Locked down and loaded: how the super-rich have embraced the Covid renovation rush

Samuel Fishwick
·7 min read
 (ES Composite)
(ES Composite)

In the staggeringly splashy world of the super-rich, a little thing like lockdown doesn’t stop you getting the builders in.

“Everyone wants to upgrade their homes right now,” says interior designer Fran Hickman, the starry visionary behind Gwyneth Paltrow’s London Goop pop-ups. She says her company is doing a roaring residential trade despite the pandemic. We spend 89 per cent of our time indoors, she points out – on a good day – and even the fabulously wealthy can’t pay to have a virus moved on from the neighbourhood.

So what happens when your glitzy social circle shuts down completely? You look inwards, of course, and dig deep.

Kanye and Kim Kardashian West brought in interiors guru Axel Vervoordt to turn their Los Angeles McMansion into a gleaming white “futuristic Belgian Monastery” at the start of 2020, with blank, open spaces and gargantuan soft sculptures fashioned by artist Isabel Rower to function as both “art installation and playroom”.

Helpful when you’re trapped indoors with North, Saint, Chicago and Psalm 24/7 all year. (“The kids ride their scooters down the hallways and jump around on the low Axel tables, which they use as a sort of stage”, Kanye told Architectural Digest.)

Dig deep: Kanye and Kim Kardashian West turned their home into a ‘futuristic Belgian monastery’ in 2020Kim Kardashian / Instagram
Dig deep: Kanye and Kim Kardashian West turned their home into a ‘futuristic Belgian monastery’ in 2020Kim Kardashian / Instagram

Sadly, given the rumours of a Kimye split, keeping the kids entertained is only part of the quest for marital harmony in lockdown.

But without the luxury of outdoor infinity pools before us and azure skies above – or the option of escaping to a $4 million, 32-acre Pennsylvania farmhouse à la Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik – our gritty London glitterati have nevertheless overcome.

Richard Angel, co-founder of interior architecture firm Angel O’Donnell, says there’s increasing clamour to “bring the outdoors inside”.

Bring the outside in: a petrified moss wall in a Victorian house in London provides greenery and soundproofingAngel O’Donnell
Bring the outside in: a petrified moss wall in a Victorian house in London provides greenery and soundproofingAngel O’Donnell

Hence one family with a whole dining room wall crafted from petrified moss in their Victorian villa, “inspired by the mountains in Scandinavia’’, during lockdown.

Dad is a senior executive in the gaming industry, so “the cinema room needed soundproofing in order that he could test out the latest games at full volume and the children could feel free to watch streaming services without disturbing anyone else.” Kanye would approve.

Play nice

In some houses, a nanny or housekeeper has simply moved in to help parents cope. But children are going to be seen and heard more during lockdown regardless, so many have reasoned pre-occupation is a priority.

Hicks has turned at least one bedroom into an adventure playground, with a walnut oak slide (splinter-proof and varnished, I’m assured), ladders and tunnels to keep the sprogs busy.

Game on: The Infinity Game Table features the likes of Monopoly, Scrabble and Snakes and LaddersArcade 1Up
Game on: The Infinity Game Table features the likes of Monopoly, Scrabble and Snakes and LaddersArcade 1Up

The Infinity Game Table (£496), a 32” electric tabletop packed with games like Monopoly, Scrabble, Snakes and Ladders, has been a surprise hit for families who can’t get their hands on a PlayStation 5. So, oddly, has the WowCube (£177), a retro, Rubix-cubesque device that connects to various electronic puzzle games. Haptic feedback has strong appeal in a world of endless scrolling and screen time. One Knightsbridge family had a trampoline set up in the massive living room of their apartment.

Education is more of a problem: the Washingtonian magazine notes that Americans are forking out small fortunes for virtual “executive-function coaches” who, for $100 an hour, help students map out history homework and crack down on procrastination.

Airs and graces

But the pandemic has yielded other lessons. For one, the have-yachts are rethinking hygiene.

One increasingly popular practice is hiring architects who use materials with antimicrobial properties such as bronze to help minimise the spread of germs.

A bigger concern is indoor air. Close to 100,000 deaths in Europe each year are attributed to indoor air pollution, according to the Royal College of Physicians – and the pandemic has made people even more twitchy. So the aircon game has been turned up a notch.

OKTOair (£499) is an AI-led filtration system that its designers claim removes the coronavirus within 45 minutes, based on US military technology originally designed to counter chemical attacks.

