When Lisa Jones was invited to see a property on her east London street last autumn, little could have prepared her for what lies behind the light pink facade. Known as No. 43, the former Hackney home of Ron Hitchins -the abstract sculptor, ceramicist, wheelbarrow boy, one-time tailor and skilled flamenco dancer-is a testament to a rich and colorful life that reveals room for glorious room. Over the course of nearly 70 years, until his death at 93 in 2019, Hitchins transformed the semi-detached Victorian villa into a living work of art.
From the outside, the front door of molded fiberglass and the accompanying house number plate are the only indication of the treasures inside. Once inside, it is what has been unveiled — from the mirror-dance studio on the first floor, to the kitchen with wood and the garden full of sculptures — an artist’s house with the same care, attention and creative vision as home interiors, such as Charleston of Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard.
“It was such a beautiful, unexpected discovery,” Jones says of the art and decoration she had discovered in the years before. “We were amazed at the energy of the house and Ron’s incredible collector.” Jones, who is half of the transatlantic design studio Atelier LK with Ruby Kean, accepted an offer on the house the same day, before it officially reached the open market – and the duo have been on a roller coaster of aesthetic discovery ever since.
Hitchins, who was born into a poplar in the 1920s as a Chinese father and a Lithuanian mother, became known as “The Flash” and lit up the dance floors of London with his jive, rumba, rock ‘n’ roll and mambo movements – captured on film by Ken Russell in 1960 – and his Hackney home turned into the unofficial headquarters of the live international flamenco dance scene.
While making money at the weekend’s market stalls of Petticoat Lane and Ridley Road, he sells shirts with buttons and torches of his own design, and Hitchins spends his weeks dancing, flamenco learning and making his distinctive artwork. “Ron was a good person who really knew how to live,” Jones says. ‘His hosting skills and parties were absolutely legendary. Before the house sale was completed, Hitchins’ close friend and sole executor, flamenco guitarist Mike Jingle, set up an open house and invited local artists and art dealers to further experience the space first hand. One of the most remarkable works on display was the Brutalist four-poster bed that Hitchins originally created for an exhibition in the 1970s at Temple Lodge. Decorated with 3,582 biscuit-made ceramic tiles, each hand-inscribed by Hitchins with Aztec-inspired, abstract designs — a cabinet of about 2,000 similar terracotta tiles has also been excavated from the cage — it is a true monumental creation. According to Jingle, Hitchins refused an offer from Harrods to purchase the bed in the 1980s (and it could still be purchased at the time of printing). When curators visited the Victoria & Albert Museum, they, along with five other pieces, selected a miniature replica of the cat bed that was in the collection of V&A East, which will open in 2024 in Stratford.
Hitchins, an outsider artist in the true sense of the word, never received this kind of recognition during his lifetime. Not that it bothered him. “Ron has contributed to a lot of exhibitions, but he was never really accepted by the art institution,” Jingle says. “He sold pieces here and there to people he liked, but gave away much of his work.” When Hitchins died, Jingle’s only mission was to distribute more than 90 personalized flamenco boxes – miniature wooden cabinets that pay homage to the artists of individual dancers – to their designated beneficiaries in the flamenco dance community.
So inspired was Jones and Kean by Hitchins’ candid creative ethos, that they were forced to honor his brand by inviting artists and designers to respond to the interior at No. 43. This fall in the home, the month-long exhibition changed the space in an immersive design experience with modernist 20th-century pieces by designers, including Charlotte Perriand, Audoux and Minet and Axel Einar Hjorth, along with ceramics, canvases, furniture and decorative objects of contemporary creativity, all with Hitchins’ own art. The response was remarkable. “We really wanted to celebrate Ron’s legacy,” says Kean. “Everyone was so inspired by the way he lived, and there was so much excitement around the different layers of the story – life, art, home.”
Many of the contributing designers come from Hackney’s thriving creative community, some of whom Hitchins remembers in the first place. EJR Barnes has a mighty marble table covered with columnar stainless steel legs for the dining room; Fred Rigby made the majestic Golden Ratio desk from ebonised oak and steel, which sits on the first floor; Abid Javed forged its sublime molecular-inspired ceramic shapes; while Christabel MacGreevy’s joyful jesmonite sculptures make the backyard feel. The work of these Hackney residents was linked to a list of international talents, including designer Minjae Kim, based in New York, and Studio Rooms in Tbilisi, Georgia. Everything to see is for sale.
This exhibition also served as a compelling showcase for the Atelier LK design studio, which Kean and Jones set up last year. They already have an impressive list of home interior design projects, including an apartment in Dalston, a home in Palm Beach, Florida and a farm in Mill Brook, New York. Although they first met during a luncheon in Il Buco, Manhattan in 2018, their friendship – based on a mutual love of interiors – developed into a working relationship during a lockdown.
‘Lisa has such a wonderful taste,’ says Kean, who was born in London and studied photography and art history before joining Firmdale Hotels, where she worked as head of design in New York. ‘I would get her advice on design pieces I found, and she would ask me to look at the interior design projects she was working on. None of us actually intended to get a design partner, it just happened. ”
Like her mother, a nurse from Trinidad who became an art gallery, Jones’ path to the interior was a little less direct. After studying economics, she worked as a fashion buyer for Brown fashion in London and then Opening ceremony In New York. As she renovated her first home on Shelter Island, her focus began to shift. She began obsessively acquiring pieces from across the US, and unleashed a fascination with 20th-century Scandinavian design that shot up quickly. “It got so out of hand that I had to start selling,” says Jones, who founded @a_goeie stoel, buy and sell furniture and design objects first to friends and then decorators and collectors.
It is this combination of design and grooming, mixed with Kean’s instinct for layered, theatrical interiors – she is called the queen of the installation – that makes their union as Atelier LK so interesting. “The common thread between our styles is a certain simplicity and a richness of texture,” says Kean of the studio’s evolving appearance.
The next phase of their project that is being closely watched is the conversion of no. 43 in Jones’ family home. “Ron is a great inspiration for every detail of the project,” says Jones. ‘We want to be as sensitive to the way he lived as we can, but we must also live in it; it is not a museum. ”
The palette is drawn from the green, maroon and gold patina of Hitchins’ fiberglass panels and wall reliefs, and the dance studio becomes a children’s bedroom with its 1930s Crittall windows and mirrored wall left intact. Elsewhere, Hitchins’ sculptural ode to Hepworth, which he called ‘Barbara’, is re-enacted, with a view of a garden room accessed through some of its fiberglass panel doors. One leads to Atelier LK’s studio, the other to a sauna. It’s the kind of reassuring, quirky touch that Hitchins’ hand will feel at No. 43 for many years to come.