Home provides a mental and physical safe harbour

Sara Karlsson is a communications entrepreneur who is often away in some far-flung corner of the world. But for most of 2020 she has lived solidly at her small family home in the Ullanlinna district of Helsinki. For Sara, forests have always represented fresh air and peace, whether they are growing in Finland or anywhere in the world.

Armchair 402, Alvar Aalto 1933 from 2088 €, Bench 153A, black, Alvar Aalto 1945, 610 €, Cesta-light, Miguel Milá 1962, 799 €, LTR Occasional table, Ray & Charles Eames 1950, 264 €, Helios- and Nereus cushion covers 40 x 40 cm, Johanna Gullichsen, 70 €, Doris cushion cover 50 x 50 cm, Johanna Gullichsen, 80 €.

Before this year, our family was the sort that moved around. We rarely spent more than a month in the same place. Particularly when we travelled in the United States and southern Europe, we got into the habit of spending part of the time in what could be characterised as the middle of nowhere. In New York, we drove upstate, in California we headed to the redwood forests and in northern Italy to the mountains, where spruce stand tall and quiet on steep hillsides – just as they did long before us and will do long after we are gone. When the world changed in the spring of 2020 and everybody stayed home, we found ourselves in the forests of southern Finland. A place we used to escape from the grime and noise of the city became a place we went to for adventure and a change of scenery to counterbalance the long hours at home.

Being out and about in nature refreshes the mind and makes the body tired in precisely the right way. Aesthetically, the forest perspective has something meditative about it. Even when it has grown naturally and spread freely, wherever one looks the same colours and shapes are repeated in harmony. The ground feels springy beneath one’s feet and the air smells fresh. There is nothing exact or measured about natural woodlands where nothing is controlled by people – the raw power of nature is its beauty.

An English friend of mine, when humorously comparing Finns and Swedes, observed that there is still something of the forest people about we Finns, in a good way. I took it as a compliment. Our connection to the earth and to nature are part of the national character of Finland. At the same time, I can see how privileged we are here in the North. We live in a clean environment, in freedom and with plenty of space, we can access city nature easily and even the wild version is never far off. Finland is one of the countries where the freedom to roam is still extant and codified in law. Regardless of who owns the land, the public has a right of access to the wilderness and can pick mushrooms, berries and herbs. I realise I have taken these things for granted more than I should have, for now they have become a great luxury.


The cutest food sourced from the wilderness

The cutest food sourced from the wilderness that I have tasted was the Noma’s chocolate-covered lichen. That is beyond the skill set of my own kitchen, but we eat salads, pastas and risottos with wild mushrooms every week when they are in season. One of my favourites is a potato-and-mushroom salad for which I fry the mushrooms separately from the potatoes that I either bake in the oven or boil. Cube the potatoes and chop the mushrooms, then mix in a generous bunch of chopped leaf parsley and any other herbs you like. Liberally pour on some good olive oil, add a squeeze of lemon juice, salt flakes and ground black pepper. Toss the ingredients, taste, and it is ready to serve.

For most of us, modern life is not all about taking hikes in the woods and cooking free of any pressures on our time. Being in nature makes it easy to wind down, but ideally your home too should be calm and revitalising. For me, calm in terms of interior design requires different things throughout the year, because in Finland the temperature and quality of light change dramatically from summer to winter. Two things are a constant, however, regardless of the season: plants and trees.

Trees embrace my home on both sides of the building, which brings the outdoors inside during the daytime. Throughout the dark months, when what you can see outside the window most of the time is either grey or black, the role of the green plants inside my home is emphasised. I particularly like dark pots, where the boundary between the pot and the soil is blurred. In a brown Riihitie pot it almost seems as if the plant is growing out of a small slice of the land.

Of all materials, wood remains my favourite for interiors. In addition to looking beautiful, wood feels and smells good and improves the acoustics of a room. Most of the furniture in my home is made of wood. Some pieces are decades old and when I get a piece of furniture, I always think that somebody else will want and be able to use it once my time is up.

