A 1920s London home with Scandinavian-inspired interiors
Whimsical prints and bright colours bring Scandinavian charm to designer Jonna Saarinen’s 1920s home. Photographs James Balston
There’s a question that Finnish designer Jonna Saarinen is asked on a regular basis: is she related to fellow countryman Eero Saarinen, the late architect and creator of iconic mid-century furniture? ‘Because I work part-time at the Royal College of Art, I get asked this about once a week,’ she says. ‘Sadly, the answer is no – but I’m hoping to make a name for myself on a smaller scale with my own designs.’
Jonna’s work as a textile and surface designer is all about bold, brilliant colours and clear-cut shapes – a tradition that she traces back to her childhood in Finland and has brought to life in her south London home. ‘Pattern and colour are integral to Finnish and Scandinavian design,’ she says, looking around her living room, which zings with fabrics by Finnish design houses Marimekko and Finlayson. A vintage Smurf peeps out from the bright red interior of an original Eero Aarnio Ball chair while, upstairs, intricate floral wallpapers by Pihlgren ja Ritola and Josef Frank mix happily with Moomin designs.
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This imaginative world of nursery colours and abundant flora is, says Jonna, rooted in the Nordic identity. ‘It stems in part from long, dark winters. Filling your home with bright design and touches of fun was a way to lift the spirits,’ she says. A woven tapestry on the landing, made by Jonna’s great aunt, is testament to this tradition.
For Jonna, even her collection of Moomin memorabilia reflects the same mindset. ‘The Moomins were a big part of my childhood,’ she says, ‘and I’ve looked out for figures, toys and fabrics that depict them ever since.’
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But, as any Tove Jansson reader knows, there’s often something dangerous hovering at the edge of her forests. And that awareness of nature’s darker side is threaded through the Nordic design tradition: ‘Even in Frank’s designs, there’s a sense that nature is powerful and is to be respected,’ says Jonna.
She shares this 1920s house with her fiancé, David Wynd, a musician, and they both love its old-fashioned feel, with its walk-in larder, skinny bedroom fireplaces and high panelled doors. It was built in 1926 by a local builder who had bought a double plot. ‘This was the first house, then he built a mirror image of it next door, but added more decorative plasterwork. He sold this house and moved into the fancier one.’
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The house had been owned by the same family ever since, but fell into disrepair and had been boarded up for three years when Jonna and David viewed it. ‘That was why we could afford it,’ she says. There was no central heating and the window panes were broken, but the couple fell in love with its atmosphere.
‘This house feels like it was made by hand, at a gradual, human pace,’ says Jonna. For example, all the doorknobs are different. ‘The builder put the prettiest ones in rooms at the front of the house and they get less special towards the back. You can almost imagine him making decisions as he went along.’ As they renovated, they uncovered evidence that other builders had been at work. ‘We found a newspaper from the 1950s and a forgotten sandwich under the floorboards – still in its paper bag from a Streatham bakery. Someone must have missed their lunch that day.’
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For a suitably nostalgic decor, Jonna and David delved into the archives of Finnish company Pihlgren ja Ritola and Swedish design house Svenskt Tenn for wallpapers, buying vintage rolls as well as modern reissues of Josef Frank’s patterns. ‘We had to hang the old papers carefully,’ she says. ‘They were so fragile they began to melt at the edges when we added paste.’
The pieces of 1930s and 1940s dark wood furniture belonged to Jonna’s great-aunt and were brought over from Finland, creating what Jonna calls a ‘pub snug’ feel in the second sitting room. The heaviness of the wood is lightened by Jonna’s way with colour and fabric. Modern additions that complement her style in the house include egg yolk-yellow lamps from Habitat and a tomato-red Smeg fridge. But the Eero Aarnio Ball chair is Jonna’s favourite piece – she bought it 10 years ago from someone who was moving to a loft apartment and couldn’t fit it through the door. ‘He’s in a bit of a state, battered and scratched,’ she says. ‘But he’s a fellow Finn, so I’m very attached to him.’
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