‘People fell under its spell’: Shelley Klein on growing up in one of Britain’s finest modernist houses

Textile designer Bernat Klein found solace in High Sunderland, his minimal 1950s house in the Scottish Borders. In her memoir, his daughter recalls returning to her childhood home

In December 2009, Shelley Klein left her home in the fishing village of Port Isaac, Cornwall, and set off for the house in the Scottish Borders where she had grown up. The 450-mile journey was ostensibly the result of her recent decision to move in with her elderly, widowed father (alone of her siblings, she was able to to do this, being single and self-employed). But in truth it wasn’t the only reason; another, almost equally powerful force was also in play. In the three decades since she’d last lived there, Klein had never been able fully to shake off the spell cast by High Sunderland, the house in question. Wherever she went, whatever she did, it was always at the back of her mind, to the point where she wondered whether her feelings for it were entirely rational. Can a house be loved as a person is? Perhaps not. All she knew was that it was a part of her, just as it was a part of her father.

Adults who return home often revert to being teenagers – we’ve all done it, even in the course only of a long weekend – and our parents, too, tend to talk to us just as they always did once we’re over the threshold. In the first moments after her arrival at High Sunderland, Shelley drank in its old, familiar smells: paprika, woodsmoke, freshly ground coffee. But the mood didn’t last long. Carrying her possessions from van to house, her father was horrified to see among them a Victorian chair – a piece of furniture he unhesitatingly deemed to be “ghastly”. Nor was he pleased to see her arranging a collection of potted herbs on the kitchen windowsill. Couldn’t she put them elsewhere? For instance, in her bedroom. Irritated, Shelley asked what he had against them. “They’re messy,” he said. “They spoil the line of the house.” In his eyes, only chives, a pleasingly “vertical” plant, could ever be even vaguely acceptable as interior decoration.

Shelley’s father, who died in 2014, was Bernat Klein, a Serbian-born textile designer whose fabrics were popular in the 60s with such designers as Chanel and Dior. But while his adventures in tweed and mohair were both a commercial and a critical success, his greatest and most lasting achievement is surely the house he commissioned from a young British architect, Peter Womersley, on which building work began in 1956: a glass house set in woodland between Peebles and Selkirk that a friend of the family once described as “a Mondrian set within a Klimt”. Built in a modernist vernacular, High Sunderland, which is now listed, comprises in essence two wings within which sit various courtyards; these work as extensions of the interior, being either roofed or pergolas. It is, in some ways, a very straightforward building: a simple pavilion constructed of wood and glass. But it’s also exquisite: an essay in abstraction. Its strength and beauty come first from the contrast between solid and void, and second (at least in Shelley’s day) from the colours Bernat brought into its interior: its floor of creamy Italian travertine; the fabrics, orange-red and mustard-yellow, that covered its purpose-built sofas. Finally, there is its isolated setting. High Sunderland is entirely surrounded by mature trees.

Not that nature was always popular with Bernat. In The See-Through House, her new memoir, Shelley describes how she once found him outside, bottle of bleach in hand, scrubbing at the bark of a silver birch. What was he doing? she wondered. “Isn’t that obvious?” he shot back. “I’m trying to get rid of the lichen. We planted these trees to reflect the white columns of the house. Now all this green stuff is spoiling them.” From the day he first took possession of High Sunderland until the day that he left it, shortly before he died, Bernat was every bit as passionate about its design as the architect who’d dreamed it up. It was, to him, perfection – and perfection was a state that required total vigilance. “While I had a yearning to go back there, living with him was quite tough,” his daughter tells me now. “Much as I loved him, he wasn’t the easiest person.” The house was his work of art, and anyone who dared to change even the tiniest thing might as well have been doodling on Guernica.

