A Question of Taste

Cou Cou !

Greetings from my work – I’m trying to keep this blog more regular by typing in my thoughts during our lunch breaks.  And you know what, I am in love with being back at work – having spent half a year on furlough I am chuffed to bits to have this routine back in my life.

I’ve been writing a lot about furniture lately: what to consider when looking for second-hand pieces and the affordability of certain types of antiques and vintage finds.  As you know, I love a bargain, and sustainability also plays a huge part when it comes to choosing what to buy for our home.  However, nothing weighs in quite as heavily as the look and feel of things.  Within this frame, I am actually really picky when it comes to most things, especially décor.

And it’s not just me either: I share my life with someone with a distinct taste and values of their own… no, I don’t mean the dog.  I refer to my husband James.  Whereas I used to be daft about dainty retro furniture, quirky patterns and curiosities, he was into classic Victoriana, warm wood and solid craftsmanship worn by the passage of time.  As we have grown tighter as a couple, our tastes in things have not so much merged, but evolved under the influence of each other’s likes and dislikes. 

When I first met James, you could say I fell in love with his antique chest before I fell in love with him.  A keen appreciation of carved wood, soft leather and cricket memorabilia shortly followed.  It was Stockholm syndrome via décor, really.  As mine was all sold or donated before I moved to Edinburgh, there was no choice but to live with James’ furniture when we moved in together.  Combined with my collection of Finnish glassware, textiles and knickknacks, however, our first house actually felt ours, not just his or mine.

cricket memorabilia

Since buying our Maison de Ville by the foot of the Montagne Noire and especially when crafting a base for ourselves in the UK, from the houseboat in Staffordshire to our dinky little cottage here in Ilfracombe, we have both only wanted to buy things that we really like.  It took us a year to get a bookcase because we couldn’t find one that looked like nice and was transportable, or wasn’t silly expensive or made of laminate.  Yeah – and here’s a pro tip if you move a lot:  having chipped enough flat pack furniture in the past, I go for solid wood now.  Sure it weighs a ton, always, but unlike laminated particle board pieces, you can refinish and repair wood when needed.

One of my favourite things about James is that he favours the unexpected.  Within a framework of solid, well-crafted things, he’s open to risks and blind to trends.  You either like something or you don’t’.  A great example of this would be our buffet in France – a massive carved Art Deco thing complete with a mirror and a bright yellow sunburst detail.  Most people assume I chose it as I got this thing about the early 1900’s, but it was James who picked it out at our local Dépôt-vente.  Sure, I love it, but I never thought how amazing it would look in our kitchen. 

On the flipside, I didn’t think my influence on James has been all that great but I do bring in a certain je ne sais quoi in the form of colours, materials and Scandi-influences.  He didn’t actually like our current sofa when I picked it out but got really into it when it arrived from Made.com.  Ironically, I’d be ready to swap it for a comfortable old leather Chesterfield as it’s really pretty but incredibly uncomfortable to sit on! 

So was it really Stockholm syndrome or can I admit my taste has become more British perhaps over the years?  My relationship with cricket is still complicated, but I can’t resist a bit of English eccentricity.  I’ve been wanting a pair of Staffordshire fire dogs for a long time and James finally agreed.  It’s not quite a matching pair, but I rather like it that way. 

What do you think – they make a nice pair, don’t they?

‘til next week,

Tx

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Book Case Study

Millennials are killing the bookcase industry, apparently.

Even the biggest bibliophile cannot deny that there has been a gradual change in the way we consume written media.  Coinciding with the eroding status of books as symbols of sophistication and knowledge, whilst our living spaces are getting more and more compact, it’s no wonder people are buying fewer bookcases than ever.  Just think of the grand old Encyclopaedia series, once a staple of the aspiring middle classes and now the scourge of charity shops and recycling centres everywhere.  Novels too have become disposable – shall the one who has never binned a paperback throw the first stone!

I got this thing about books
I got this thing about books

Yet I keep books: great big folios on fine arts, selected hard-back novels and a hoard of non-fiction titles, mostly relating to the history of the middle ages.  I recently got into folklore ‘zines and now I collect those too.  All of these print works, alongside my sketchbooks and James’ cricket memorabilia need to live somewhere so I’ve been on a lookout for a decent bookcase ever since we moved to Ilfracombe, almost a year ago now.