WFH, CEO-style

Max Factor: An office kitted out with Baxter the AI ButlerOKTO Technologies
Max Factor: An office kitted out with Baxter the AI ButlerOKTO Technologies

OKTO also recommends Baxter the AI Butler, a home-working assistant which, I’m told, tweaks your home’s lighting to improve your productivity (a cool, blue tone maximises alertness in the mornings, naturally; dusky tones prepare you for sleep).

Blue light or no, a whole new world of work has dawned in the past 18 months, and even the rich have had to wake up to it.

Wealthy executives are no stranger to the WFH lifestyle. But repeated lockdowns have killed flexi-working and quiet nooks are now at a premium.

Modulr, a London company launched mid-pandemic, makes sleek, freestanding workspaces that are easy to install in the gardens of remote workers. Starting at £17,500 plus VAT, only top-level execs are likely to warrant one.

Sunken office space, a speciality of US studio Craig Steely Architecture, is another clever solution: reclaiming dead space in open ground floor areas by digging down, like a reception desk melted into the floor. A room within a room, essentially.

Secrets of the fiTterati

‘Sanity-saving sauna’: The Luna outdoor cedar saunaLuna
‘Sanity-saving sauna’: The Luna outdoor cedar saunaLuna

But with work, there must be pleasure, too. The “sanity-saving sauna” – modular, mobile steam rooms – are a lifeline for those willing to throw cash around like confetti. The Luna outdoor cedar sauna (£6,778 plus shipping) could transform a garden into a destination worthy of Gwyneth Paltrow herself.

A sauna is not simply for slacking off in, though. It is also a high-end recovery unit for the elite athletes of the High Net Worth world. For the WOFH (workout from home) reigns supreme now, and your Kensington mansion is simply a SoulCycle studio in waiting (providing you have deep enough pockets).

Hickman has recently found herself making the most of London’s surfeit of half-landings – those crannies of space that wind around your bannister staircase – to rope off little exercise spaces for cooped up clients.

Truly opulent: The Kinesis Personal Vision is a mirror-polished steel home gymTechnogym
Truly opulent: The Kinesis Personal Vision is a mirror-polished steel home gymTechnogym

In the age of Zoom exercise, floor space is as key as equipment. Ice lounges, aerial Pilates hammocks and sprung studio floors are worth their weight in gold among London’s fitterati.

The videolink-capable Woodway treadmill (£4,257) and the almighty but elusive Peloton Tread (£3,073) are hefty units. A small fortune is often laid out simply on reinforcing the floors.

The truly opulent plump for Technogym’s Kinesis Personal Vision: a mirror-polished steel contraption that costs £10,900, has weighted pulleys and was designed by Antonio Citterio, an Italian architect.

Can’t buy me love?

A dog’s life: Samsung president and CEO showcasing robot BallieSamsung
A dog’s life: Samsung president and CEO showcasing robot BallieSamsung

Pets, in the absence of our dearly departed social lives, have been a constant companion to many during lockdowns, a furry flank in which to bury a fretful face. So no wonder the wealthy have opted to give back.

Interior designer Katharine Pooley completed a dog-grooming room in a Notting Hill townhouse during the first lockdown – the first such space she has been asked to create (it includes hooks for each dog, a grooming area with seat and personalised dog lead holders.)

But not everyone’s up to owning a dog. Orders have flooded in for Samsung’s Ballie, a sweet, tennis ball-like robot programmed to follow its owner around and the star of last year’s Consumer Electronics Show – he also doubles as a fitness coach, camera and cleaner.

Thumbs up: Moley, the £248,000 RobochefMoley Robotics/Cover Images
Thumbs up: Moley, the £248,000 RobochefMoley Robotics/Cover Images

“I love this guy,” said Samsung president and CEO, H S Kim, as Ballie chased him about on stage – you’d have to be megabucks rich to prise the prototype off him.

But you can get your hands on Moley, the £248,000 Robochef. About the size of a fridge, he has arms and hands, more flexible than a human could be albeit less dexterous, suspended from the ceiling.

Slowly, carefully and hypnotically he glides across a rail above the kitchen counter, and takes 55 minutes to cook a stew with all grace of a mechanical Delia Smith (he even gives a little thumbs up when he’s done) – but he doesn’t do the washing up. And, if you’re super-rich, what’s the point of that?