There’s a misconception that hi-tech homes can’t also be knock-your-socks-off beautiful. Speakers, televisions and the smart panels that control audio systems, heating and lighting are just eyesores that get in the way of a well-designed interior – aren’t they?
If that visual clutter is catching your eye, you’re simply not doing it right. Interior designers, working hand-in-hand with specialist tech firms, go to huge lengths to cleverly conceal everything.
Interior designer Rabih Hage’s scheme for a west London home has all the ingredients of an integrated home, including music in every room (even the bathroom) fed through invisible speakers hidden behind the plasterwork. There are multiple lighting “scenes” that transform the mood at the touch of a button, and an entertainment server that stores and plays movies to any television, or to the sumptuous home cinema in the basement. Yet it is all incredibly discreet, barely interfering at all with Hage’s tranquil vision of herringbone oak floors, hand-painted walls and contemporary art.
Everything is controlled by iPad minis, which are mounted magnetically on wireless-charging stations in every principal room.
“People can find their way around a tablet much more easily these days,” says Matthew Tillman of Tillman Domotics, which designed, installed and continues to maintain this house’s technology. Because such systems have become so complex, post-installation care is now a big part of his company’s proposition.
“The industry has become less about offering a product and more the service. Everything’s monitored remotely, so if anything changes, we get a notification. We also spend a day or two twice a year at every property, checking everything and upgrading if necessary; and we’re also on call if anything goes wrong.”
Tillman doesn’t feel the need for the fruits of his labour to be on show, but that’s not always the case, says Joe Burns, managing director of interior design firm Oliver Burns. “Some of the technology guys will say ‘but it’s the best television; they’re the best speakers’ – they think that because of that they should be on display – but we explain that it’s better if they’re hidden. The television should never be the focal point of a room.”
Burns will hide the box behind a wall, so that a panel will move back and the television will move forward. “Speakers can go behind plasterwork but there are also ‘art’ speakers, so you can have a screenprint of a family portrait on top.”
Tillman Domotics doctored a divan bed where the television is hidden in a cartridge underneath, and can pop out at the bottom before rising up.
At a Knightsbridge property just completed by home technology firm James & Giles, with interiors by Belgian designer Lionel Jadot, the televisions were all hidden behind exquisite works of art, which slide to one side.
“If you have formal rooms like this, you don’t want to see an ugly speaker grille on the ceiling, or the television on show when you’re entertaining,” says James & Giles’s managing director Giles Sutton. “With every interior, you either have to find technology that blends in seamlessly and more or less disappears, or come up with ways of complementing it.”
For example, the lighting control panels (which set four or five different “scenes” per room) that have replaced the simple on-off light switch are a visible necessity, but most of them rarely meet the exacting needs of an interior designer.
James & Giles has sourced more beautiful alternatives: a minimal, futuristic white pad by Belgian company Basalte for contemporary interiors, and a tactile push-button one in antique bronze by Forbes & Lomax for period homes.
Joe Burns says that great joinery is the real secret to subtly integrating technology, especially in listed properties where the fabric of the building cannot be interfered with.
Wiring can be concealed behind cornicing and architraves rather than chased into the wall, and bespoke furniture created to hide air-conditioning units.
But this is not just any old furniture. Architecture and interior design practice SHH has just completed a project near Regent’s Park that features a pair of opulent bronze and antique mirror cabinets either side of a fireplace: one hides the television, the other contains the heating and air-conditioning unit. SHH’s associate director of residential interiors Rupert Martineau says it’s very common for him to commission reproduction antiques that contain a surprise television that pops up when needed.
The watchword in home technology is “integration”, with all services controlled in one place.
The limits that this can be taken to is demonstrated by a project that James & Giles worked on, a new-build house in north London by Robert Dye Architects. The house won a CEDIA award, the Oscars of the home tech world, run by the industry body of the same name (CEDIA is a good place to start if you want your own hi-tech home).
As well as controlling the heating, lighting and audio-visual, the system looks after home security, the intercom, and even closes the blinds when the house’s weather station senses that the rooms might overheat.
Integrated systems have the advantage of cutting down on what Sutton describes as “wall clutter” – the various control panels that are needed for every separate element – as well as making life easier for users.
“People don’t want to learn how to operate a thermostat, and then an alarm system – they want everything consolidated, so there’s one panel you can go to, and anyone can use it,” says Sutton.
Interior designer Alix Lawson of Lawson Robb agrees. “People are already overloaded with gadgets and technology. When they come home they want to switch off and relax. Making everything simple is a key way that we can make the home a calm place to be”.
The firm’s ethos of “barefoot luxury” shows in a cinema room it created for a private home in Knightsbridge. Instead of manly rows of leather seats, there are silk-panelled acoustic-panelled walls that conceal the speakers, a super-sized daybed and a cosy fireplace; a dropped ceiling hides the heating and air conditioning.
This softer approach to the cinema room is becoming more common: there’s still a big screen, but the room itself is more informal and flexible. “We try to create multi-use, family-friendly spaces, with specialist acoustic treatment to reduce noise transfer,” says Sam McNally, design director of design and development studio Echlin.
“You still get the ‘wow factor’ cinema-like space, but one which can be used for other things such as a playroom, a space to do a workout class in front of the video, yoga or meditation.”
But with the top integrated home technology systems running into six figures, how do homeowners ensure that things don’t become obsolete?
“We now run data cable to the place where fridges and ovens are going to be installed, even though there are few ‘smart’ fridges or ovens on the market at the moment,” says Sutton. It also goes back to having a good maintenance contract, so that the same experts can upgrade systems as they come along.