A '50s revival

This old home was brought into the 21st century.

piano real 88 298 (photo credit: Eyal Izhar)
piano real 88 298
(photo credit: Eyal Izhar)
The moment designer Selwyn Elkin walked into the old apartment in north Tel Aviv, he was struck by the extraordinary beauty and workmanship of the fittings and wall paneling. Even though it was drab and aged, he knew it had been designed by a master and that if he refurbished, he would keep everything. "I was the only designer who suggested keeping everything instead of gutting it," says Elkin. "It had, in fact, been designed by the same artist who designed the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv. It was all so beautiful, how could I throw it away?" While one always assumed that in the early years of the State the tsena (austerity) reigned supreme, clearly there were citizens who could afford to build beautiful homes. Even more surprisingly, there were materials available, including wood, marble and leather, which look as good today as they did 55 years ago. That there were craftsmen able to produce these things is less surprising, as the country was flooded with Holocaust refugees and survivors who had been master craftsmen in their native Europe. Rahel, the owner, was a little girl when her parents built the apartment block, situated in a leafy street in what is called the "old north" but which, in 1941, stood practically on its own. "The street next to the house was bombed by the Italians, so my parents were afraid to move here and stayed in their rented apartment, letting this out for key money," she recalls. In 1950 they decided to move in, and did the refurbishment. It was never touched again until Elkin saw its potential and spent six months - a long time for him - restoring it to its original beauty. "We opened up the balcony but weren't able to incorporate it altogether for structural reasons," he explains. "We decided that everything old, like the built-in cupboards and paneling, would be restored, while anything new would be done in modern, stream-lined style." Two arched cupboards with intricate marquetry work on either side of the balcony wall were restored to their former glory. "The electricity was here, we just polished them up," says Elkin. One of the cupboards is used as a bar, the other to enclose the radio and gramophone. The floor presented a problem, having been made of a pinky-beige marble which came from what had been Trans-Jordan. "We brought marble specialists who were able to match it up perfectly," says Rahel. "As for the furniture, everything you see in this apartment was made here; absolutely nothing was imported." The lounge suite was recovered in bright gold brocade. Elkin added some throw cushions in red and gold and perched a hydrangea on the magnificent coffee table, dark mahogany inlaid with flowers and with brass joins at the top of the legs. On the balcony is a set of children's furniture dating from the 30s, repainted and in perfect condition. He opened up the small, dark entrance and incorporated the balcony of what had been the toilet to make an airy, bright guest bathroom. The kitchen, once old, dark and narrow, is now gleaming, with white lacquered cabinets and marvelous Philippe Starck transparent chairs. One notices that the top cupboards are lacquered in a cream shade, to blend in with the walls. "White lacquer all over would have been too much," explains Elkin. "These are quasi-secret cupboards - they have no handles and open by pressing them." A white settee stands between two large, glass-fronted display cabinets where Rahel keeps many collections and can sit and enjoy them or watch the wall plasma screen. A pull-out shelf under one of the cabinets has been thoughtfully provided for resting a cup of tea. The bedroom suite is from the 50s, while the pink and white embroidered bed linen is 70 years old and bears her mother's monogram. It looks as though it were made yesterday. The balcony off the bedroom with its original sliding doors has been converted into a private bathroom. The inside of the fitted wardrobes is made of a light wood, possibly ash, inlaid with darker banding. In all the fittings, the inside is as beautiful as the outside. A small study off the entrance hall still has the original imitation leather doors, all handmade, while the door frames, in intricate patterns, have been renovated. Built-in cupboards still sport their original handmade brass hinges. Selwyn points out the places where the central heating had been hidden behind brass grilles and now the spaces are used for storing books. If the apartment proves anything, it is that fine workmanship lasts, beauty is timeless - and that it's possible to mix old and new with brilliant results. Do you feel you own one of Israel's most beautiful homes? Please e-mail [email protected].