We are in the backstreets of Whitechapel, the old stalking-ground of Jack the Ripper, and nowadays home to wholesale fashion emporia boasting such effortlessly stylish names as Euro Miss and Mode House. At the end of the street is the pub where East End kingpins the Kray twins shot rival gangster George Cornell in 1966, as a scratched record of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” played over and over on the jukebox. The soundtrack today, however, is pumping dance music, and the duo doing the shooting are the Italians Fabrizio Coppi and Lucilla Barbieri. It also might be prudent to mention that they use cameras rather than guns.

The 1930s Modernist building where the photographers live and work was, until recently, a factory churning out uniforms for petrol-pump attendants. Even now, post for these filling-station couturiers still lands on the floor of the stairwell, which is painted in an appropriately forecourt-ish shade of racing green.

After all this East End grit, the words which the apartment first brings to mind are those on the buttons of a television set: contrast, brightness and volume. Not “colour”, mind you; this is white Minimalist territory. Colour is used in a sparing, De Stijl manner, as an accent to draw the eye. This is most apparent with the bold red kitchen unit, designed by the architect, Antonio Barbieri (Lucilla’s cousin), to resemble the red toolbox which Fabrizio and Lucilla saw while passing a hardware-shop window and bought just because they liked its appearance.

There are a fair few flush cupboards around the walls of what the couple refer to as the “space”, and one wonders whether these are employed to hide dark secrets. Are Fabrizio and Lucilla really incorrigible clutterers who have frantically stuffed all manner of possessions into the cupboards, ready to unleash an avalanche of mess again after the photographs have been taken? Fabrizio assures me that this is not so. “It is difficult to have many possessions when you are always moving house,” he says in his pronounced Italian accent.

The pair have lived in four countries over the last five years. When they first came to London, only knowing the touristy areas, they lived in Kensington. Then they gravitated towards trendy Spitalfields, residing in a Georgian house on Fournier St with the coprophiliac performance artists Gilbert and George as neighbours. “Those houses can be very suffocating,” says Lucilla, explaining why they have moved still further east. “When we saw this space we knew that it had potential.” An idea of what it originally looked like can be gleaned from the studio next door, which is like the apartment’

s evil twin: it is its mirror image, with bare bricks instead of pristine walls, and mess instead of sleekness. The studio is rented from a member of the band Gay Dad – the great white hopes/white elephants of the 1998 music scene – which goes to show the bohemian milieu in which they move.

Fabrizio and Lucilla, working under the name Coppi Barbieri, specialise in still lifes. They met at photography school in Milan: “I wanted to be an artist, and photography seemed to be a good way to produce images when you’re no good at drawing,” says Lucilla with a self-deprecating smile. They have worked for World of Interiors, Wallpaper, GQ and Viewpoint – a heavyweight style magazine with a cover price of £45, for which they shot the contents of men’s bins – as well as commercial clients like Fendi, Volvo, Volkswagen and American Airlines (“We do a lot of transport,” says Fabrizio). Today they are making balloons look like Guinness, for a St Patrick’s Day campaign.

Their apartment reflects the nature of Fabrizio and Lucilla’s work. They do shoots for the glossies, and it is itself very glossy – the floor is made from shiny resin, which they have to polish “only” three times a week. That the floor had to be poured twice before they were satisfied with it indicates the duo’s unstinting perfectionism. There is even a still life hanging on one of the walls – it is a Photorealist painting by the artist Robert Wilson, a vast representation of a jacket potato with side salad and baked beans, on a vivid azure background.

But most of all, the flat is about light. It runs from east to west, the large factory windows catching the sun at both ends of its cycle. Indeed, even when the sun is in the south, the light is reflected in, thanks to a conveniently situated council estate. Using this solar fortuity as a starting point, Antonio Barbieri has transformed the industrial shell into a lucent apartment which seems to glow in different tones at various points of the day.

Antonio has left a section of the original brick exposed as a focal point, and on this are hung three panels of turf, from the grass dealer of artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey. It is slowly browning and becoming crackly. “We tried spraying them with water, but because it was so humid, the windows got covered in condensation,” says Fabrizio. So the grass has been left to die. “I think it needs more ground behind it,” he explains.

Although undeniably Minimalist, their home does not have the sterile quality often associated with pared-down interiors. Fabrizio and Lucilla are genuinely proud of it, and it is clearly somewhere that is actively lived in. Evidence of this can be seen in the geometric bookcase by Kuramata, on which books on photography and Italian novels are artfully arranged. “I think it actually looks better without any books on it,” vouchsafes Lucilla. Fabrizio is unconvinced: “We don’t have a big enough apartment to have a bookcase with no books on it.”

First published in World of Interiors issue 234. Reproduced with permission.

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