Chaise Tout Bois, Jean Prouvé 1941, 790 €, Petite Potence -wall light, Jean Prouvé 1947, 878 €
Stool 60, Alvar Aalto 1933, from 200 €, Riihitie pot, Aino Aalto 1937, from 59 €, Helios cushion cover 40 x 40 cm, 70 €

The frame of Alvar Aalto’s Armchair 406 is made of birch wood and the webbed seat of linen. It is the lightest armchair I know and is in many ways an ideal piece of furniture for today. It is beautiful, versatile and easy to move to wherever in the home is best for work, reading, or video meetings. At my home we have ample room for two people, but the past months have forced us to reconsider how we use the space to give each of us the peace we need to work, to be comfortable and to have enough light and space to think. A massive easy chair was always in the way, so we decided to move it out to the summer house. Having flexible and easy-to-use furniture makes everyday living so much easier. The three-legged Stool 60 by Alvar Alto has long been our go-to furniture around the house. We use the stools as side tables and as occasional seats. I started using a couple as temporary bedside tables until I could find the perfect nightstand. That was 11 years ago, and the stools are still there, aesthetically serving their purpose at the bedside.

A201 pendant light, Alvar Aalto 1950’s, 498 €, Riihitie pot, Aino Aalto 1937, from 59 €

One’s home is immensely important during the winter months and this year it is more so than ever. Home provides a mental and physical safe harbour that offers shelter from the forces of nature in an unpredictable world. The distinction between home and garden can blur in the summer but in the winter I find that the contrast between indoors and outdoors becomes one of the most important atmospheric elements of my home. When it is cold outside, it feels warm and cosy to be inside. Winter’s hazy, bluish light becomes very atmospheric once I have lit my candles and lights in warm tones.

Lighting is the area of interior design to which I pay most attention during the winter months. Spiritually, the place you live in stretches as far as you can see – through an open door to the next room or during daylight hours to the view outside your window. When it’s dark I think it creates a sense of comfort when lighting is used to delineate the contours and important elements of a home.

I have enjoyed many a nice winter evening at my round table under the A201 pendant light. Six people can sit comfortably around the table. The light brings the group together with their faces beautifully lit and the rest of the world fades away. Once, when we had a larger group of dinner guests, the extension we added to the table made it oval shaped. Strangely, the people at either end, sitting slightly outside the circle of light, seemed more distant and were almost left out of the conversation. Of course, a longer table ought to have two pendant lights, or a single lamp would need to be hung higher. For me it was a good reminder that interior design can be used to influence not only how comfortable a space feels but how people interact with one another within it.

Armchair 406, Alvar Aalto 1939, 1280 €, Stool 60, Alvar Aalto 1933, from 200 €, Nereus cushion cover, 40 x 40 cm, 70 €

I am not very interested in style, but the atmosphere and impact of the design choices that have been made always fascinates me. I sometimes smile when people are complimentary about my beautiful cushions, but I never correct them by saying that we don’t have cushions merely for decoration but rather to improve how we sit or to support the neck when we lie on the sofa. A chair that has been chosen to fit your body size makes a huge difference when you work at a desk – it determines whether your body is too far from the surface or if it lifts you up to the work. Then there are all the small things that sweeten one’s day, perhaps not noticed by everybody but always valued by those with an appreciative soul. Such as a simple but carefully laid table, clean sheets on the bed, a good hand soap and towel in the bathroom. Lights that don’t dazzle but do their job, side tables at suitable heights for books and tea mugs next to armchairs and sofas. Warm carpets where you are likely to go barefoot. A fire in the fireplace. A lantern at the front door. Something green in every room.

Sara Karlsson is a communications entrepreneur who is often away in some far-flung corner of the world. But for most of 2020 she has lived solidly at her small family home in the Ullanlinna district of Helsinki. For Sara, forests have always represented fresh air and peace, whether they are growing in Finland or anywhere in the world.

Text and photos: Sara Karlsson

Previously at Artek Helsinki

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