What’s strange, though, is that in the six years since his death, her father’s influence on Shelley has grown rather than diminished. When they lived together, her mode was rebellious. High Sunderland was also easy to divide in two; she was able to have her own sitting room, in which it was up to her if she left a trail of possessions on the floor. “But now I find it comforting to live more like he used to,” she says. “I’m more inclined to clear mess up quickly. I find myself tidying cupboards. Perhaps it’s another way of keeping him alive.” Today in her north London flat – High Sunderland was sold in 2018 – she is surrounded by Bernat’s things: his paintings, some of which inspired his fabric designs; the bottles he collected and liked to arrange into Morandi-style groupings; a sculpture that was once in the garden. And this, too, is a surprise. For a long time, the thought of packing up High Sunderland was unimaginable. Its contents seemed to belong to it so absolutely; the idea of taking them elsewhere was akin, in her mind, to performing “an organ transplant”.

After her father’s death, she knew the house would have to be sold; it was too expensive for her, a freelance writer, to run alone, and, disappointingly, the National Trust of Scotland elected not to take it on. The process of doing so was distressing. “It was important to find the right buyers, and we were fortunate: those who bid the most were also those most likely to treasure it. But when I spent a day with them, showing them how it worked, occasionally they would say ‘oh, we’d like to do this, or that’ – and I couldn’t bear it.” What about moving day? “It was agonising,” she says, softly. “It still is agonising.” Has she been back since? “No. I won’t go back. I can’t… It’s too painful.” A tear rolls down her cheek – one fat enough to be clearly visible on Zoom (we’re communicating online). “I’m sorry. It surprises me how painful it still is. No, to see it would be like rubbing salt into my wounds. I like to think about it the way I remember it.” If she’d been filthy rich would she have stayed on? Would she be there even now? She smiles. “Oh, yes. Of course I would.”

Bernat Klein’s story makes the creation of High Sunderland seem all the more unlikely – and yet, it also goes some way to explaining it. Born in a town called Senta, in a region of the Austro-Hungarian empire that became part of Yugoslavia in 1918, his family were Orthodox Jews who ran a textile business. Bernat was particularly close to his mother, Zori, and his childhood was idyllic. But it came to a sudden end when he was 14 and his father, Lipot, sent him to a yeshiva in Galanta, Czechoslovakia, where he was required to study nothing but the Talmud from dawn till dusk, and where he was extremely homesick. Alas, there was no way out. Two years later, his father moved him even further afield, to Jerusalem, where he would be taught at another yeshiva by the city’s chief rabbi – a man with whose family he would lodge. This time, when he said goodbye to Zori, he knew he would not see her again for at least two years.

Bernat arrived in Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem, in 1938, and from the first moment he was uncomfortable. He found it drab and restrictive, and he increasingly loathed his studies, the never-ending analysis of a seemingly never-ending text. He began to slip out of the yeshiva, exploring the rest of the city, taking delight in its bookshops and markets; he also began to question his faith. When a cousin of Zori’s who was living in Palestine suggested that he apply for a place at the Bezalel School of Arts, he was receptive – and soon afterwards, he daringly walked away from the yeshiva for ever.

He loved life at Bezalel – what a pleasure to use his eyes and hands like this – though if he was serious about a career in textiles, he was told, he would need to continue his studies in Britain. This he duly did, enrolling on a course at Leeds University. But it was by now 1945. Just before his departure, he received a letter, the first from a member of his family in over three years. His brother, Moshe, who was living in a refugee camp outside Senta, wrote to explain how the family had been rounded up by the Germans; only he had managed to escape. Lipot had since made the journey back from Auschwitz, but he was the only one. Bernat travelled to Leeds in the knowledge that Zori was unlikely to be alive.

