About Michelle Ogundehin
Hello! I’m Michelle, an interiors 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 oneself lies in the creation of a carefully considered space in which to live. It can be a game-changer. The singlemost powerful thing that you can do to support your health and happiness.
To be clear though, this isn’t about insulating you from contemporary life, as using everything in your armoury to strengthen you to cope with it. In other words, if you want to become your best self, first look at what surrounds you. And it’s from this point of view that I write, muse, collaborate and post pictures.
Where did it all begin?
It’d be handy if there was 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 interiors magazines. Certainly my mother can draw beautifully and my father was an engineer, so the creative/construction gene was no-doubt 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 youth 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. Formed from several sheets of green graph paper onto which a series of hand-written ‘articles’ had been stuck. 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), an ‘Exclusive’ behind the scenes at Top of the Pops(?!), plus 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, aged 17, I moved to London to study architecture. My first ‘home’ 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 heaven.
My second year involved a house in Willesden Green shared with ten student friends. Every room was put to use as a bedroom from the lounge to the boxroom. It had a slither of a galley kitchen and an insanely small, single bathroom for the lot of us. Thank God the toilet was separate. 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 could accommodate a dining table. I shared with one other, and 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 don’t think we ever sat in the lounge, nor if we even had a television. What I do remember 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 was probably the beginning of constantly moving my furniture around, intuitively trying to re-shape the way this succession of rooms felt. How could I make them feel bigger? How could I make the layout more efficient? How could I make a space feel like 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’, as they put it, 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 for 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, some shelving and two oak veneer drawer units 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 just walking everywhere reliving scene after scene from movies galore. 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 heros, Richard Meier and Peter Eisenmann. However, 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 a 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, my next-door neighbour (in that wonderful way that the world works) 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 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 love of magazines, the idea didn’t yet 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 at the time 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 it wasn’t 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, 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 out of college. Thankfully humiliation was also a pretty powerful motivator, so a year in, I quit the job, begged my tutors to let me re-submit and moved to a room owned by the University five-minutes from my faculty buildings.
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 matching indefinable wood veneer furniture and a small white sink. My possessions amounted to not much more than my books and all those magazines plus bookcase to put them all in. Then my toiletries, a black and white polka dotted duvet cover and two black folding chairs from Habitat.
If something wouldn’t fit in a standard sized storage box or a large 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 faculty head, Peter Cook. 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 that no doubt made a lot of sense to me at the time. 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, I am immensely grateful that this was a time when the unemployed could still get full housing benefit and free training courses. The space it afforded me to think about my next steps, without having to worry about my rent or feeding myself, finally permitted the seed of my love for magazines to grow.
And so it began. I trained in desktop publishing, took 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 the newly launched Tate Art Magazine, then edited by Tim Marlow (formerly director of the Royal Academy, now Director of The Design Museum), that secured me my first job. 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 day.
Across the floor of what was then the Wordsearch Publishing house (founded by Peter Murray, today Curator-in-Chief of New London Architecture), David Redhead (currently editor of V&A magazine) was editing Design Review, a bi-monthly cultural review, and Deyan Sudjic (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 portals and there could have been no finer induction into publishing.
first step on the ladder
The office was a rickety old building in a block behind Marylebone High Street. Everything was on the wonk. In the summer the roof was infested with wasps prone to dive bombing us at our desks. But a nascent Villandry was our local sandwich bar. Sadly, the building (as is Villandry) is no more having been knocked down to make way for a large Waitrose. It is with some regret that I was unable to invest in the area way back then. Always in the right place, but never with enough money to do much about it.
Thus, 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 Bloomsbury. She had the lounge, me the bedroom. And with one foot finally on the first step of my professional ladder, I managed to take equally decisive steps in quite the wrong direction in my personal life by meeting the man I would subsequently marry. Not usually a negative!
We met, courted and moved in together within the space of a year with the new love nest being 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, and I remember nothing about the place beyond another beige carpet. Nevertheless, we married under a year later. To cap it all, in what I thought was a giant step for grown-up-ness, we finally bought a house in Dalston, East London. Then cheap and highly dodgy. Now, of course, terribly chi chi.
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. Steps up to an open-plan, raised living area/kitchen with a view over the 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.