If you look at any fashionable interior design publication these days an abundance of bookcases may be found, but more often than not, an abhorrent absence of books.  Well, unless the books are organised by colour or artistically curated in piles, oftentimes stealing the spotlight of occasional tables, in themselves a dying breed.  My least favourite of these design gimmicks has to be the trend of displaying books with their spines facing the wall.  I get it, you don’t read but c’mon. 

It could be bookcases, once the corner stone of every lounge alongside the three piece suite, do exist but are not seen as aesthetic enough to feature in glossy magazines.  I recently listened to a podcast interview of an editor who spilt the beans on art direction.  A warning for the curious: the absence of power outlets in fancy houses is a fallacy: just like the humble book case, those get edited out of house tours of the rich and famous.

We have books in France, sitting comfortably in an ebony black IKEA Kallax unit, covering an unsightly toilet plumbed in our stairwell, but that’s another story.  The few we brought with us or acquired here in the UK used to sit on top of a coffee table, disorganised and vulnerable to an occasional spillage of wine.  I had my eyes on a mid-century thing, but even with a full time job I could not justify spending several hundreds of pounds on a single piece of furniture plus the cost of delivery from South Wales. 

Yes, Wales. Turns out Pontcanna is the modern capital of affordable mid-century furniture.  Look it up if you don’t believe me.

Ultimately we needn’t travel as the perfect bookcase had been waiting for us in a backroom of our local vintage store all along.  Built sometime between the two world wars, it falls into that awkward not-quite-antiques category of furniture that goes largely un-appreciated.  Also, vitrine-type bookshelves aren’t exactly all the rage at the moment so there are amazing bargains to be uncovered in charity shops, car boot sales and even auctions.  With a price tag of just 15 pounds, our little gem was unusually cheap, but according to the store owner, it had been waiting to be purchased quite some time.

Our little vintage bookcase
Our little vintage bookcase

If you allow me to oversimplify this a bit, things are only worth what someone is willing to pay for them.  Those mid-century pieces we all seem to be obsessed about?  Not an awfully long time ago, you couldn’t give them away.  Now, having been picked out by a generation of designers, decorators and style influencers, the prices on these types of furniture has risen steadily as the demand for them has grown, and I don’t think we have quite reached the zenith of this particular trend.  Other bygone styles, such as my between-the-wars design mongrel aren’t on many peoples wish list and there are lots of them about, hence why they are cheap as chips.

There are three questions to consider when buying furniture: 

Firstly, is it well made? 

Is it affordable? 

And finally, is it trendy?  

An item seldom hits all of these marks, but two affirmatives is more than realistic, i.e. it is easy to find a piece that is durable and affordable, but not necessarily trendy.  A trendy piece that is well-made tends to cost you an arm and a leg, and so on.  It is also good to remember that just because something is not fashionable just now, it could not be charming, characterful or out of this world stunning. 

I love my new bookcase to bits and by raving on about it, I hope to inspire others less confident to shop second hand to give thrifting a good old college try, as I believe they say in America.  As a consumer, buying second hand when you can, upcycling or embellishing, and simply making do and mending more is the best way to be environmentally conscious while saving a ton of money. 

Plus you get to be all smug about it later on a blog post.

‘til next week,

Tx

Home Office Politics

Autumnal greetings friends!

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got this lingering back to school feeling.  It could be the change in the seasons: autumnal colours and the cool, crisp air of early mornings… or finally being back to work after the longest, strangest summer holiday of my life.  Although I emerge into the new normal much less bruised than some, as the months on furlough dragged on, I found myself really struggling with anxiety, exacerbated by uncertainty about work and life in general. 

Bright yellow of the Ilfracombe harbour

Unlike me, James has been busy working from home all through lockdown and continues to do so.  Quietly keeping calm and carrying on, he has been doing his part on keeping the shop shelves of Southern England stocked up.

In a wider sense, it seems there is a strong shift towards working from home prompted by the Covid-19 crisis.  When pressed on by necessity, it does seem all of those roles that were previously strictly office based can indeed be fulfilled by an army of homeworkers eagerly skipping the traffic, office politics and the need to wear trousers.