It was in Leeds that he met Peggy, Shelley’s mother, later a knitwear designer; they married in 1951, and spent part of their honeymoon at the Festival of Britain. After finishing his degree, Bernat worked in two knitwear factories, the second of which was in Galashiels, Scotland, the town in which he then established his company, Colourcraft, which made scarves and other items for Woolworths and Marks & Spencer. It grew so fast, he soon bought his own mill, Netherdale – and it was on Netherdale’s looms that Colourcraft produced a tweed in shades of yellow and gold, orange and green that Coco Chanel used for a suit in her spring collection of 1963. Suddenly, Bernat was on his way. By July of the same year, Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, Louis Féraud, Guy Laroche, Nina Ricci, Yves Saint Laurent and Hardy Amies had all placed orders.

But we’re running ahead. In 1955, Peggy and Bernat were driving near Holmfirth in West Yorkshire when they spotted an extraordinary building through the trees: a house that turned out to be Farnley Hey, which an architect called Peter Womersley had designed as a wedding present for his brother, John. Bernat immediately wrote to Womersley, asking if he would work on something similar for him in the Scottish Borders, where he’d recently bought a plot of land. For Womersley, an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright and of Mies van der Rohe, this would be his first professional commission. It would also be the start of his lifelong friendship with Bernat (he later built a house for himself close to High Sunderland).

Did the house represent order, after the chaos of the war? “Yes, I think so,” Shelley says. “Losing contact, not knowing where anyone was: that had a huge impact on him, and the house was a reply, of sorts, to it. I can’t describe enough how uncomfortable disorder made him; he would get quite upset if he felt things weren’t right.” But where did his taste come from? Not many people in the Borders of the 1950s longed to own a chair by Poul Kjaerholm (in High Sunderland’s hall there stood just such a piece of furniture, constructed of metal and rope, on which no coat was ever to be placed, and no bottom ever to be lowered). Nor did they take such exception, as Bernat would do a little later, to the romantic whims of Laura Ashley (when the teenage Shelley wore a much-loved dress by the Welsh designer – long and mauve and covered with yellow rosebuds – her father told her that she looked like “a Victorian toilet”).

“Taste was his religion, really,” says Shelley. “But I think it also came from his mother. He would describe how she used to dress, matching her clothes to her eye and hair colour – and her home, which she made so comfortable. That was the initial influence. He came more slowly to modern design.” What about Peggy? Was she as keen a modernist as Bernat, or did she just go along with him? (In her book, Shelley describes Peggy’s renegade cupboards, which contained contraband in the form of “forbidden” items such as pretty china.) “She’d always lived in Victorian houses before she met him, and I think she would have been just as happy in one had she married someone else. But when she fell in love with him, she was head over heels: anything he said, it was like God had spoken. She embraced their lifestyle fully.”

As a teenager, Shelley would have preferred to live somewhere like her school friends: a house with an attic; a house where it was possible to have secrets. Her pals, she says, mostly took High Sunderland in their stride, though its underfloor heating was always popular at a time and in a place where chilblains were a constant hazard. But there is also no doubting that seen from the outside, the Kleins’ world was a glamorous one, their house a kind of stage set for her father’s fashion shows; for the parties her parents liked to throw, gatherings at which modish guests smoked Gitanes and drank cocktails with maraschino cherries in them. “You’ve hit on something,” she says, when I tell her that I think of High Sunderland rising up among the trees like some fairytale castle, albeit one minus any turrets or castellations. “People did fall under its spell, my father’s way of seeing things.”

She misses it. No other house – no other home – can ever, for her, compete with it. But she visits it often in her mind. “There isn’t a day that passes when I’m not there,” she says, with a smile. What does she see on these trips? “Well, I come in and… from the hall, I can see the blue of the kitchen floor; the tiles are the colour of bluebells. Then I go into the living room, and there it is, the landscape beyond the huge windows; it’s so light and peaceful, and the fireplace makes it so warm. After this, I go into the dining room. Whenever I went home, my parents would always make the same dish for me: chicken paprikash and a cucumber salad that was particular to my father. So I’d get a big waft of that…” Just for a moment, she closes her eyes.

The See-Through House by Shelley Klein is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on orders over £15

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