About Michelle Ogundehin
Hello! I’m Michelle, a power-of-home obsessive, colour nut and detail queen. Not because I think scatter cushions and paint finishes trump all, but because I truly believe that the path to becoming #happyinside lies in the creation of a carefully considered space in which to live. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a game-changer. The singlemost powerful thing that you can do to support your health and happiness, alongside eating well and exercising.
In other words, if you want to become your best self, take a look at what surrounds you. And it’s from this point of view that I write, muse, collaborate and post pictures.
So, while other pages deal with my professional timeline, this one is about my personal journey — because in the beginning is the end. In short, I believe I both discovered and healed myself through my pursuit of ‘home’, and therein lies my desire to share — to help others harness the power of home, delving deeper than decor to the space between home and wellbeing. #happyinside.
Where did it all begin?
It’d be handy if I had a convenient back story of bohemian parents with fashionable friends and flamboyant tastes that I can cite as early influences. Perhaps an historic family pile or lineage of intrigue. Sadly not. Neither did I spend my early years at flea markets, on exotic holidays, or watching my parents redecorate while I idly thumbed through their interiors magazines. Certainly my mother can draw beautifully and my father was an engineer, so the creative/construction gene was potentially inherited, but my parents were too busy surviving to be interested in décor.
My story then is simply one of an ever-widening understanding of just how important a sense of ‘home’ can be to your emotional health, and physical wellbeing. And crucially, how to stack the odds for both in your favour. Indeed, if I track back and recall all of the places that I have tried to make home, with their many quirks and details, I recognise that each taught me something about the link between the state of my environment and its impact on my relationships, finances, hormones and health.
First memories of home
My first memory of home is standing behind one of those metal gates designed to keep children from falling down the stairs. I was watching all of our possessions being loaded onto a removals van. I don’t recall being particularly upset about it, only that the room we were standing in was orange. A loud, strident Jaffa bright orange as requested by my younger sister, aged about two. It was absolutely hideous. Curiously, I can’t remember my own room, only that moment, orange behind, and the future suddenly uncertain in front as everything that meant ‘home’ was suddenly going someplace else.
Clearly retrospect is useful when it comes to thinking about such things, and I believe that while in childhood I wasn’t particularly interested in marking my external space, I was busily cultivating my inner world. Ordering it, and making it make sense, to me.
Thus, aged about eight, I made my first magazine! A sticky affair being largely comprised of glue and glitter, but nevertheless a portable record of my favourite things. My second, created when I was sixteen, was rather more accomplished. It had a masthead — ‘Cosmos’ in suitably swoopy script — an Editor’s letter, a ‘fun facts feature’ about cats, how to decorate a hat with pompoms (see below), a recipe page and puzzles.
I had of course completely forgotten about this little masterpiece until it was unearthed some twenty years later in my parent’s attic. So, was I always destined to become a magazine editor? Or did I manifest my heart’s desire? No idea.
The university years
But before we get to that chapter, I moved to London to study architecture. My first ‘home’ there was a single room in a nonedescript student hall, off a corridor full of the same. I stuck a large grey/green poster of The Smiths on the back of my door, and I was in independence-at-last heaven.
My second year involved a house in Willesden Green shared with ten student friends. Key insight? It’s a very bad thing to share with people who don’t consider cleaning the bath a priority.
There followed a marginally better flat near The Oval in South London. Despite fantastically inadequate heating, it was an improvement because the kitchen accommodated a dining table and I only shared with one other. Although at some point my boyfriend moved in too. All three of us were studying architecture and we didn’t care one jot about our interior decor beyond a coat of Brilliant White to obscure the landlord default magnolia. I can’t remember if we ever sat in the lounge, nor if we even had a television. What I do recall is my friend painting her entire room in white gloss by mistake. It took a week to dry and stank for an age.