But what do you do if you don’t have tons of space to convert into an insta-worthy home office?  I’ve observed my friends and family resorting into all sorts of tactics to carve out space for their paper clips and PCs, from conquering corners of their dining tables to setting up swanky flat-pack cardboard desks.  As a painter I require slightly different types of a set up and thus ended up perched on a pair of camper van cushions in our spare room.  As for James, well, he spend most of lockdown in our front room, sandwiched between his wee escritoire and Graeme the Grand Piano.

Escritoire-types of writing desks became quite fashionable some years back, especially as subjects of shabby chic transformations: painted in soft pastel hues, distressed or upcycled with cheerfully patterned wallpapers.  Ours is much simpler than that, a straightforward 1930’s (or possibly even later) example in dark lacquered wood, sporting a couple of small drawers and shelves for books.  It’s not the trendiest perhaps, but I like my furniture functional, unobtrusive and above all else… affordable.

Antique Georgian or Victorian escritoires (also conversely modernist mid-century examples) command impressive prices these days, but we picked ours off eBay for 35 pounds.  You wouldn’t be able to buy a new desk half as sturdy and practical for love or money.  However, if you are willing to look past the trendiest of pieces, there are amazing deals to be found in that not-quite-antique category right now.  When new, our desk was a haphazard imitation of arts & crafts pieces with modern detailing such as the vinyl covering of its writing surface and those cute little plastic pulls.  Not quite one thing nor the other, making it somewhat undervalued today.

I’ve got my personal reasons for buying these kind of pieces, namely value for money: that elusive durability vs. purchase value ratio, but also concerns over sustainability of mass production of things.  That cardboard desk looked amazing, but I don’t want to acquire new stuff if there is a viable second hand alternative. 

I once had a friend who talked about poverty as an aesthetic and although I don’t entirely agree with her views, it is true that trends of the future are often set by those who need to get crafty with their fashion and decorating choices.  A good case in point would be looking at the gentrification of our cities and the countryside.  Furniture wise, this effect can be seen in the value of mid-century modern furniture of a certain type: given up by the generation that grew up with it, these bookcases, room dividers and sideboards were lapped up the young trendy things that needed to result in charity shopping.  Now that generation has come of age, with a fully formed style that others are willing to pay large sums for. 

It’s pretty unlikely that those yellow pine things you see stacked up in hospice shops are going to be all the rage, well, ever, but if I’d have to predict a trend of the furniture, I would gently guide you towards Edwardiana.  Think of the world of Edward Elgar: dark stained native woods of the British Isles, pre-first world war shapes and hand crafted details.  You won’t be finding it in IKEA, but with a bit of Mr Sheen furniture polish, it will last you a lifetime.

‘til next time.

Tx

Finlandia 4ever blog tittle image

Finlandia 4ever

How d’you do, I…

…see you’ve met my faithful Chez Nous N°21 blog.

Coucou – hope you keeping well and safe.  My furlough continues, so I have been busy holidaying at home.  A couple of social distancing picnics aside, this has meant mostly getting horridly sunburnt on my early morning runs and extra attention (treats) given to the dog.  You know what they say about old dogs and new tricks, but he’s not far off from bringing me my slippers.  My last attempt in training him to fetch footwear ended up with him mauling a pair of Moroccan babouches, but I remain optimistic.  One for the money, two for the show, right?

Anyway, we are not here to stir up past trauma.  However, if that happens to be your game, head over to my art blog to read about the seductiveness of nostalgia.  I don’t usually like to flog my other work here, but I am particularly proud about this personal essay on the attractiveness of an idealised past.  As the blog you are about to read is about my Finnishness too, you might want to start with the artsy-fartsy one touching on my formative years during the early 90’s recession.

So, Tervetuloa, and enjoy:

The regular readers might know that I was born and raised in the semi-rural South West of Finland, in an old textile town of Forssa.  Although I have been living overseas for ten years now, every once in a while my thoughts return home: to the familiar faces and places, the clatter of my native tongue and our vast forests & lakes.  Naturally, each time I visit, I try to bring back a small piece of Finland with me, whether it is food, homeware or a cracking Instagram pic.  Little bits and bobs to remind me of home.  When I first moved to Edinburgh back in 2010, I had a suitcase full of essentials and another for my childhood toy owls, with a load of Finnish glassware and textiles.  You can take a wild guess which one Ryanair charged me an oversized baggage fee for.

