is put to good use. The windowsill is lined with small plants and gilt frames (above) and a very tight nook at the foot of the bed gets a wooden side table for dishes of jewellery and vases of flowers, with a dressmaker’s bust adding character and doubling as necklace storage (below). To make up for the lack of built-in storage, Stephanie collects vintage suitcases and stacks them along the wall to hold items that she doesn’t need to access frequently, such as off-season clothes (also below).

In the small bedroom, every inch of space is put to good use. The windowsill is lined with small plants and gilt frames (above) and a very tight nook at the foot of the bed gets a wooden side table for dishes of jewellery and vases of flowers, with a dressmaker’s bust adding character and doubling as necklace storage (below). To make up for the lack of built-in storage, Stephanie collects vintage suitcases and stacks them along the wall to hold items that she doesn’t need to access frequently, such as off-season clothes (also below).

I imagine you learn to be relaxed when you allow strangers to rent your home. You have little choice but to be chilled out about the fact that people are going to touch your stuff! And it shows in the sweetly laid-back way that Stephanie has styled, or rather not styled, her things.

I particularly love the shelves flanking the fireplace, where all manner of odds and ends jostle for space – photobooth snaps, dried flowers and branches, candles and postcards. It feels special but not too precious and it feels alive, as if it’s constantly evolving, thanks to the inspiration that the couple bring back from each trip.

CREATIVITY BEFORE CONSUMPTION - The small bedroom features some great ideas.
Curtains made from a sari add colour and filter light beautifully; a suitcase makes a bedside table for the tight space; and a wooden hanger is a creative way to display paper tassels.

Life Unstyled by Emily Henson, published by Ryland Peters & Small.

Photography by Debi Treloar © Ryland Peters & Small