Nevertheless this period marked the beginning of constantly moving my furniture around, intuitively trying to re-shape the way my rooms worked. How could I make them look bigger? How could I make the layout more efficient? How could I make a space mine? I had a knack for knowing that if I could just shunt the bed over there, change this and shift that, a room would work better, by which I meant, feel better.
New York New York
After graduating, I worked for the American architectural behemoths, Skidmore Owings & Merrill in an office staffed largely by native New Yorkers. Ever fond of a challenge, inevitably, the desire to live in the city ‘that-will-make-you-if-it-doesn’t-break-you’ grew strong. A year later, armed with a student visa and the incredible good fortune of a colleague’s Upper East side apartment to sublet (not in the posh part, I hasten to add), I left with a single suitcase for a three-month sabbatical. I ended up staying almost two years.
The apartment was a capsule 3-room affair in a red-brick tenement block. It had a galley kitchen, a lounge/bedroom, a bathroom scarcely larger than the bath, and the sort of fire escape ladders Brits only know from films.
The furnishings comprised a massive air con unit hung out the window of the main room, a Richard Sapper Tizio lamp, a futon bed/sofa that had definitely seen better days, two shelves and a drawer unit into which everything I owned had to fit. Once again, I painted the whole place white so it felt clean and reclaimed, bought an answering machine for the telephone, and lo, I was officially a resident New Yorker.
living the dream-ish
I spent my first few days walking everywhere reliving movie moments. I went to Tiffany’s. I sat in Central Park. I gazed at the Brooklyn Bridge. And then I dutifully hawked my portfolio around a bunch of architectural offices, starting straight at the top with my American architectural heros: Richard Meier and Peter Eisenmann. Regrettably, I couldn’t afford to intern for free, so eventually landed paid employ at an outfit called Voorsanger Associates drafting presentation drawings.
Embarrassingly, I was ‘let go’ after just a couple of months, something I put down to having contracted a bit of a tooth infection that gave me a bout of face-meltingly awful bad breath. Regardless, I’d made a friend there who introduced me to New York’s night life. I promptly dumped architectural pursuits for a series of short-term jobs and hit the town. Highlight? Waitressing in the restaurant at the bottom of Mies van der Rohe’s midtown Seagram Building. I earned a fortune in tips and stole an entire set of cutlery, which I still cheerfully use to this day. It has a wonderful weight to it.
However, in that wonderful way that the world works, my neighbour in the apartment building was a staffer on the subs desk at ELLE, and from time to time I’d go to meet her at the magazine offices, then on West 44th street at Broadway. I’d find myself wandering through the editorial floor while she finished her work, frequently taking the liberty of using the photocopier and chatting with photographers sorting through their pictures in the art department.
I think the editor even walked by once, giving me a look as if trying to place who I was, before striding off saying, “don’t let them work you too late!” Strangely, even with my absolute passion for magazines, the idea didn’t take hold that this could be my world. And yet my greatest expense on returning to the UK? An enormous stash of Anna Wintour’s American Vogues. I suspect I was too busy having ‘fun’ to think about the future. But ultimately, there came a moment of reckoning when I looked around and realised that ‘fun’ was not enough.
Back to school
I returned to the UK ostensibly to complete my architectural diploma, but my heart wasn’t really in it. I’d become used to being entirely independent and had adopted something of a NY twang to differentiate myself from those who’d not ‘lived abroad’. It must have been intensely annoying, but there you go.
I rented a flat with two new diploma mates in a profoundly ugly concrete block on Green Lanes, Stoke Newington, spookily (or not — perhaps we are always subliminally pulled by our roots?), spitting distance from where my parent’s first met. Inside, all rooms were arranged off a corridor that stretched like a spine straight from the front door. Our three identical bedrooms were on one side, and the bathroom, kitchen and lounge neatly arranged, on the other. My room was opposite the loo, right next to the front door, definitely the worst of the three.
