Edwina Baines had an exclusive tour of the art inside the UK’s best new architect-designed house, The Red House.
The winner of the Royal Institute of Architects (RIBA) prize for the UK’s best new architect-designed house is nestled in rolling hills south of Shaftesbury with stunning panoramic views across the Blackmore Vale.
The Red House, with its intricately patterned red brickwork and contrasting bold green overhanging eaves and windows, takes clear inspiration from the Arts and Crafts movement. The interior is cleverly laid out in open-plan style but without empty open spaces. Each room has a slightly different alignment, with no corridors evident. This allows the large house to retain a cosy cottage-like core.
The owners, an accountant and a London gallerist, have used simple white-painted masonry walls throughout, in order to showcase their art collection.
A series of quick-witted drawings by Devon artist David Shrigley lines one side of the circular dining area in the kitchen. Shrigley is best known for distinctive works with black capital letters making satirical comments on everyday situations and human interactions. Their deadpan humour repeats phrases like snippets of overheard conversations.
His work has become popular online – he has more than a million followers on Instagram. In 2016 his Really Good sculpture, a monumental bronze hand making a thumbs-up gesture, was the tallest-ever piece to be erected onto the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square.
Shrigley told those gathered for the occasion that the sculpture was “about making the world a better place … which obviously is a ridiculous proposition, but I think it’s a good proposition.”
On the other side of the dining alcove, a high shelf displays a series of pots and jugs telling the story of Dorset pottery. There are several old pieces from the Verwood pottery, makers of earthenware from the early 1600s until 1952. They include an example of the most famous Verwood product – the Dorset Owl or Costrel, a flask with lugs, used by farm labourers to take cider or cold tea into the fields.
A tall red and green jug by renowned Stour Row potter Jonathan Garratt echoed the property’s palette alongside another by Richard Batterham, famous studio potter from Durweston who died in 2021.
Shelves in the downstairs cloakroom are used to display a growing collection of Poole Pottery, including a prized piece by Guy Sydenham, who joined Poole Pottery in 1931 and continued his career there after the Second World War. He lived on a boat moored in Poole Harbour in the 1950s before negotiating a lease on Long Island, which contained a seam of Dorset blue clay. Using driftwood and discarded materials, Guy built a studio and produced pottery on the harbour island until 1987.
A large map painting commissioned from artist Phyllis Wolff, who lives nearby, hangs on the wall leading to the music room. The Red House is at its centre. Tiny images of the owners’ daughter in her yellow raincoat are hidden in a couple of places and a sparkling copper button marks the house’s location. Unlike most maps, there is no differentiation between footpaths, bridleways and roads, revealing the house to be at the heart of historic routes between the two neighbouring villages. The map makes a political point: nowadays we use our cars too much and our legs not enough.
Above the library fireplace hangs a piece by Yinka Shonibare.
Yinka is a British-Nigerian artist who now lives and works in London, creating work that explores issues of race and class through a mix of media. He strives to challenge the assumptions we make about other cultures through his signature material – the brightly coloured ‘African’ batik fabric he buys at Brixton market in London. Batik is often presumed to be African, but was originally inspired by Indonesian design, mass-produced by the Dutch and eventually sold to the colonies in West Africa.
In the 1960s the material became a signifier of African identity and independence.
You may remember Yinka’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, which was the 2010 Fourth Plinth Commission in Trafalgar Square and which is now installed outside the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
In 2021 the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition was coordinated by Yinka and championed artists from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures, exploring the theme of Reclaiming Magic to celebrate the joy of creating art.
Yinka has been commissioned to create a mosaic of Green Woman, reinterpreting the Green Man myth. It will be installed in an outside niche of the house later this year.
The gallery holds exhibitions of works by artists solely on merit and is happy to “show the unrepresented and the overlooked.” On the wall opposite the fireplace hangs a distinctive figurative oil painting by Caroline Coon. Now in her seventies, Caroline is a political activist and has campaigned for women’s rights since the 1960s. Her controversial works explore the politics of sexual liberation and her hermaphroditic figures confront sexual stereotypes.
Art in architecture
The Red House architect David Kohn was given complete artistic freedom to respond to the owners’ brief. Good art should elicit an emotional response in the viewer and be memorable; it can be contentious and may or may not be beautiful, but it can never be bland. Art exerts a profound influence over our wellbeing but the majority of architecture is designed for the eye of the beholder and tends to neglect the non-visual senses that promote our health and wellbeing. The RIBA said of their 2022 winner: ’This is a project full of delight and invention, pragmatism and eccentricity, along with knowing references, formal and informal gestures.’ Creating and living in a beautiful structure is a rare privilege and The Red House is a perfect example of William Morris’s famous words: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be beautiful or believe to be useful”.