During the construction of Sophie Hicks's new London home, the steel framework was exposed to the rain for a few days, and it rusted. “The builders said, ‘Don’t worry, Sophie. We can clean it up,’ ” Hicks recalls. “And I said, ‘No, no, don’t touch it.’ I knew the steel was going to be surrounded by swish aluminum frames, so I left the rust as a memory of how the building was made.”
Subtle yet rigorously considered details like this are typical of Hicks’s architecture, which is best described by her favorite adjectives: discreet, restrained, smart, and lasting. Sitting in the living area of the house, with daylight streaming in, Hicks herself exudes those very qualities. A slender, bespectacled 58-year-old, she favors the same boyishly cropped hair and archetypally masculine clothing she has worn since her late teens and early 20s. She started out working as a fashion editor for British Vogue and stylist for Azzedine Alaïa, then enrolled, in 1987, at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, in London. Today’s iteration of Hicks’s elegantly androgynous look, which bagged her a cameo role in Federico Fellini’s 1986 film Intervista and has made her a style icon on gender-queer media platforms, consists of a plain white T-shirt beneath a chunkily knitted Holland & Holland navy blue sweater and crisply cut wool pants in the same hue.
“I remember being very impressed when Sophie turned up for work at Vogue in the 1980s looking fantastically stylish in her pajamas,” says the British fashion designer Paul Smith, who has commissioned her to design several stores, including his London flagship. “Sophie has this way of working with irreverence, avoiding the obvious and celebrating the ordinary.”
The striking glass-and-concrete house she built among the solemn late-19th-century stucco terraces at one of West London’s chicer addresses, Earls Court Square, is a case in point. It all started when Hicks spotted a peculiar patch of land in an auction catalog in 2010. “It was tiny, with three rundown garages and lots of junk dumped on a little bit of a forecourt,” she recounts. “But I went along to the auction, stuck my hand up, and got it.” Her plan was to design a house from scratch, then sell it or rent it out. Instead, Hicks moved in last summer, with her partner, Tom Stuttaford, a 58-year-old communications consultant, and the youngest of her three children, Olympia, 23, a master’s student in human evolution at University College London. (Olympia’s siblings, the model Edie Campbell, 28, and Arthur, a 30-year-old math teacher, live elsewhere in London.)
When Hicks bought the site, almost a decade ago, she had been working as an architect for nearly 25 years with considerable success. Established as a go-to designer for the fashion industry, thanks to her work for brands including Chloé and Yohji Yamamoto, as well as Paul Smith, she was also renowned for her ingenuity at transforming 18th- and 19th-century London buildings into contemporary homes. “But I wanted to construct new buildings that I could be proud of in the city where I was born and have lived for almost all my life,” she explains. “I wasn’t getting those projects for all sorts of reasons, in particular for being a woman. I think it’s mad to write off women architects, but we’re still being ignored. I thought, If I’m going to build, I’m going to have to generate projects myself. So I started buying land.”
She began by designing “a tiny house for my children” in the garden of an 18th-century terraced house in the city’s Bloomsbury area, in 2015. “It’s next to a heritage park, which made it really, really difficult to get planning permission,” Hicks says. “Somehow, I got it in the end, and I thought, Well, okay, I’m really quite good at this.” Her next project was Earls Court Square: another cramped site in a historical area with Byzantine planning restrictions. Hicks’s solution was to build a two-story house—with one floor above ground and the other below—across the entire plot, and to give it “maximum light and maximum views” by encasing the raw-concrete frame in glass and installing a light well beside the two basement bedrooms. From inside the house, you can look up through the glass to the sky and surrounding treetops, though Hicks has tactfully hidden her technocentric structure from its traditional neighbors behind a high white wall.
Achieving this required extreme precision. “If you design the way I do, with no finishes, the bones of the building have to be absolutely right, because that’s what you’ll see,” Hicks says. Take the concrete, which was poured on-site into wooden molds to produce the rugged béton brut effect beloved of early modernists such as Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer, and two of Hicks’s favorite architects, Félix Candela and Paulo Mendes da Rocha. “We used the cheapest, roughest fencing boards for the molds,” she notes. “If you look closely, you can see hairy bits of wood stuck in the concrete. I like the honesty and power of béton brut, and I love the contrast between a really heavy and textured structure and the lightness and smoothness of glass.”
Halfway through construction, Hicks started to think about living there. “I thought, This is looking rather nice. Could we? No, it’s too small. Well, maybe.” The house is tiny compared to her old home, in what was originally a 19th-century block of stables in a Notting Hill mews. In 2005, she converted the block into living and work spaces, which included a studio for her practice and a spacious home for her family with a swimming pool—a rarity in London. Hicks has now rented that house, but kept the studio. “I miss the luxury of the pool, though I’m getting a bit fitter because the health club pool is longer,” she says. “But moving is good, because you clear out tons of stuff, and we love it here.”
On the first floor of her more modest new digs, a galley kitchen is tucked unobtrusively into a corner. “It’s made from a solid slab of stainless steel and white Corian,” she explains. “The idea is for the Corian to look like matte white paintwork.” Much of the furniture is similarly subtle, but Hicks has livened up the white linen-covered sofa and Jasper Morrison cork stool by pairing them with Eero Saarinen dining chairs upholstered in plummy burgundy velvet and a vibrant oil painting by the British artist Martin Maloney. Equally striking is the staccato silhouette of an ancient yipwon, a Papua New Guinean figure. “It has been eaten by termites, rotted by rain, and brought to the West,” Hicks observes fondly. “I love the fact that it has really lived.”
The contrasts continue in the master bedroom, where she has mixed two minimalist artworks, an Ellsworth Kelly drawing and a Richard Serra oil-stick painting, with a tiny late-1920s Man Ray portrait of an Egyptian society beauty, Nimet Eloui Bey. Olympia’s bedroom sports more minimalism—another Kelly and a Donald Judd drawing—but also a bed decked out in one of the surreally exotic floral fabrics designed by the Austrian architect Josef Frank.
Having settled in happily, Hicks is focusing on other builds, starting with a house currently under construction in nearby Holland Park. She is also designing a country spread for her daughter Edie on a sliver of land between two lakes in rural Northamptonshire. “It’s going to be absolutely beautiful, a very discreet and restrained shed, which will look as though it’s on the water,” Hicks says. “Edie is a very good client. She’s very decisive and gets everything quickly. Also, if ever it looks as if we might have a mother-daughter thing, my partner in the office is terribly diplomatic, so he comes in and sorts it all out.”