When Michael Nathenson was working on the garden in front of his Hampstead house, he was interrupted by an outraged elderly woman. 'This is absolutely disgraceful,' she thundered, 'disgraceful. How can you have a glass door? You've made a waterfall, but where are your roses?' Nathenson tried to be as polite as possible, he may even have treated her to a summary of his design philosophy: the need for tranquillity, and the soothing powers of water and greenery in this most stressful of cities. Yet London is where this American wants to be. He tried living in Hawaii but after seven years had to admit it was a mistake.
When Nathenson first started refurbishing houses in north London, he toed the traditional line. 'People were ripping out period fireplaces and I was putting them back in. I was working with English Heritage. I was doing everything correctly.' Since then, he has been heavily influenced by the work of Tadeo Ando and other Asian architects, as well as by Paxton Locker's house in Clerkenwell Green which he first saw in these pages (aj 30.10.97). When he walked into his Hampstead house on his return from Hawaii he could not believe how traditional it looked. 'That's when I decided to go to town on it,' he says.
Nathenson has no architectural training, he is self-taught. He dislikes the label 'developer' and thinks of himself as 'an environmental designer'. He has two degrees in psychology (he did his Masters in Hawaii, living on a Hong Kong junk with a dog and a motorcycle) and a PhD in educational technology. He has taught in the Far East and for about 18 years was a senior lecturer at the Open University, 'until I decided that I wanted to make some money and didn't want to be an academic any more'. To date he has worked on about a dozen houses with his company, Unique Environments. He buys them, guts them and recreates the interiors (see page).
When Nathenson moved to Hawaii he flew his small team of West Indian builders out to build his dream house. 'They used to cook West Indian lunches on the site and I used to join them every day. We were all a real big hectic family.' It was in Hawaii that Nathenson decided he wanted to be a screen writer and wrote five screenplays. 'I got very close to selling one but they wanted me to change the ending. I had an agent in Hollywood. The most recent one, written just before I came back, was based on my builders - it's called Builders, I have it sitting on the computer right now.' He loves writing, 'the words just flow', and has published several books, seven for the ou, and five for Pan, including Are You Ready for Your Driving Test? which sold 100,000 copies.
There have been three teams of builders: Mr Podolski who had lost two fingers in the War and wore a peaked cap all year round; the West Indian team who went to Hawaii, and the current Devon boys who commute to London during the week with their two dogs. Nathenson hires a large flat for them in Hampstead and keeps them in regular work. 'They're family. I really take care of them.' Without his builders, he says, Unique Environments would not be in business. 'If I had to tender or subcontract to anyone, I wouldn't do it. We do everything ourselves. No two jobs are ever the same and so they have great job satisfaction.'
Nathenson's son Eli is his business partner. 'We struck a deal where we did a proper profit-sharing of the business. At university he learned all the things that I never learned; legalities, planning consents. Now I do the designs and Eli runs the day-to-day business of being on site. Without him I'd be totally lost.' He uses an architect to work from his cad-produced drawings and do 'all the boring stuff'.
Reactions from visitors to the house on Christchurch Hill have been so favourable that he is currently developing an outlet in Islington where he will display and sell products that are not available on the uk market. 'Instead of going to Conran you'll be able to go there and buy just about anything you want - providing you've got the same taste as I have. And we'll charge people a fair price for what they're getting.' The annual Milan Interiors Fair is his main hunting ground for products; he also combs Scandinavia for skilled designers.
The shop will also stock products produced by Unique Environments. He has used stainless steel skirtings in his house and believes this is the first such use of the material. And he is developing a lightweight cement with a former member of the Devon team, Rupert Murden. 'If it works, we're going to be producing baths, basins, shelves and slabs. It's amazing what you can do with concrete. With the different aggregates you can get beautiful earthy tones, and it's inexpensive.' The business will be run by his daughter, the actress Zoe Nathenson.
When Nathenson sells his house, he and his wife will have to move elsewhere. He toyed with living on the river and looked at apartments in Richard Rogers' Montevetro scheme at Battersea. 'I love the design of the building but everybody has to have the same kitchen, the same bathroom. I can't go just buy somebody else's taste. I have to do my own thing. I do it for the satisfaction of having a building that I can be proud of. It gives me immense pleasure.' It seems to please other people too. 'People are queuing up for my houses,' says Nathenson, a manfor whom life as an interior designer is coming up roses.