Mid-century Marvellous: An Interview with Simon Siegel

As you bank right onto the steep-sloping drive and regard the delicate slab of a house in front of you, guarded by a natural arbor of tall pines, you could be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere otherworldly, like Oregon, or Vancouver. In fact, you only left the M1 five minutes ago, just a few miles short of Nottingham. The hum of motorway is no longer audible, swapped for the busy murmurs of of a British woodland.

On either side of the road to the house, you find a sparse sprinkling of classic English country homes, big red brick types with flumes of smoke drifting upwards from a chimney stack, but this is not one of those. Simon and Monica Siegel's home is a masterpiece of mid-century modernism, designed by architect David Shelley in 1970. Carved into a bank, the stealthy steel-framed structure blends beautifully with its surroundings, at once juxtaposed with and complementary to the fauna surrounding it. We're here to meet Simon and shoot our Winter collection, itself inspired by mid-century modernist architecture.

Simon Siegel at his modernist home in Nottingham

Simon founded Atomic Interiors, based in Nottingham, some 30 years ago. It specialises in contemporary design furniture and lighting, which, while it's not a pre-requisite for living in such a unique property, certainly helps to fill it. With original flourishes including a courtyard garden, carp pond, swimming pool and sunken conversation pit, the Siegels have designed the space with aplomb, using their inherently sharp eyes to populate the various areas of the home with a discerning collection of design products and flea-market finds, all of which look perfectly at home against the 70s terrazzo floors, rosewood and teak detailing, integrated drinks cabinets and granite walls.

Built around a steel frame, and cut into a hillside, the house is afforded very open, large spans. From the kitchen, one can see right across the entire length of the building, through an outdoor atrium, home of a Japanese acer, all the way past the sunken conversation pit and into the sitting room (or as Simon refers to it, "the dance floor"). It's as if the space was designed to be moved through, which is just as well because there's a lot to regard and marvel at, something Simon admits he does all the time. 

 

THE HOUSE

How did you come about acquiring the house?

“We were never going to buy it, actually. When it came on the market, we weren’t in a position to purchase it. The person who was supposed to be buying it was actually someone I knew, but for whatever reason, they didn’t go through with the purchase. More out of curiosity than anything else, I went to the estate agent and asked if I could have a look around, which we did. No sooner were Monica and I out of the drive, we were asking each other “Ok, how do we do this?!” I had a friend who worked in finance who was confident that he would be able to secure the funds we needed. My thinking was, well, I can afford to service it and my business is growing so let’s take a chance. So I wrote a cheque for the deposit, which in turn meant we needed to sell our house in under a month! Luckily, a friend bought it from us. I’m glad we took the risk, because I would have always regretted not doing so. Unless our circumstances change, we never need to move again."

"We are actually the third owners of the house, after the people who commissioned it and the people we bought it from. When we first saw it, it was quite different, but we had a good idea of how we envisioned the property and were passionate about restoring it to its former glory. It needed quite a bit of remedial work such as replacing glazing units, putting in proper insulation and sorting out the heating system, but nothing too radical. We didn't want to compromise its integrity as a mid-century piece of modernist architecture.

"Funnily enough, when we bought it, I called up the original architect, David Shelley, to tell him that we were the new owners and that we loved the house. He wasn’t overly friendly, and his first question to me was, ‘What colour are the exterior panels painted?’ I replied saying we were in the process of putting them back to the original black (from a pretty awful red) and that made him warm up a bit! He sent us a big pack of original hand drawings, conceptual sketches and other records of the house, which is nice to have. 

"When we bought the house, the 70s wasn't looked at too favourably as a decade of design inspiration, whereas now it's all the rage. But doing what I do, you have to be somewhat ahead of the curve, and understand what people are going to want in the future. In furniture, we’re interested in design, longevity, build quality, so you buy something that you might keep for the next 30 years and it won’t look out of date. And sure, zeitgeisty things come along and they are ephemeral, and they can be interesting sometimes, but that’s not what I’m about. We’ve collected from all decades, but everything has that timelessness which is inherent in good design."

THE DESIGN

Where does your love of design come from?

"I don’t know where the design thing came from but when I met Monica we both had this shared interest. I was interested in the aesthetic. I liked cars and guitars, but I never had any money to buy them. I didn’t come from a privileged background - my father was in the textile industry. But at some point, I came to the conclusion that if I was going to buy something, it was because it was beautiful, whether that be a kettle or whatever else. Obviously that’s my design judgement, but that became important to me. I don’t like to surround myself with ugly things. Some people might think that to be pretentious or superficial but I think that's missing the point. Great design, beautiful objects - they are timeless.  A lot of our furniture and lighting we’ve had for 20, 25 or 30 years, so it’s also about the longevity of quality, well-made things. And, why not aim for everything around you to be beautiful?

"The more you train your eye to look for good design, the more you find it in everything."

"My business, Atomic Interiors, is named after a coffee machine with a beautiful sculptural shape. It just fascinates me that a boring household object can be converted into something of great beauty. The more you train your eye to look for good design, the more you find it in everything, from an Olivetti calculator to a beautiful watch.

"I could talk endlessly about the nuances of objects and sometimes have to check myself because I think this is trivial and in today’s world you know there are people who are not fortunate enough to think about the colour of something, but it’s what makes us who we are."

"I’m a bit of a dreamer. It’s why I didn’t do very well at school because I was sat there looking out of the window thinking about David Bowie. My school didn’t cater for anything creative, so I absorbed all that later."

How would you describe mid-century design?

"Mid-century design is like minimalism with optimism, but the difference is it’s completely liveable. It works in every kind of space, so whether you have a small flat or a big house, you can introduce elements of it and they will feel right. It’s accessible and has that sculptural element too.