The only other thing I remember was the day I woke to hear a terrible screeching of brakes, a scream, a thud, and then the sort of thick silence that always bodes ill. Such as when cyclists meet lorries at a bend on a hill. I called an ambulance from the apartment and still can’t pass that corner without feeling the fug of death in the air. The apartment was tainted for me from that moment on.
the juggle is real
I financed myself with a part-time job as a sales assistant in the hosiery department of Selfridges (to date I hate tights). But juggling resistance with distraction was the fast-track to getting kicked off the course. Thankfully humiliation was also a pretty powerful motivator, so I quit the job, begged my tutors to let me re-submit and moved into a room owned by the University five-minutes from my faculty buildings. Mission? To knuckle down and work out what architecture meant, to me.
My new home was on the first floor in a classic Georgian terrace near Grays Inn Road on the edge of Central London. It had high ceilings, two large windows, a fancy-pants fireplace and some pretty decent cornicing. Also full-length, brown patterned curtains, a coordinating mud-toned carpet, a set of indefinable wood veneer furniture and a small white sink. My possessions amounted to little more than my books and all those magazines plus now a bookcase poached from my parents to put them all in. A black and white polka dotted duvet cover and two black folding chairs from Habitat completed my wordly goods.
Basically, if something wouldn’t fit in a standard storage box or a black bin bag, then it played little part in my life. After all, if you’re moving every year, portability is priority.
i made it to graduation
Thankfully, serious toil through the summer did the trick and I was accepted back for my final year under the eye of the greatly esteemed architect and new faculty head, Peter Cook (founder of Archigram). I don’t think he quite knew what to make of me. Certainly I look at my portfolio today and marvel that it was created without the use of drugs.
Fuelled only by the novels of Paul Auster, Dick Hebdige’s theories of subculture, caffeine and a desire to understand what ‘architecture’ actually meant, it is a collation of drawings and collages scattered with quotes from Derida and Barthes that no doubt made a lot of sense to me at the time. Nevertheless, I left with my head held high, happy with a 2:1 and being told that I might well have got a first had I not so screwed up at the beginning.
The rookie journo years
Finally finished with formal education and with a mountain of debt, and so the job search began. I took desktop publishing and marketing courses, wrote letters to all my favourite magazines and applied for every journo job going. But it was the plea that landed on the desk of Debra Zuckerman, Art Director of Tate Art Magazine, then edited by Tim Marlow (formerly director of the Royal Academy, now Director of The Design Museum), that secured my first position. As her assistant, my duties largely revolved around photo-copying, post-opening and taking film (yes, real film!) to the printers. For this I was paid the princely sum of £25 per day.
The office was a rickety old building in a block behind Marylebone High Street back when the area was cheap and considered the wrong side of Oxford Street. In the summer the roof was infested with wasps prone to dive bombing us at our desks. In the winter it was freezing. It’s since been knocked down to make way for a Waitrose.
Across the lopsided floor of the Wordsearch Publishing house (founded by Peter Murray, today Curator-in-Chief of New London Architecture), David Redhead (currently editor of V&A magazine) edited the bi-monthly cultural review, Design Review. And Deyan Sudjic (author, provocateur, and until 2019 the Director of the Design Museum) was at the helm of Blueprint magazine, one of the first large-format magazines devoted to demystifying architecture, and still going strong today. Many other exceptional editors, journalists, photographers and art directors passed through those hallowed portals and I could have had no finer induction into publishing.
Homewise, the quest continued to see what worked to turn a series of rubbish rentals into spaces in which I could feel comfortable, if not happy. So my next stop was a one-bed flat, shared with a college friend, on Marchmont Street in London’s Bloomsbury. She had the lounge, me the bedroom. And with one foot firmly on the first step of my professional ladder, I managed to take equally decisive steps in the opposite direction in my personal life — I met the man I would subsequently marry. Not usually a negative.
