Shelley’s book about the see-through house brings comfort in grief

Writer Shelley Klein would love to be spending lockdown in the modernist Selkirk home in which she grew up.

By Paul Kelly
Monday, 11th May 2020, 1:46 pm
High Sunderland, Selkirk
High Sunderland, Selkirk

The daughter of ground-breaking textile designer Bernat Klein spent her formative years in High Sunderland, a house designed by architect Peter Womersley on a modernist open-plan grid; with colourful glass panels set against a forest of trees.

Shelley dubbed the property ‘the see-through house’ and has compared it to something akin to living in a work of art.

The property was often used for photo-shoots to promote designs created by her father for such legendary fashion houses as Chanel, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent.

Author Shelley Klein

Her relationship with her father, whose pioneering use of contemporary colours and textures in tweed helped change the face of fashion in the 1960s and 70s, was indelibly interconnected with the house he envisaged and loved with a passion.

Shelley left home at 18 to move to London but returned to live in High Sunderland three decades later to take care of her father following the death of her mother Margaret Klein, herself a knitwear designer.

Despite the passage of time she discovered that the house had not changed and neither had her father, a Serbian-born modernist and minimalist who once mocked his teenage daughter’s decision to wear Laura Ashley designs.

Her father died in 2014 at the age of 91 and the family home was sold two years ago.

Now she has published a memoir, appropriately titled The See-Through House (Chatto and Windus), in which she explores her contention that: “My father was the house. The house was my father.”

Speaking from her home near Hampstead Heath in North London, where she is enduring lockdown in the company of her dog Henry, Shelley’s thoughts often drift back to her childhood home in the Borders, although she dismisses any prospect of ever returning to see it again.

She said: “I’m longing to be in the Borders instead of London. It’s fine here, just a bit dull. I have friends around that I wave at from a distance.

“It would be a better experience in the see-through house because I really miss those wide open landscapes and the walks, everything around that area. When you are in a city it can feel a little claustrophobic, and now we’re supposed to be only going out for an hour a day it is even more claustrophobic, whereas the see-through house gave you those beautiful sweeping views.

“The house was sold at the very beginning of 2018.

“It was a very difficult decision to leave because, obviously, it had always been in our family, having been built for dad and it was a very special house. I will come back to the Borders, but I will never go back to the house because it would be too painful and I want to keep the memories of how it was, I don’t want to overlay it with new images of it.”

Shelley views her memoir as a cathartic exercise.

It helped her cope with the death of both her parents and she sees it as a tribute to them at the same time.

“After my father died I wanted to write something and it was a way of keeping him quite close to me, and it really helped with the grief, being able to write, and really think quite deeply over what the house meant to me and why it meant so much to my father. Those were the motivations.

“I can’t separate the house from my father or my father from the house. In my mind they are just one and the same.

“The house was always his vision and he furnished it, all the soft furnishings were his textiles, which he designed.

“We had a few clashes on various issues, basically about how things looked and what he liked and what I liked and the two rarely matched when I was growing up.

“He was a complete modernist and far more modern than any of his children.

“I went through a period of wanting to wear Laura Ashley which my father found quite horrific, so we had our moments on what I should wear and what he wanted me to wear.”

Shelley, a former pupil at Selkirk High School, added: “I grew up in the Borders landscape and I spent many hours romping through the countryside, playing in the woods around the house, going to the Tweed to fish. It’s just stunningly beautiful and I really do miss the scenery, it’s a part of me.

“This book is my story and it’s really close to my heart and it helped me through a really dark period of my life, grieving for both my parents. I’m very pleased I wrote it.”