Our house in the middle of our street

As I’ve grown and set up a permanent home for myself, in Chez Nous N°21 – our house by the foot of the Montagne Noire, in a way, it became less important to throw my Finnishness around.  When you are renting, especially if you are renting a shoddy student pad, it can be difficult to feel truly at home where you live.  Throughout my studies, home was on speed dial whenever I used a Finlayson towel for example or put on a Marimekko shirt.  When I bought my first house with James, a whole-ass derelict Maison de Ville with an overgrown patch of a garden to match, none of that mattered.  Every spider infested crevice of the place was ours.  I would still adore my pretty Finnish crockery and prioritise Finnish brands (Fiskars, anyone), but these objects no longer served to bridge an abstract distance between where I was and what used to be home.

My mum though, known as the most cunning thrifter on Northern hemisphere, has continued to fill my life with Suomi-awesomeness and I do thank her for it.  It is the thrill of the chase she loves, hunting down the best bargains in second hand shops and on Facebook recycling groups.  Kalevala jewellery, design glass or vintage factory off cuts… if my mum can’t find it, it does not exist.  Her latest treasure: an old Schoolhouse map of Finland big enough to use as a bedspread, haggled down to 20 euros.  I mean, I know her, but that one was pretty impressive.

my mum helping to lay out interior shots for my blog

For a while now, James and I have been living in England again – our beloved home in France is ready for the big, pricey renovations, so we go where the work is.  It is not half bad: I have filled our rented cottage with houseplants that remind me of my mum and she has in turn filled it with Finnish things to remind me of her also.  Those toy owls are still with me, currently sitting on top of an ornamental fireplace with Basil Brush and a little Moomin, a crochet masterpiece made for me by James’ sister in law, who makes magic with a small hook.

Before the global pandemic, lockdown and social distancing, I was too busy to dream of my beloved land of a thousand lakes.  With plenty of time to worry, however, I find myself feeling quite homesick.  And it is not all corona-related.  Perhaps Brexit started it, but being an outsider in England is a bit weird just now.  So whenever I feel down, I go and pick one of my Arabia mugs, make myself a brew and try not to think of it.  We have all needed to get used to being comfortable in our homes lately and my way of achieving this is by cocooning myself in Finnishness, again, as well as getting plenty of cuddles from the dog and the husband.

And just like that, I feel at home.

I would like to keep exploring the idea of national identity through objects we surround ourselves with (or what your mother surrounds you with), so I have been planning a post on few of the brands casually namedropped here.  Inspired by an incident regarding an eagle-eyed little lad who outed me as a Finn based purely on my slippers, I thought that what we trendy Finnish folk fill our houses with might make interesting reading.  I have my personal preferences for sure, but some of them are formed in the womb, alongside our hatred for carpeting and low-grade insulation.

See you soon with an update,

Tiina x

who wants to go to the seaside blog banner

Who wants to go to the Seaside?

Verity guarding the Ilfracombe harbour, North Devon

I had this heartfelt essay planned, filled with self-doubt and vitriol on how I dragged James and the dog away from friends and family, but I think nobody needs to hear about that just now.

Besides, I just remembered something:  Living by the sea is not half bad.

Number one, Rusty the dog has recently discovered kelp.  It is both smellier and more delicious compared to the things you can whip out of a lake or a river.  We try to stop him from eating too much of the stuff, but every dog needs a treat here and there.  On the flip side though, he has not quite figured out the whole not drinking from the sea thing, but slow and steady will win the race, I’m sure.  In the meantime, I shall carry a bottle of water in my rucksack when we go anywhere near the ocean.

Besides, James’ leg is finally well enough to hike on and I can’t quite express how much I have missed walking with my two best boys.  We are discovering new routes and enjoying the exploration of our new hometown each day.  The harbour that used to be too far?  A pleasant weekend stroll as it stands.  The dog loves the beach like silly, but there’s nothing like getting lost in the dinky side streets overlooking the water.

Secondly, have you ever had the delight of hopping from rock to rock, admiring the wee rock pools and stone formations exposed by the passing tide?  We didn’t do vacations by the sea when I was little so this is all very new and incredibly exciting to me.  My plan is to put a bit of money aside to buy a DLCR, to really start photographing this stuff.  Whether you are into photography or not, let me tell you, it is worth taking that leap on an algae covered ridge to see what lays on the other side.