We met, courted and moved in together within the space of a year. Our love nest was a terrible box of a flat above a shop on Blackstock Road, near Seven Sisters Road in Tottenham. The area was noisy, dirty, dusty and back then full of shops selling plastic tat and strange fruit. The omens were not good. There is nothing I can recall about the place beyond another beige carpet, and that he’d wanted to live in Greenwich. Nevertheless, we married under a year later. And in what I thought was a giant step forward for grown-up-ness, we subsequently bought a house together in Dalston, East London. Then highly dodgy. Now, terribly chi chi. Of course.
It cost £55,000. He put up a lump sum from the sale of some family property and my meagre salary was the guarantee for a mortgage on the rest. It was a classic stock-brick end of terrace with ‘potential’ (albeit next to a pub). It had steps up to an open-plan, raised living area/kitchen with a view over a small back garden. Three bedrooms and a bathroom downstairs, with the floors linked, unusually, by a spiral staircase.
What we didn’t know when we signed the papers was the reason for the speedy sale. The previous owners had divorced, with allegedly, one of them living upstairs while the other camped out downstairs for the duration of increasingly acrimonious proceedings. My husband and I subsequently separated within three months of moving in. No time to buy a single stick of furniture, paint a wall or hang any pictures.
While I certainly don’t blame the house for our split, I have no doubt that the misery it ‘witnessed’ somehow contributed to the speed of our dismantling.
I moved out, took nothing, and went to re-boot at my parents. I had but one goal: to earn enough to buy a home of my own. It was about protection and calm. Somewhere I could retreat and leave the world with all its noise, stress and disappointment, behind. It was to be at least another ten years before that came to pass. A period of time I’d previously considered wasted. But looking back now, I can clearly see that this was the decade in which the threads of my #happyinside philosophy began to weave themselves together.
To say I threw myself into my work after all of this would be an understatement. Feeling like I’d failed so monumentally in my private life meant that I clung to my professional life and did not let go. I had no ties or obligations, only a need to succeed. And despite emotionally still being a wreck, after a few months at my parents, I was desperate to forge a new start, which to me, meant a new home.
First stop, a cheap apartment 2-mins from Tower Bridge. Clearly an illegal sublet, but ‘with potential’ in one of those fine-boned, solid Peabody-era buildings. It also had a curved wall in the lounge. I paid my first month in cash, and moved in immediately with little more than a second-hand futon. One week and another 10 litre tub of Dulux Brilliant White later, I’d re-painted the whole place, and got everything shipshape.
Unfortunately, a few months on, the combination of its emptiness, the oven being certified as lethal by the gas board and the receipt of several shouty bailiffs letters addressed to my ‘landlady’ rather challenged my sense of security. I spent a weekend putting “Property of Michelle Ogundehin” stickers on my few belongings, then concluded the smarter thing to do was to move out. Clearly this was a space sought from flight, not stability. And yet piecing it back together and then mustering the gumption to move on, was inevitably symbolic.
rubbish rentals encore
And so it continued. Trying to get back to me. Next stop, Islington, Essex Road. A room in a bungalow owned by an old lady and her dog. The dog chewed my shoes and there was no lock on my door. I think I lasted a fortnight. But I liked the area so I swapped it for a studio on the top floor of a tremendously rickety property further up the road. The number 73 bus stopped immediately outside which was highly convenient for getting into town, but horrendously noisy on all other counts. However, it’s true that you can get used to almost anything, and in the end, the quieter moments from 2-6 am became my most troubled for sleeping.
The flat had a floor so lopsided you could race marbles from one end to the other, but in went the futon and out came the paint (this time I insisted the landlord replace the crumbling vomit-coloured carpet for a new one in grey. Grey! One step up from beige?) and I bought little else beyond two low-slung Eames chairs, more books and magazines. There is no doubt that my dual obsessions with documenting my life in photos and clutter-clearing started here. A result of perpetually living in teeny tiny spaces, and the need to edit the memorabilia. I was also evolving. This apartment was variously painted a biscuity stone colour, and even boasted some pale turquoise, to offset the white!
