“The idea with the sculpture is that guests would immediately know they were no longer in a regular, predictable environment,” says Toogood, who began her career as decoration editor for The World of Interiors magazine, and, since striking out on her own a decade ago, now designs furniture (such as her signature resin Roly-Poly chair, which resembles the bottom half of a cartoon elephant), art and even unisex, smocklike garments. While some British designers fight against the country’s climate by whitewashing walls and installing abundant lighting, Toogood, like Atalla, embraces its dreariness. “Painting things white means you lose a lot of the nuance that comes with the subtle light that passes through a space over the course of a day,” she says. “It flattens things and makes them boring.”
While she’s known for her ability to harmonize the embellishments of classic British architecture with her dusky, organic modernism (in a recent project’s bathroom, she hung Baroque gilt mirrors over an industrial trough sink), in this case, the building was brand new, unmoored from cultural touchstones: There were no Regency-era moldings to accommodate; no marble mantels to respect. Indeed, the only nod to Englishness are the floors — herringbone parquet. They contrast harmoniously with the walls, which are plaster, painted a greenish-gray hue Toogood calls Sludge, then waxed and polished to create a textured swirl that’s velvety to the touch. The furnishings are spare and the surfaces are nearly clear of decorative objets; the lines geometric and uncompromising. “I hate quirk in home décor,” Atalla says. “The idea of funny shapes just for the sake of it strikes me as embarrassing.”
The overall effect is monumental and a bit formal, but leavened by clear, pale sunlight that, on good days at least, streams through the 12-foot windows and the three skylights. The public areas are divided by an atrium with a retractable glass ceiling; Toogood turned the area beneath into a contemplative place for morning coffee by staggering five floating plaster shelves on the wall, each topped with a bonsai, with hopes that Atalla would tend to them for years to come. In the evening, as the lights of Regent’s Canal flicker below, and the sprawling city is laid out in endless vistas, Atalla says the spare space is “so glamorous you just don’t want to move.”
Another reason the apartment feels welcoming despite its austerity is that everything is a bit closer to the ground than usual; Atalla, who had polio as a baby, uses a wheelchair. By playing with scale — emphasizing the horizontal over the vertical, and slightly changing the proportions of some furniture, including the sofa and bed — Toogood didn’t have to sacrifice streamlined beauty for accessibility.
The design team did face one challenge, though: getting Atalla to feel comfortable with art. In the past, he shied from it. “I never wanted to be one of those pretentious people who get rich and suddenly they’re spending all their money in galleries, pretending they have taste,” he says. Still, Toogood’s staff convinced him to let her craft a few pieces. Above his concrete desk is a blown-up black-and-white photo of Slough, the industrial suburb where “The Office” was set; on a floating shelf nearby is a set of small abstract matte plaster sculptures inspired by the shapes of his many awards, none of which are on display. “I feel as though we did what we set out to do, which was to make somewhere really cool but not obnoxious,” Atalla says. “You don’t want to become a caricature — for me, that would be death.”