'It looked like a squat' - Irish stylist reveals how she renovated her dilapidated apartment into a mid-century gem
To undertake a home renovation is always daunting, to do it virtually alone, even more so; to do it alone and in a country not your own is a monumental task, but one that Dubliner Gillian Hyland undertook with gusto.
She had a vision, and with a limited budget, she created a mid-century gem in the heart of London.
Vision is the word that sums up Gillian. She has a highly creative eye for the unusual, and this talent, along with her single-mindedness, has taken her from TV researcher to fashion stylist to set designer to art photographer, both in Dublin and London. It's a talent she wears lightly. "I'm a little bit of everything," Gillian says with a laugh, adding that, despite her youth - the willowy brunette is in her early 30s - the reason she has done so much is she had a head start.
"I started very young, around 19, styling and working on shoots. Being around the business helped me develop an aesthetic of my own. I got to work with a lot of talented people; that was inspiring," she says.
The Glasnevin native studied media and broadcasting at Ballyfermot College, and, while there, she started writing fashion articles for U magazine. That led her to styling for Off the Rails, RTE's fashion programme in the early 2000s, and from there to doing the interior pages of the RTE Guide, as well as some music journalism and fashion for Hot Press. All the while, she was learning the languages of film, TV and photography. "The styling, the journalism and the interiors all flowed together in Dublin," she notes.
The series producer of Off The Rails, Anne Roper, has, Gillian says, been a great mentor over the years. "Anne went on to make a lot of documentaries and she employed me to get props when she was doing reconstructions. That was a great education in film," Gillian notes.
She was offered a job in a London media company, coming up with ideas for advertising campaigns. She took it, but she soon found it wasn't hands-on enough. "They worked with lots of brands, and they wanted somebody to come up with ideas for campaigns. It was very office-based, and I didn't actually get to go on shoots," Gillian says. "I missed the creativity. It was so frustrating."
After six months in that company, she realised she'd be better off becoming a freelance stylist in London, and so she got an agent and quickly established a client base. "In Dublin, I just went from job to job, it was all word of mouth, but I had no contacts in London. The agent got me the jobs. I worked with a lot of women's titles - Elle, Red - and I did mainly advertising work; that's where the money is. L'Oreal, Sony, mainly print. I did TV stuff for Thomas Cook and Ford. Some jobs, I just did fashion styling, some interiors, some both. Some jobs, I was creating the overall aesthetic," she notes, adding, "It kept me entertained for many years."
Gillian says she learned a lot from the photographers and art directors she worked with, and, like herself, many are not English; they came from everywhere, especially Italy and Scandanavia. Through them, she learned about lighting and all the other elements of photography, and started helping on set. "When I started doing my own photography, it meant I wasn't just starting out," she says. "Before that, I collaborated with a few photographers. It got to the point where I thought, 'I'm kind of doing everything but taking the picture'. The only way for me to own it was to do the photography side."
She has now done some commercial photography - recent work includes a campaign for a Japanese kids' brand and a job with Canon; this she does alongside art photography, telling stories through her images. She's produced a stunning book called Words In Sight, which contains poems she's written herself, along with corresponding images. "It's an ongoing project, I've been working on it for years," she says.
Gillian seems to enjoy making things challenging for herself; many of the photographs for the book were shot in Cuba, a place she had visited and liked. "I'd go over for a month at a time, find locations I liked. I did castings - some models, some people I just found on the street, people I thought looked interesting, as each photograph tells a story. I'm very much about the composition of the image. Each poem and each photograph has a strong emotional presence."
Gillian sells the limited-edition prints of these photos through her website, and through art galleries like Sol Art on D'Olier Street.
Of course, some have made their way onto the walls of her stunning apartment in Clapton in London, which she bought in 2014, though stunning it wasn't when she bought it. "It looked like a squat; it had been really run down, you wouldn't have wanted to look at the kitchen and bathroom; it was awful," Gillian recalls with a shudder.
At the time, property was at an all-time high in London. It was impossible to get a private viewing; there were queues to see every apartment, and they were all going £70,000-£90,000 beyond their asking price. Few, however were interested in the one Gillian bought. "It was too much work for a first-time buyer or a couple - you couldn't move in until it was done up - and investors would buy something cheaper. I got excited because I thought I could make it exactly the way I'd like it," she explains.
In its favour, it was an old building - 1930s, warehouse style, with high walls and lots of light - in an area she likes. She had a vision for what she wanted including an open-plan living space. She got an architect to draw up the plans and a structural engineer to see about knocking down the walls. She had the floors ripped out, and had to have them relevelled and new oak floors and tiles put in.
New plumbing and electrics were also necessary. "I remember my sister Lisa, who also lives in London now, came over, and there were no floors, and wires hanging everywhere. She was like, 'Do you know what you've taken on?'" As well as the open-plan living space, Gillian put in two bedrooms, a bathroom and lots of storage.
The build was not smooth going. The first contractor wasn't good, so Gillian had to fire him. So after that, she hired individual plumbers, carpenters, tilers, etc.
She also bought every single item herself. "I paid them for labour only. I bought everything - building supplies, paint, even bags of cement, every single bag," she explains.
It took eight months in total, and it cost much more than she thought, but she admits she never compromised. "I could have done it cheaper, but I chose not to compromise on items like the bathroom," she says. "I chose not to go down that road."
She decided she'd like a mid-century vibe, so she opted for formica units in the kitchen with all the utilities hidden behind them. "I wanted the kitchen to add to the living space, I wanted it to be clean and concealed," Gillian says.
In the living areas, the walls are panelled. "I did a lot of research and found a kind of panelling I'd like. It's great for hanging pictures."
All the furnishings have a retro quality; some are new, some are vintage, yet it's also warm and welcoming. A real achievement. "At one level, it was very stressful, but in many ways I enjoyed it," she says. "It was like a massive set for me to design and build." See gillianhyland.com See solart.ie
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Gillian Hyland
Sunday Indo Life Magazine