By this time, I’d been head-hunted to be Features Director at Ilse Crawford’s ELLE Decoration. To me she was impossibly glamorous, all blond, demi Danish constitution and crisp white shirts. So completely unlike me with my then unruly mop, predilection for dressing entirely in black and the shameful rental. An editorial team meet at her home cemented the allure. Laidback, cool yet also warm, it had her refined sensibility writ large over every surface, despite also being rented.
Meanwhile I watched my architectural alumni buy their first properties in what was then very shitty Shoreditch for £30,000 with minimal deposits. But once again, with a salary that amounted to approximately zero pence after all expenses, no family money, and no seeming way to make any additional cash, I was a bit stuffed. Nevertheless, I’d seen what was possible and was compelled to move, again.
just keep swimming!
There was a brief stop in a shared newly renovated loft back in East london, where my room was an over-sized closet in a huge open-plan space, and all my things were stacked, like some sort of elegaic ode to displacement, in a grid of 20 identical brown cardboard boxes from IKEA. I wish I had a picture of this as I can still see it so clearly in my minds eye.
Then I went deeper East to an apartment designed by one of my architectural contempories. She’d cleverly spotted the opportunity in a slither of space at the wrong end of Bethnal Green Road and proceeded to expertly turn it into a four-story marvel that I subsequently featured in ELLE Decoration. And it had a self-contained studio lit by an internal courtyard on the lower ground floor. Hello new home.
It was clean and neat with underfloor heating, a wooden floor and white walls. I added only a long boxy shelf for my ever-increasing stash of picture books, finally dumped the futon for a proper mattress. Then, treated myself to two of my dream buys: a marble-topped Saarinen dining table and Robin Day’s classic three-seater brown leather Forum sofa, then licensed to Habitat, which I have to this day.
the travel bug
And yet, most of the time I rented here, I was actually elsewhere. A friend rented a bungalow, nestled into the Hollywood Hills, off Franklin Avenue near the Hollywood Bowl, and she generously suggested that I come to stay. So I did.
Having become progressively ground down by the grey skies and drizzle of London, I was instantly drawn to the laid-back lifestyle and perpetually blue skies of California. I promptly resigned from ELLE Decoration, re-negotiated a freelance role as Editor-at-Large, and contrived to return to the West Coast as often as possible.
In tandem with my increasing self-liberation, I swapped the basement underneath someone else’s home, for a top-floor loft more central to Shoreditch. Light-filled and full of character, this loft had original wooden floorboards, three massive windows to the front, super-high ceilings, and a ridiculously vertiginous four flight staircase up to it from ground level.
It was also painted peacock blue, had a cherry red kitchen and came fully-equipped with quite the oddest collection of furnishings I’d ever seen. Picture an ornately-carved, wood-framed sofa with matching armchairs all upholstered in decaying red velvet. Plus a prodigious assortment of old cabinets; a broken grandfather clock and a fabulous long wooden table that could comfortably seat twelve. I was utterly undaunted.
I loaned my beloved sofa and table to a friend (there was no way they’d go up those stairs), called in the painters and moved in. I duly devoted myself to work, travel, a long-distance love-affair and hosting increasingly raucous monthly dinner parties (oh the names I could drop and the stories I could tell!). Inevitably though, living only in the moment, in someone else’s apartment, surrounded by someone else’s furniture? Besides, my wine bills were egregious.
On the home strait
I fled London a year later. For while my professional life was flourishing, the trajectory of my personal life was again heading nowhere imbued with longevity. A moment of expletive-fuelled rage while navigating the Old Street roundabout was my wake up call. I needed to tread a different path.