Thirdly, and please accept my apologies for the lack of pictorial evidence – I was simply too busy having fun, there is nothing like a Devon-made ice cream in the sun.  I was observing the correct social distancing rules while purchasing and consuming mine, don’t you worry.

When you are born and raised in Finland, the whole 2 metre distance thingy is just called your normal personal space.

IMG_20200229_154337

Now it’s not the time to travel, but when it is, Ilfracombe is eagerly waiting for you.  In the meantime, hope you have enjoyed my sunny seaside snaps.

Stay safe guys and enjoy the everyday.

Tiina x

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Mother of Plants

don't let the existential dread set in comic
I wish I knew who to credit with this masterpiece!

Cou cou – greetings from Chez Nous.

I am on my second month of furlough and the existential dread has started creeping in.  Not today though, it’s a sunny day by the sea, so I thought about writing about my favourite obsession:

See, I’ve been making a man, with blond hair and a tan.

I mean plants, of course. Defo.

rainbow tulips

So go on and get yourself a nice cup of tea while I take you on a spin around my lifelong houseplant addiction.

I am still waiting for my inner Monty Don to kick in regarding gardening, but houseplants…  I can funk with that.  Not that it could have gone any other way – my mother is the original #plantmum.  Our home was a real jungle growing up.  From African Violets to Flame Nettle, you name it, it was thriving on the windowsills of our dinky council flat.  Each time my mum ran out of space for her pots my dad crafted her a new plant stand.  These were pretty grand affairs, sculpted from scraps of pine and lovingly lacquered to look like antique hardwood.  My favourites, however, were the hanging planters, made of either macramé decorated with tiny little seashells or braided jute twine.

Me and my wee sister around 1995
Me and my wee sister around 1995 (I’m on the left)

My mum’s cuttings accompanied me to my first flat.  Through a bit of trial and error, it did not take long before I too had a windowsill full of flora.  I loved that dinky apartment with its massive set of south facing windows.  It broke my heart to move out when I was accepted to study art in Edinburgh four years later.  The first thing I bought to brighten up the grimy bedsit where I ended up was a Peace Lily from IKEA, the only plant that refused to die in that damp hole.  Offspring of that tenacious Spathiphyllum continue to oxidise our cottage here in Ilfracombe.

my wee peace lily

I met my tall dark stranger James mid October 2013.  He is a man of the cut-flower variety – can’t kill a plant if it’s already dead, right!  Opposites attract I suppose, as we moved to France together soon after.  During our year in Brittany I produced a crop of chilies on our front room and grew my first avocado plant.  Compared to the dark and damp house we rented there, our first apartment in the South of France was flooded with natural light and made for cultivating greenery.  I never had a sunnier spot for my tomatoes than our balcony overlooking the Montagne Noire.  Although the Toms didn’t live to see us settling in Chez Nous N°21, the plants that did, however, are mostly with us here in Ilfracombe.

the famous Breton chilies
the famous Breton chilies

Yes, I rather packed the car full of pots than made sure I had enough to wear in the UK.

If you ask James, we probably have enough plants already.  Like with dogs and brogues, I think you could always have another pair.  However, it’s variety of foliage I appreciate, not quantity per se.  Following my latest re-potting marathon, I decided to donate most of my new cuttings to the poor plant-less people of Ilfracombe.  Less than 20 minutes by the kerb, with a “free to a good home” sign and the whole tray was gone.  Quite literally, although it was later returned with a thank you note.  Feeling positively saintly, I thought it was only right and just to reward myself with a medium-sized Cala Lily from Lidl.  As the newest member of my plant-family, it is also my current favourite, narrowly taking the top spot from an adorable Angel Wing Begonia.

My mum has recently re-discovered her love of plants after a few years of being too busy to take care of any.  I can’t wait to be able to swap cuttings with her.  Our joint love of plants is something that makes me feel closer to my mum, regardless of the 2000 miles between my home in England and hers back in Finland.  I think every mother and daughter need a thing of their own and this one is ours.

(You can see her green-babies below.)

I hope browsing through this short history of houseplants of Chez Nous N°21 has brought you as much joy as it has been to write it.  Looking up old photographs with my mum via WhatsApp and remembering blooms of the past has been a real delight – a proper break from the bleakness of lockdown life.  Hope you enjoyed that cup of tea, btw.  Just remember to give a wee drink to the thirsty plants at yours as well.

That’s what I am going to do next.

À plus tard!

Tx