December 18, 2022Since its construction, in 1775, Benham Park has been through some unusual incarnations. Designed by nobleman William Craven, who enlisted the help of English architect Henry Holland and acclaimed gardener Capability Brown (Holland’s father-in-law) to realize his vision, the landmarked property near Newbury in Berkshire was commandeered during World War II as a army base and later remodeled as a call center in the 1980s.
Fortunately, garish office carpets and yards of cables are a thing of the past, thanks to Albion Nord, the interior design and project-management studio charged with the restoration of the 30,000-square-foot, four-story manor. “The estate stayed with the Craven family for many years, was periodically sold off and sat vacant for a long time,” says Albion Nord cofounder Anthony Kooperman. “It had been extended both vertically and horizontally, and in 2012, the then owners demolished the entire commercial aspect, including a 50,000-square-foot wing. What was left was a beautiful neoclassical house in the middle of the grounds, which is what we’ve been fortunate enough to restore.”
It’s the kind of project the firm relishes. Before establishing Albion Nord, in 2017, partners Kooperman, Ottalie Stride, Ben Johnson and Camilla Clarke had worked together in various design studios around London (“Albion,” a literary term for Britain or England, represents the four British directors, while “Nord” is a nod to Kooperman’s Nordic heritage). Based in London’s Fitzrovia, the firm now boasts a 12-member team that counts Vincent Van Duysen, Billy Baldwin, Elsie de Wolfe and Jasper Conran among its design heroes, according to Stride, while the firm’s ethos focuses heavily on marrying the traditional and the contemporary to create comfortable, luxurious interiors that delicately sidestep pastiche.
“We have such great respect for historic design. And there’s a similarity to many of the projects we work on, in as much as the bones are very old, but as a studio our aesthetic is quite fresh,” she says. “Our palettes tend to be light and feature natural materials, which is something we’ve focused on at Benham too, but we also worked very closely with specialist heritage consultants to ensure that our proposals were in keeping with the original property.” The consultants included experts on plaster, fireplace and flooring, and where necessary, those vital elements were restored, repaired or carefully replaced.
The manor’s majestic portico opens into a truly breathtaking hall with floor-to-ceiling windows. “The architectural details are amazing,” says Stride. “But much of the plasterwork here and in the formal reception room was heavily gilded, which made it feel overly ornate. We pared the palette right back, which allows light and shadows to dance. It also makes things feel calmer and more contemporary.”
The designers wanted to keep the focus on the architecture, so they used a natural palette and traditional furnishings. Cheap pine flooring was removed and Portland stone reinstated, and painted over the gilding on the fireplaces brought in from Buckinghamshire’s Stowe School in 1922. Flanking the fireplace are a pair of Edward Wormley wingbacks. “They have a sense of a gentleman’s smoking chair,” explains Stride. “So, although they’re not in a mid-century environment, they speak beautifully to the setting.”
In contrast to the hall and its neutral tones, the library has deep green walls that reflect the rolling parkland outside, as do the oak leaves that make up the bespoke chandelier by Richard Taylor Designs. This atmospheric space leads directly to the dining room, where more pale hues draw visitors through. “These rooms had been opened up to create a vast ballroom,” says Kooperman. “But when we looked at the history of the property, we discovered they had once been separate. It felt appropriate to reinstate the lost joinery, so we worked with Atelier Gooch architects and RW Armstrong builders to get the proportions perfectly accurate.”
Grandly proportioned like most of the communal spaces, the library called for a large-scale bespoke sofa, which is based on a Georgian CHIPPENDALE design. In the dining room, a custom 26-seat table crafted by Sussex-based furniture maker Stride & Co. holds pride of place. A chandelier echoing the one in the library creates continuity, while neat pelmet boards and simple curtains allow the focus to fall on the terraced gardens and stone staircases outside. “Lady Craven loved hosting big theatrical parties and would stage plays at the back of the house while guests watched from the terraces,” explains Stride. “So, we designed the window treatments to act as a frame.”
In the formal reception room, the same pale shade used in the entrance hall and dining room tames the intricate plasterwork and brings a sense of serenity. “Windows wrap three sides of this room, so the natural light is exquisite and creates incredible shadow play,” says Stride. Antique bamboo lamps provide extra illumination when needed, as does an upscaled custom chandelier based on a Louis XVI design.
Also on the ground floor, the whiskey room was conceived as an after-hours nook for post-dinner-party drinks or relaxed fireside reading. A dark heritage wall color provides the ideal foil for handcrafted surface joinery based on a breakfront bookcase. The antique Spanish Martini table was selected to echo the twists on the smart club fender.
Upstairs, the feeling of calm continues in the bedroom suites, where the design is deliberately restrained to celebrate the lawns and ponds outside. In one of the rooms, a bespoke four-poster bed creates a sense of fullness and grandeur appropriate to the large space. “The desk chair is by Kaare Klint, who referenced Georgian makers as he was designing it, which creates an interesting dialogue” with the room’s more traditional furnishings, says Stride.
Henry Holland’s influence is evident in the primary bathroom, whose walls gently curve into an oval, a signature feature of the architect’s work. “The contemporary insertion in the center is purposefully dropped away from the line of the ceiling so you can still sense the shape of the room,” explains Stride. “We used tadelakt [a Moroccan plaster finish] on the walls, and the marble is Calacatta Vagli.”
Another space that benefits from an expanse of the boldly veined stone is the family kitchen, which sits comfortably in the basement. Boasting a vast oak-topped island designed to evoke the feeling of a traditional scullery, it is illuminated by a huge decorative lantern by Jamb.
In the boot room, a curvaceous ceiling is the star. “The vaults create a rhythm that draws you toward the gardens. And the reveals were a great opportunity to introduce tongue and groove,” says Stride. Neat built-in benches provide essential storage for postwalk muddy boots.
In the basement as well is a new media room, which, despite its generous size, has a cozy feel. “Outside is a large stone wall, so light is somewhat restricted,” notes Stride. “With this in mind, we embraced the darkness with color brought onto the ceiling to create an enveloping feel.” Fabric panels soften the acoustics, while the textural and striped cushions scattered over the huge custom-made sofa plus an antique alabaster lamp add both softness and character to the space.
The original stone staircase with botanical spindles sits directly beneath the glass-roofed atrium, which bathes it in natural light. “We collaborated with Jamb on the lantern to create something large enough for the setting,” says Stride. “The stairs are dressed with trailing ivy to bring in a touch of life, and the sisal flooring also adds warmth, so it’s a lovely space to travel through.”
Remarkably, the full renovation of Benham Park, which began in September 2019, took only two and a half years to complete, despite delays caused by the COVID pandemic. “For us, this really was a passion project,” says Kooperman. “So, it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to celebrate it.”