So, for half the rent I was paying in London, I ignored all the naysayers, fled the party people and moved to Brighton. After all, I’d never chosen to live in London, I just ended up there. Now I conciously chose a ground floor flat with a view of the sea on the corner of the beautifully buttery-yellow painted Brunswick Square. It had shutters on the windows, central heating, rooms with doors, thick pile carpet (beige, it’s always beige?!), a fully-equipped kitchen and an unbelievable power shower!
It was blissful. I did no painting, no improvements, bought nothing and didn’t even remove the pictures that already hung on the walls. I just let myself be. Breathing fresh air and uncoiling. Gradually shaking off layers of ingrained city stress. I was freelance but only now becoming free. Or so I thought.
My goal was now tangible. And my dreams clear, I was going to settle down in Brighton, find someone local to love, make babies and live happily ever after. Except that would be a fairytale and I’m not much of a princess. What actually happened was that after a few months relaxing in my lovely yellow square, a friend doing up a large flat nearby suggested I move in with her instead. For some insane reason I thought this was a good idea.
Regardless of it still clearly being a building site, wildy optimistic dates were set, I handed in my notice and boxed my belongings. Needless to say, it didn’t go remotely to plan and I ended up sofa surfing back in London, in theory until the flat was ready. However, granted a moment to take stock, I saw with complete clarity that this was precisely the catalyst I needed to get my act together and buy somewhere of my own.
just keep saving
Having been freelance for several years it was relatively straight forward to rustle up accounts. What wasn’t so clear was making them look like I was a good bet for a mortgage. Especially now that 99% deals were a thing of the past. Nevertheless I’d been saving like a demon since my divorce, also religiously eBaying anything extraneous, and I got there. My first owned home.
It was a first floor, one-bedroom flat on one of the oldest squares in Brighton. It had a large living room with three huge seaview windows overlooking a wrought-iron canopied balcony that I could sit on. I knew it was perfect the minute I walked through the door. It had good bone-structure.
Three months after viewing I got the keys. Less than a month later, every shred of paper had come off the walls, every tile, the sinks, bath, loo, carpets, non-structural walls, everything. I wanted it all gone. For once, I was to live with nothing that was not mine. I would rebuild, both it and myself, from the inside out.
Just over a year later, I was appointed Editor in Chief of ELLE Decoration UK, a tenure that lasted for 13 years (May 2004 – August 2017).
Although my philiosopy of home was crystallizing, now I was too busy working to write it down. Instead, I let the magazine be my voice. And it was an utter priviledge to work with such an amazing team, and to be able to create what we did.
In this role I witnessed the rise and demise of many a trend, and I saw inside hundreds of homes. The ones I chose to publish deliberately covered a variety of looks, styles, sizes and locations. However, they always had one thing in common. They were homes that their owners absolutely loved. That were consistent in their individuality from front to back. And that were showered with attention and affection accordingly.
They were tangible expressions of the homeowner’s pleasure at simply being at home, and crucially, regardless of their style, they were homes that left you feeling uplifted and inspired. You wanted to be there. And this desire to stop and be still in the place that you call home, I knew from hard toil and experience was absolutely crucial to creating a space that truly sustains and heals.
now is just now, not forever…
The final pieces of my personal journey then were growing interests in the power of meditation, mindfulness and the psychological effects of colour. Alongside an increasing curiosity for the teachings of Buddhism. Also research into the traditional culture and ways of Japan. There is an underlying sensibility to both outlooks that speak to me of quiet contemplation and considered living. Many learnings from both were incorporated into my book.
In 2012, five years before I left the magazine, after another period of shuttling back and forth between London and home, I bought the home I live in today. Externally it’s a 200-year old cottage that looks like the sort of thing you might see on the front of a chocolate box; internally it’s been slowly modernised with underfloor heating and Corian countertops set against original beams, leaded windows and a large brick fireplace, among other original features.
Shared with my young son and two beloved Basset Hounds, it is my truest evocation to date of all that I know makes me #happyinside. But the story doesn’t end here, it’s still evolving. Watch this space!