"But we’re also not faddish or stuck in the mid-century. We like an eclectic style that can incorporate a lot of different eras, and I think having sculptural furniture pieces helps because they’re timeless shapes that transcend a particular moment. Actually, that’s what living in this house feels like to me: inhabiting a sculpture."

 

THE MUSIC

"I’ve been signed to a record label, worked at an ad agency, worked for and been sacked by my dad, all those kind of things you do in your early 20s! When I was a struggling musician, I was always looking for ways to support myself so we would look for stuff to buy and eventually we had a permanent stall at Camden Market. In those days a lot of the stuff we could find was art deco. We met when we were 23 years old, and, back then, our idea of fun was going to flea markets or jumble sales to buy and collect things. Even when we were young and had no money, we still wanted to have interesting things around us.

"In part, I did this so I could make enough money to support myself playing music. I had a job in an ad agency which I'd packed in to be able to concentrate on the band, so buying and selling furniture was a nice sideline that was fun too.

"Eventually we ended up signing to a label called FM Revolver, who signed two bands that year, us and a group called the Stone Roses. And the rest is history!"

"I was in a band called The Dream. It came out of nothing really. I was always interested in music, just messing about but enjoying it. But then we had some interest from one guy in particular at EMI who was very keen for us to go to a studio and make some demos, so we thought, well maybe we have more talent than we thought we had! So we started taking it a bit more seriously. More gigs, a manager even. Eventually we ended up signing to a label called FM Revolver, who signed two bands that year, us and a group called the Stone Roses. And the rest is history!

"There’s nothing that beats that feeling of playing music. Even now I’m not embarrassed by the album that we released in 1990. It still sounds ok and the cover is fantastic - a painting by my friend’s father. But for a number of reasons, I fell out of love with the music industry and decided to follow my other great passion which was design." 

What are your musical influences today?

"I bought Ziggy Stardust when I was 10. I've always been into Bowie except for his terrible 80s period! But the 70s and 80s were great for me because I was just old enough to get into Punk and New Wave, so the bands I was listening to were the likes of Gang of Four, XTC, then later the likes of The Smiths. But I also like ambient music and stuff like Ennio Morricone. I'm also passionate about Scott Walker. Recently I've been listening to the new Fleet Foxes album which is absolutely brilliant and completely absorbing. There’s one track called Going-To-The-Sun Road, where a guy starts singing in Brazilian Portuguese, and it's stunning. There’s a Staffordshire duo called Epic45 who not many people have heard of but who make the most beautiful ambient music."

  

THE CARS

Towards the end of the interview, Simon led us outside to his garage to talk cars. As you might have guessed by now, Simon's interest in all things automobile centres on the design aesthetic. Horsepower, top speed, zero to 60, do not concern him, which is what makes his car collection so unique. It includes three Citroëns, a Fiat Cinquecento, an Alfa Romeo, a Porsche 911 and perhaps one or two others that I've forgotten.

Tell us a little about this quite eccentric collection of cars...

"A friend of mine who knows my passion for cars, was staying in an airbnb in Stoke of all places and called to tell me that the owner of the property had an "old Fiat", and had mentioned something about selling it. So I tracked this guy down and ended up buying it. Turned out it was owned by a couple who had split up, and the lady, who was Italian, had been given it by her brother in Italy, where it was restored, and they drove it back from Rome! 

Simon Siegel's Fiat Cinquecento

"I’ve had a bit of work done to it. It actually has a Fiat 126 engine and gearbox which is a common upgrade in Italy. I can get 65mph out of it with a tail wind. I’ve actually overtaken people! It’s such a pleasure to drive because it’s so analog - you can’t go fast, you can’t get mad, you just sit there and enjoy the experience.

"I'm not interested in how fast a car can go around the Nurburgring. I’m interested in the design and how it works and how it makes you feel when you drive it."  

"It's very quirky but a brilliant piece of design. They put a fabric sunroof on it to save on steel. To me it's more of a design object than a car. Mine is the L version of 1969 - you even get a fuel gauge with this one! The first time I went to Italy with Monica she had an early model that didn't have a fuel gauge. We drove all over from Bologna to Assisi and I remember driving up hills in Umbria, terrified because if you lost momentum, you were knackered!

"The Citroëns are my real love though. The thing with Citroën is they are the most designed car and I only realised this in my antique dealing days. I’ve always bought old cars, that’s my thing, and back then I needed a bigger car, so I ended up buying a CX first. Everything is not just designed, it's beautifully designed. Citroën might not have the quality to them that other manufacturers have, but they work incredibly well. The hydraulics, steering, brakes - all amazing. I got into them for the design but then my appreciation expanded. We had a DS once too, from a guy in Nottingham, and we drove to Rome in it. It was so comfortable! 

Simon Siegel's vintage Citroen

"As far as I'm concerned, from a design perspective, classic Citroën stands so far above everyone else. I”m not interested in how fast a car can go around the Nürburgring. I’m interested in the design and how it works and how it makes you feel when you drive it. In France, Citroën was seen as a luxury vehicle not so much in the UK because we were so class driven so people were inclined to go for Jaguar and Rover. Whereas in France, Citroën was the brand. People can be very sniffy about them and that’s great for me because it keeps the price down!

"I also have a vintage Porsche 911, but Porsche is amazing for different reasons. It’s like a Rolex. Not the modern Porsche but the early 911s. You get to understand why people have several of them and why they become so obsessed about them. Good design does that to you."

 

To shop the finest contemporary furniture, lighting and homeware, head over to atomicinteriors.com.

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