Instead, my abiding memory, once again, was of packing my things into boxes and watching them being carted away. And 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 to and leave the world with all its noise, stress and disappointment, behind. However, it was to be at least another decade before it came to pass. Nevertheless, the threads that form my #happyinside philosophy today were beginning 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 personal life meant that I clung to my professional potential and did not let go. I now 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. It was in a shocking decorative state and clearly an illegal sublet, but it was also in one of those fine-boned and solid Peabody-era buildings. With not much more than a futon to install, I paid my first month in cash, and moved in immediately. One week and another 10 litre tub of Dulux Brilliant White later, I’d re-painted the whole place, and got everything shipshape.
However, a few months on, the combination of the oven being certified as lethal by the gas board and the receipt of several angry 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.
rubbish rentals encore
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 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 2-6am became my most troubled for sleeping.
The flat had a floor so lopsided that 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) 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.
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 for £30,000 with minimal deposits in what was then very shitty Shoreditch. But for me, 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 I had to move, again!
just keep swimming!
There was a brief stop in a brand-newly renovated loft back in East london, where my room was basically 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 those 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. It had a self-contained studio lit by an internal courtyard on the lower ground floor. This was to be my next new home.
It was clean and neat with underfloor heating, a wooden floor and white walls. I added only a long boxy shelf for the ever-increasing stash of books. I finally dumped the futon and bought 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 sold at Habitat.
the travel bug
And yet, most of the time I rented here, I was actually elsewhere, prompted largely by a friend who shuttled weekly between her husband and home in San Francisco and an office in Los Angeles. She’d rented a bungalow, nestled into the Hollywood Hills, off Franklin Avenue, to facilitate the commute. And generously suggested that I stay with her too. So I did. Having become progressively ground down by the grey skies and drizzle of London, and in all honesty still profoundly wounded by my marital disaster, I was instantly drawn to the perpetually blue skies of California, and the laid-back lifestyle. I promptly resigned, re-negotiated a freelance role as Editor-at-Large, and contrived to return as often as possible.
In tandem with my self-liberation, I swapped the basement for a top-floor loft in central Shoreditch. Light-filled and full of character, this loft had original wooden floorboards, three massive windows to the front, super-high ceilings, and a vertiginous staircase up four flights 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. Imagine an ornately-carved, wood-framed sofa with matching armchairs all upholstered in decaying red velvet. Plus an assortment of old cabinets; a broken grandfather clock and a fabulous long wooden table that could comfortably seat twelve.
Utterly undaunted, I loaned my beloved sofa and table to a friend (there was no way they were going up those stairs), called in the painters and moved in. Freelance and footloose, I devoted myself to work, travel, a long-distance love-affair and hosting increasingly raucous monthly dinner parties. Inevitably though, living only in the moment, in someone else’s apartment, surrounded by someone else’s furniture? It was like New York all over again. I needed to tread a different path.
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 with any longevity. And so, for half the rent I was paying in London, I moved to Brighton and took a ground floor flat with a view of the sea, on the corner of the beautifully butter-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 a 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 after a few months in my lovely yellow square, a friend doing up a large flat nearby suggested I move in with her instead. For some crazy reason I thought this was a good idea.
Regardless of it still being a building site, dates were set, I handed in my notice and boxed my belongings. Needless to say, it didn’t go to plan and I ended up sofa surfing back in London, in theory until the flat was ready. However, with a moment to take stock, I saw with complete clarity that this was precisely the catalyst I needed to finally 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 the city. It had a large living room with three huge seaview windows and a wrought-iron canopied balcony that you could sit on. I remember the estate agent saying he thought he’d found something for me, and knowing he was right 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, I’d stripped absolutely everything out. Every shred of lining paper came 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 British ELLE Decoration, a tenure that lasted for 13 years (May 2004 – August 2017).
Although my philiosopy of home was crystallizing, I was now 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.
the last pieces to now
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 are incorporated into the #happyinside way.
In 2012, five years before I left the magazine, after another period of shuttling back and forth between London and Brighton, I bought the home I live in today, externally a 200-year old cottage that looks like the sort of thing you might see on the front of a chocolate box. Shared with my young son and two beloved Basset Hounds, it is, internally my truest evocation to date of all that I know makes me #happyinside.
And so this is my mission and motivation. To help others harness the power of home for their health and happiness. To delve deeper than decor to the space between home and wellbeing. To join the home health revolution! To become #happyinside.