FOR MOST PEOPLE, the idea of living and working with the same person is abhorrent, yet there are a few who thrive on constant companionship buoyed by shared interests. Nikki Blustin and Oliver Heath, of Blustin Heath Design, are one such couple, though unusually, their partnership is of the purely platonic and professional kind.
The setting for this seemingly harmonious arrangement is an old leather warehouse off London's Brick Lane, where they share a first- floor office space with five others, and rent the floor above as their home.
They first met while studying architecture in Oxford, though neither qualified (a common occurrence among architectural students, since it takes seven years to do so). Their business is called Blustin Heath Design, a name barely adequate for what they do, which ranges from product and installation design to film-making. On first sight, their flat is neither amazingly impressive, nor magnificently designed. The raw elements of scarred cement floors, blasted brick walls and metal-framed windows are typical of the popular ideal of an East-End- warehouse-made-home, but few details seem staggeringly original. What does make their home remarkable, however, is that it was converted from a filthy sweatshop on the sort of budget most would allocate for a sofa: a total of pounds 2,000. The pair started looking for a house in 1995, after leaving university, at a time when there was still a chance of finding a bargain in the now-fashionable area around Shoreditch. The government had recently relaxed its laws on living-working units, allowing some previously commercial properties to be adapted for residential use. In spite of this, it still took several months to persuade the landlord to allow them to move in, and a further 18 months to make the flat habitable. "We knew we could live together, since we had shared a house with five others at Oxford," says Oliver, "and we both want-ed the same thing - a place where we could finally put into practice what we had spent so long studying. The great thing about this flat is that it gave us a chance to be our own clients." That they had some outlet for their creative frustration was just as well, since the shortage of jobs in the architectural sector meant that finding work was not easy. In the end (after Oliver, now 29, had tried his hands at various other professions, including working as a windsurfing instructor and fire-eater) they decided to start working from home, and when, after a year or so, the office space on the first floor became free, the pair moved downstairs. "Having never had any job security, I decided that I may as well be working for myself and doing what I wanted to do," Oliver says. The renovation of the flat was dramatic. "When we arrived the place was pretty disgusting." Nikki recalls. "The two large tables on which the leather used to be cut up took up most of the room. A lot of rubbish had to be cleared out, and there were no services. For a while the only light we had was from the city skyline. It was definitely quite spooky at first." The lack of heating was a more serious discomfort. "We had to eat huge amounts of food in order to fend off the cold. We'd get dressed before going to bed. It was ridiculous," Oliver remembers. "Of course money was an issue," explains Nikki, now 28. "You don't spend so long as a student without worrying about it. But it wasn't a priority." And in fact, the lack of funds has nurtured their creativity: the kitchen worktop is fabricated from aluminium sheeting from a local printing press, while the window-cleaner's ladders that lead to the sleeping platforms were bought from the builders' yard next door for a tenner apiece. "Pretty much everything in this flat is either begged or found," says Nikki. The few bargain purchases, such as the hairdresser's chair with its overhead dryer, are the result of foragings around Brick Lane. "Initially we thought of having a lot of them around a conference table for meetings," says Oliver. …