Small but beautifully formed, this ex-local authority apartment proves you shouldn't judge a book by its cover

Designer Christian Bense’s south London apartment heralds a high-low approach that sparkles with original ideas and festive flourishes

Christmas modern house ex local authority in south London
(Image credit: Mary Wadsworth)

‘I’m quite excited about Christmas in my modern home this year and intend to go full-on Nigella in the kitchen,’ says interior designer Christian Bense, talking in his recently refurbished fourth-floor apartment with picture-perfect views of the south London city skyline.

The appeal of the apartment, when they bought it a year ago, was that it came with three bedrooms, so they could turn one into a dining room for entertaining, and still have a guest bedroom. 

‘The joy of this 1950’s concrete-built apartment is that it’s solid and well proportioned with generous sized rooms, a long hall and windows all round,’ he says. 

Christian, who hails originally from south Africa and worked with designers Turner Pocock before starting his own practice last year, played to its strength by keeping the layout as it stood, embracing the small galley kitchen and shower room, too small for a bath. But he did restore the shell of the flat, re-plastering and channelling pipes and wiring into those concrete walls so he had a good blank canvas to work on.

Living room

Christmas modern house ex local authority in south London

(Image credit: Mary Wadsworth)

With clients Christian produces precise presentations and mood boards but with himself in that role he threw the rule book out of the window. ‘Although stressful, it was actually quite exciting as I had no exact end goal, I just worked on instinct as the build progressed,’ he says.  

Especially around Christmas, we're all looking for living room ideas, designs, and trends to inspire. The yellow artwork, by Christian, was the starting point for further pops of color which appear throughout the apartment.  

Christmas modern house ex local authority in south London

(Image credit: Mary Wadsworth)

After home decor ideas to give your living space a fresh update? Christian indulged in brown velvet living room curtains in fabric by Rose Uniacke but up-cycled an existing sofa with a new cover.' 

A well-proportioned sofa makes a room look larger, says Christian who suggests always creating enough seating for at least five people. 

Christmas modern house ex local authority in south London

(Image credit: Mary Wadsworth)

Christian's go-to style with clients tends to be neutral tones and rooms that flow effortlessly together, but here he challenged himself to ramp things up with color blocking and shades that pop. ‘I allowed myself to become more relaxed when buying furniture. I would sporadically purchase anything I liked, knowing it would all work together,’ he says.

Whether creating neutral living room ideas for a cool and calming scheme or incorporating a punchy palette, furniture has to earn its living in a home. The two armchairs were purchased because they lend themselves to future reinventions with painted frames or reupholstered seats. 

Christmas modern house ex local authority in south London

(Image credit: Mary Wadsworth)

‘This isn’t a forever-home so it would have been a waste to spend too much on its fabric and on the fittings we’d leave behind, like the flooring, kitchen and the shower room,’ he says.  

Christian’s Shaker inspired kitchen is from the High Street - he was after small kitchen ideas on a budget - is dressed up with brass handles and bespoke stainless steel worktops which help elevate it. 

Christmas modern house ex local authority in south London

(Image credit: Mary Wadsworth)

Rather than have a third bedroom they chose to create a dedicated entertaining space which also occasionally doubles as a home office. If you're after a chic social space, here's how to design a dining room – 10 expert tips to the perfect space for entertaining

Last Christmas Christian had just moved in with a few sticks of furniture so it was hardly a cheerful affair. ‘A large portion of my family is German so we’ll follow the tradition of having a big dinner with lots of friends on Christmas Eve,’ he says. In terms of festive flourishes it will be low key but stylish with fragrant candles, vases of berries and leaves, and celebratory cocktails at every opportunity. ‘There won’t be a tree, much as I love Christmas I don’t see how I would cram one in,’ he laughs.  

Christmas modern house ex local authority in south London

(Image credit: Mary Wadsworth)

A stipulation was that the flat had to look lived in, from day one. ‘With its featureless rooms, it’s essentially like a new build so that was my challenge.’  Christian developed a high-low approach, where an expensive item, like the marble dining table, is off-set with chairs from Zara.  

'Strategic use of mirrors makes all the difference in a small space,' says Christian.  He likes to ‘throw’ spaces with unexpected objects like the antique bamboo cabinet. 

If you're wanting to try something different with your Christmas styling this year, here's how to decorate a Christmas table – our favorite designer's top tips for a successful tablescape.

Christmas modern house ex local authority in south London

(Image credit: Mary Wadsworth)

Louvre doors, which when opened take up half the size of a regular door, were installed to create more space for the table.  Christian uses Demi-lune tables frequently which are especially good in small spaces, and versatile for all rooms. 

For more space saving ideas, here are some lessons we're taking from this tiny London apartment that gets small space styling just right.

Christmas modern house ex local authority in south London

(Image credit: Mary Wadsworth)

‘I used navy brushed cotton fabric from the old sofa for the extra long headboard (which helps elongate the room) in the main small bedroom layout which was quite satisfying’ Christian says.  Flooring is actually ‘wood’ laminate, ‘so good these days it’s hard to tell.’ 

'It is about mixing materials,' says Christian. 'Things like the marble bedside tables and the Kilim rug on the bed all help to create a layered and curated space.' 

Christmas modern house ex local authority in south London

(Image credit: Mary Wadsworth)

A lot of time was spent to ensure the best use of the space with as large a shower as possible. 

Christmas modern house ex local authority in south London

(Image credit: Mary Wadsworth)

The palette here is deliberately soft and more muted than the rest of the flat, creating a calm and relaxing guest bedroom idea. Creating a bespoke headboard and adding new handles to a High Street chest help elevate the space. 

The work took just a couple of months. ‘It was a little taste of what I put my client’s through,’ he says.  Now with the hard work done, this new but lived-in home is the perfect place to party.

See more: This classic Edwardian home is a lesson in bold color and elegant Christmas styling

Mary Weaver

A legendary houses editor, Mary Weaver held the job of Homes Editor on Livingetc for over a decade. She set the aesthetic for which the brand has become known. She is now a freelance stylist, art director and writer, regularly contributing to Livingetc and overseeing the brand's successful House Tours franchises of live and webinar events.