Creating a calming space that sparks joy is the raison d’être of Swedish interior designer Beata Heuman. It stands to reason - her name is the Latin for happy. From the playful mural in her daughters’ bedroom to the armoire-concealed fridge in her kitchen-diner – an open-minded, freewheeling joyfulness pervades from the moment you step through the door. And it’s catching...
Beata was voted House & Gardens inaugural designer of the year in 2018, while her aesthetic was described by the New York Times as a “reinterpretation of the British maximalist tradition – exuberant, peripatetic, proudly eccentric.”
There is something about the way she balances an uncluttered Scandi ease with a dash of English kookiness that makes her spaces so warm and liveable. “I get a thrill from observing things that are beautiful or interesting, and I love creating special places,” she explains. “Obviously my work doesn’t save lives, but it is life-enhancing, and I can see the value in beauty.”
She cut her design teeth with industry stalwart Nicky Haslam – where she worked for nine years – before launching her own studio in 2013. Her riverside Hammersmith home, where she lives with husband John Finlay – head of legal at the beverage company Fever Tree – and their daughters Gurli and Alma, is the perfect interiors showcase.
Filled with surprising touches, from the painted glass kitchen ceiling, inspired by traditional Parisian patisseries, to the curved radiator covers and rug-upholstered headboards – it’s the kind of design that makes you think, ‘I could do that’. And Beata designs not only beautiful spaces but a growing furnishing and lighting range. The Dodo Egg light, marbleised wallpaper, palm-print fabrics and lire-fronted cabinets are being readily snapped up.
But wait until you see the specially-commissioned mural adapting Ludwig Bemelman’s design at New York’s Carlyle hotel with its cigar-smoking, Martini-drinking rabbits. “It is my favourite room in the house, and both Alma and Gurli love to gaze at the scenes on the walls,” she says. “The fact that some of the characters depicted are drinking and smoking – it’s quite grown up and cheeky – but we love it. The girls will see their parents doing the same!”
She thrives on balancing her business (her studio has global commercial and private clients and recently completed London’s Farm Girl Cafés makeover) with family life. “I admire people who decide to focus on their children and scale back their work to do so, but I really love my job and it didn’t feel like the right choice for me,” she explains. “Over the period where I had my children, I had some really exciting projects in progress and I didn’t want to lose momentum on them. The fact that I live five minutes’ walk from the studio also makes it easier to balance both work and parenthood, and when I want to, I have the luxury of being able to leave the studio early to spend extra time with the girls. I make sure I see my children every morning, evening and weekend.”
We loved talking to Beata about growing up in Sweden, how she juggles her roles – and how we can all make our family home look like this (the dream!).
Tell us about your childhood...
I grew up on a beautiful farm in the south of Sweden, with my parents who both worked and my siblings (I’m number three of four). From a young age I was a voracious reader, I loved drawing, doing up my dolls house and playing outside. I’m a naturally creative person but the fact that there wasn’t really that much going on where I grew up meant that I had to think of ways to amuse myself. I’m a firm believer that things are what you make them. At school I wasn’t particularly popular and while that wasn’t great, I also quite liked the feeling of being different. As the years went on I used to revel in dressing differently or reading ‘unusual’ books. I read ‘The Old Man and The Sea’ when I was about 10, obviously not understanding any of it but I thought it made me look the part.
When I was 16, I began attending a boarding school near Stockholm, which was a real departure from my rural upbringing. All of a sudden I was part of a large friendship group of children who had grown up in the city. