It takes many of us a lifetime to discover that treasure lies closer to home than we think, but when Robert Amstad was trying to find a property to live in a few years ago, he realised that a building that he had owned for 30 years – Hastings Antiques Centre – could be transformed into a home for him, and bring him closer to his twin passions: sailing and collecting art. Most of the space in the three storey building had been taken up by his antiques business, either as part of the shop or for the storage of antiques. "I suddenly saw what a cracking shell this was," he says of the large Georgian building in the heart of the St Leonards district of Hastings. The house was built on the site of the original Norman church and one of the outside walls is made from the sturdy remains of the church wall, anchoring the building into history. It is a great feature and one of the first to greet us, as the stairs from the shop leading to the house run up alongside it.
As with many old properties, this house has been through several incarnations. At one point in the nineteenth century it had been converted into a telecommunication building – one of the first in Hastings, set up to serve the second home owners and affluent holiday makers of the day. Rob points out a strip of metal on one of the outside walls that housed the conduit for the telephone wires. "Every five years a telecom buff will visit and have a look round. It's apparently quite well known in those circles," he smiles.
As well as running his antiques business, Rob specialises in hotel clearance and his experiences have helped him look at interior spaces and see beyond the existing features to the original shape of the house. He is regularly commissioned by large hotel chains to clear out hotels, mainly in Paris, but all over Europe, stripping the interiors prior to major refurbishment. Many of these projects are huge, involving a lot of co-ordination, not least arranging and managing great artic lorries in and out of European cities. There is evidence of hotel paraphernalia, collected over the years, around the house – signs saying RECEPTION and CONCIERGE and other quirky pieces of hotel life. There are some interesting finds - he points out the Philippe Starck coat stand and the smart kitchen table which once belonged to the chef Joël Robuchon. "That came from Robuchon's restaurant in Hotel le Parc," he says.
Rob set about reducing the shop's floor space and creating a private house above and beyond the shop. It has taken vision and a huge amount of hard graft to scrape away the years of cover-ups and ‘improvements' that had been layered onto the walls and floors of the house. There were two main eras when it was subject to modernisation – a Victorian renovation, when the rooms were sub-divided and the ceilings were clad in timber and then more recently in the seventies, when many of the original features in the house were covered up and the ceilings were added to again, this time with ubiquitous polystyrene tiles, which are still on view down in the shop. Rob had to carefully remove all the Victorian tongue and groove cladding in order to get the tiles off and then painstakingly replace it all. "I like the Victorian cladding," he says, "it has a nautical quality."
Rob's love of sailing becomes more evident as we travel through the house; his wonderful office with its captain's desk has a definite nautical feel about it, but the elegant dimensions of the room – the high Georgian ceiling, elegant decor and large window, albeit with a sea view – are more Admiralty office than Captain's cabin. Rob has installed one of a matching pair of Adam fireplaces in this room and its twin on the other side of the wall, one painted dark grey, the other white, so that one becomes a relief of the other. I look up at the ceiling in the adjacent room and notice the ceiling rose and ornate plasterwork ring. These are original, but surely they weren't covered in polystyrene? "Yes," sighs Rob. "I had to remove the ring in sections and then replace it." I inspect it closely and am completely unable to see any joins. You'd never guess it had been touched at all.
The windows have handsome wooden shutters on them, but despite appearances these aren't original. "I made all the shutters," says Rob. "I don't like curtains – or carpets." He adds, "I only feel comfortable on boards." The windows and the floors may be bare, save for the shutters and a few carefully placed rugs, but the effect isn't stark at all, more pared down and simplified, a careful peeling back to reveal the architecture and the integrity of the house. "I wanted to scrape everything away," Rob explains, "to get back to the bare bones of the house and remove all the additions."
Each time I look out of the large window in his study there's someone taking a photo of a piece of graffiti on the wall opposite the house. "Oh yes, there's always someone out there taking a photo of that." Is it a Banksy? "No, the Banksy is round the corner, down on the sea front. My son did this one." Rob's son is studying Fine Art at Hastings College and is a street artist going by the name of Benji. Rob is a member of the Hastings Art Forum and does a lot to promote local artists, and help unknown talent to get on the ladder. He has an impressive art collection. All around there are large and powerful images, bruising landscapes by Alan Rankle, oil dark torsos and faces by Robert Sample and muscular, graphic street art by Ben Eine. The paintings are almost overwhelming in their power and the house with its tall, predominantly white walls and delicate, scraped back detailing, recedes modestly and elegantly into the background to allow the paintings their full presence. But just as the house stands back from the artworks, their bold intensity also accentuates the perfection of the fine Georgian features in each room.
I'm struck by the juxtaposition of light the dark in this house, and nowhere is this more emphasised than in the bathrooms. There are two good-sized bathrooms - one white and one black. They both have a striking painting in a similar position; in the white bathroom there's a picture of a skull by Ben Eine and in the black, a raw and intense painting by Alice Maylam titled ‘Out of the Dark' which features a face protruding into the light and provided the inspiration for Rob's bold colour choice.
Where does his love of art come from? "It's my passion. I just love it and I'm on a mission to support local artists – to try and get some of the unknown talent round here noticed." He gives me a leaflet on the latest, an artist called Angela Young, whose paintings of evocative and ethereal classical forms have recently been exhibited at the Hastings Art Forum. Rob does let slip that art collecting may be in his blood, as his mother is descended from the affluent Champagnier family, who amassed a huge art collection at the end of the nineteenth century. Renoir painted many of his ancestors in Biarritz, but after the war the family gave most of the collection away to the Musee d'Orsay to help the poor of Paris. They were also influential in setting up the well known Emmaus charity in Paris which helps homeless people.
There is a definite Parisian feel to the roof terrace and the atrium that Rob has stylishly renovated. "It was a horrible seventies flat roofed lump." He raised and glazed the roof, using a wrought-iron framework, and has turned an uninspiring space into a light filled and elegant entrance to the property. Outside, the atrium is clad in fish-scale slate tiles and finished with studded leadwork – very reminiscent of a Parisian rooftop scene. It's a charming space; we could be in Paris, but for the smell of the sea and the seagulls around us.
There is something about the sea that attracts artists to the coast: the light, the drama of the ever-changing sea and sky, the visceral forces of nature. Rob is combining his love of art, the sea and sailing at the moment – he is in the middle of making a documentary, which he can't say too much about, but it involves a painter, a sailing boat and a stretch of coastline. It sounds like an interesting project. I'm intrigued and ask whether artists make good sailors? "Funnily enough, one was rather seasick." He laughs. As we take our leave and head back downstairs to the shop, squeezing past more huge canvasses, Rob explains that the stairs and hall are still to do. Compared with the hard graft involved in transforming the rest of the house, this last little bit should be plain sailing.
Learn more about Kaffe's life and work in his autobiography Dreaming in Colour (Stewart, Tabori & Chang priced at £25) and in his latest quilt book Shots and Stripes (Stewart, Tabori & Chang priced at £22.50). More information about Kaffe's work can be found at www.kaffefassett.com. You can buy Kaffe's fabrics online at www.westminsterfabrics.com and www.gloriouscolour.com. Search for your nearest stockist at www.coatscrafts.co.uk/Products/Patchwork+and+quilting/Fabrics/ For more information about Brandon's work visit www.brandonmably.com