It has become less ravey since we moved in,” says Di Atkinson of Shoreditch back in the mid-90s, when the former factories and warehouses were just that. “Buildings were taken over for two-day raves and used as squats. It is more gentrified now.” Di, an author and historian, lives with her husband, the British artist, Patrick Hughes in Great Eastern street. The couple met in 1986 at the Chelsea Arts Club. Peer through the window at street level and you will be greeted with a pleasing vista: other people working. Number 72 is home to the atelier Reverspective.
Inside, artists sit on swivel chairs surrounded by tables crammed with tubes of paint, brushes, rags and mixing palates. They are working on Patrick’s optical-illusion 3D canvases, creating intricate details of familiar scenes: the canals of Venice, a library, or surrealist images, a rainbow escaping from a box, a never-ending maze. This is Patrick’s business, making and selling his unique Reverspective artworks. Patrick and Di are old school: they live above the shop.
In the 19th century, Hackney was famed for its furniture factories and warehouses. You can still locate their building’s Edwardian roots in the elaborate wood-panelled entrance, polished to perfection to brandish the varnish the factory made. When they moved in, almost 25 years ago, the building was derelict office space. They bought the ground floor and first floor and had the basement thrown in as a bonus. The building had been divided up, but was presented to them with everything ripped out: vast empty rooms with wires dangling from the ceiling.
The apartment, which is triple-glazed to stave off the constant hum of traffic outside, is in essence an enormous white box, but clever configuration with furniture, rugs and shelving breaks up the space, making it homely. Leave the studio and take the original wooden factory stairs up and a large entrance hall on the first floor ushers you in. An Arts and Crafts sideboard, with a Heal’s Dali mirror above, displays the couple’s hat collection. An image by their neighbour, the photographer Tim Flach, from his “More Than Human” series decorates one wall while contemporary maze rugs by Anni Albers, produced by Christopher Farr, line the floor.
Outside, life is hectic. Great Eastern Street is edgy and constantly switched on. Thanks to Hackney Council backing a night-time economy, the streets throng at night when people pour in to revel in the proliferation of bars. They come to feel radical, though in truth, it’s anything but. The majority of artists and free-thinkers have long gone, forced out by high rents – but not Patrick and Di.
At 79, Patrick is probably the best-dressed man in Hackney, wearing a handmade pink and sky-blue checked suit for today’s shoot: “I am not in favour of dressing down. If everyone wears jeans and a T-shirt it is just not interesting.” A self-confessed surrealist, he has been attracted to the unconventional since he was a teenager, when he was introduced to the notorious Colony Room Club and ran away from home aged 17. From that moment he has embraced the surreal.
“I prize the imagination,” he says. His early work focused on rainbows (he was known as the rainbow man) and were surrealist concoctions created in primary colours. “Rainbows are a revelation: different wavelengths that are seen as colours. It is pure magic. You can’t order them like a pizza, so it is fun to nail it down. I have done 100 rainbows and 1,000 Reverspectives. It is like being a miner trying to hack out gold from rock.”
This diverse design manifesto is central to the way they furnish their home. Each piece is chosen because “It makes us smile; we don’t like to be sensible often. I have a wilful urge to muck about,” says Di, whose taste in vintage clothes is exemplary. “My instinct is to go off on a tangent. We are eclectic with modern surrealism influences.”
They certainly are. Arts and Crafts chairs and tables sit in a corner neatly delineated by shelving filled with knitted suffragettes – a nod to Di’s work – a plastic model of Disney’s Snow White, copious books on British history and a tin of Liquorice Allsorts, all overseen by a vast oversized Anglepoise lamp, originally commissioned by the Roald Dahl Museum.
On the windowsill a sculpture made entirely from teddies by their friend, the late Nancy Fouts, oversees all. A print of Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 fur cup and saucer hangs above a table with stork legs, also designed by Oppenheim. Fornasetti is a firm favourite and trinket pots line the bathroom. Glen Baxter and Philippe Starck are also popular with the couple. Starck designed the pissoir in the bathroom and his horn lights and gnomes also feature heavily. Monochrome curtains, by their friend Sue Timney, become theatrical drapes when pulled together, and her cushions fill their 1920s wooden settles.
Following advice, they designed a space to retreat to and recreated the former varnish manager’s boardroom, with its original cornicing and two doors (one for the secretary). Their collection of 20th-century Whitefriars glass is displayed on the mantel and in the kitchen. Escher’s Night and Day print and Nancy Fout’s Match Tulip contribute to their penchant for the unusual. Patrick and Di may be old enough to enjoy free bus passes, but they’re still the most stylish couple in Shoreditch.