No one is more adept than Maria Speake at creating beautiful interiors from other people's cast-offs. In Maria's hands, hideous, old, bitumen coated parquet blocks turn into boldly patterned and polished floors; the backs of old church pews, 'that look like nothing', create a wonderful oak panelled bedroom; shelves from a cheese factory, still bearing the marks of maturing cheeses, clad kitchen units; and delicate old lace is stitched on to voile to create pretty blinds. 'Builders are often staggered by the materials I produce, and the state they are in,' she admits. But in the end, like her clients, 'they are amazed and proud of what they have achieved.'
Maria and her husband, Adam, own Retrouvius, a warehouse of inspiration on Harrow Road, crammed to the rafters with their finds, which can range from acres of fossil limestone rescued from Heathrow's Terminal 2 to a pair of huge chandeliers from a Park Lane hotel. Adam runs the reclamation side, while Maria is busy designing houses for an array of glamorous clients. There is certainly nothing shabby about Maria's way with salvage; rather, huge amounts of style and creativity. She admits she is a control freak, and every project is meticulously planned and drawn up beforehand, so that every parquet block and reclaimed finish looks smart and intended.
Maria and Adam started saving things while studying architecture at Glasgow School of Art, initially to do up their own flat. 'It was long before there was any Green agenda; it was much more about conservation and historical accuracy at that stage,' she says. 'Our tutor, Gavin Stamp, was tremendously supportive and took us on a pilgrimage to see the architectural historian Charles Brooking and the people behind Walcot Reclamation, and it went from there. I was interested in it for the materials, as they can become whatever you want them to be.'
Even things with the most ordinary provenance are of interest. 'I like to reuse existing materials from a project in new ways,' says Maria. 'It infuriates builders as I insist on things being kept on site until I find a use.' When single-glazed windows are replaced with double-glazed ones, for example, she often uses the originals internally, they create a visual connection between rooms while retaining a degree of privacy,' she explains. For a recent London client, she took long sections of wavy timber panelling from their house in Italy and turned it into an amazing kitchen – the panels are laid horizontally along the fronts of the units, so that you cannot see the shapes and sizes of the drawers. As Maria points out, all salvage is valueless until you find a use for it. “I like anything that I can find in large quantities, as it gives you flexibility,' she says.
The owner of this house, in Notting Hill, saw what Maria had created for a friend of a friend, and thought, 'I want a house like this.' Her husband had bought their house as a bachelor, and now, with three small children, they needed some more space. 'I really didn't want to walk into a house that looked "done”," she explains. 'I wanted it to look worn, as if it had been there for ages, and I also didn't want it to be the kind of style that would look grubby in five years' time.'
What you find now is a light-filled, family friendly house enriched by materials layered with history and provenance and used in imaginative and delightful ways. The open-plan living space on the ground floor is a brilliant example of Maria's attention to detail; the parquet floor, laid in a herringbone pattern in the hall, leads through into the sitting area, where it is laid in a 'modern, railway-track pattern, and instead of stopping abruptly when it meets the stone kitchen floor, the railway tracks bleed', as Maria refers to it, in narrow strips into the stone.
The kitchen is made entirely from reclaimed pieces, and demonstrates that salvage and comfort can be happy bedfellows. The husband is a keen cook, so the kitchen had to function well and house all his equipment. The main drawers came from a Victorian shop and were in a dire condition, so Maria's joiner rebuilt the frame and put the drawers on to modern runners so that they close softly and easily. The island was made from scratch using reclaimed iroko laboratory worktops and the marble for the splashback came from an old shop fitting, while she found the eighteenth-century, carved-stone roundels in a stonemason's yard. Elsewhere, the table is made from a school laboratory worktop, and the cupboard against the wall was from a church; Maria painted it and adapted the doors so that they slide, for easier access in the tight space.
A staircase, with oak treads salvaged from pew seats, leads down to a new basement with a television-cum-playroom, where Maria has relaid the 'slightly unimaginative' oak floor that once adorned the ground floor. Here though, Maria, who is 'obsessed with tiles', has allowed a swathe of bold Emery & Cie tiles to 'bleed' from the wet room across the main space and into the utility room, providing interest and also, practically, a place for the children to paint. She persuaded the builders to build a huge sliding door out of the rest of the oak flooring.
The first floor is now a glamorous main bedroom with a large dressing room leading through to a romantic, Forties-inspired bathroom housed in a new extension. Here, a lovely old vanity unit, 'which needed a lot of restoration', sets the tone, along with Maria's characteristic use of tiles – she hates tile trims, so instead she sets the tiles flush with the walls. The top floor is the children's domain, and is decorated in her playful style, with bright green carpets, bold patterns and fun birch-ply shelving. Maria also opened up the roof to create a mezzanine play area.
There were a few things on which the owner hecked Maria – 'She wanted to do things such as fabric-wrapped doors and I wasn't having any of it,' the owner laughs. But she is full of praise for Maria's 'imaginative, spunky ideas. She doesn't follow any trends at all, she just follows her heart.' Indeed, Maria is an example to us all, turning other people's waste into something utterly covetable and chic. If you find yourself doing up a house, ripping out the previous owner's kitchen or taking up the bathroom tiles, perhaps you should think twice before throwing anything away. As Maria points out, using reclaimed materials takes 'bespoke' to new levels; not only is the end product designed for you, but the materials themselves have a unique provenance – something which is deeply satisfying.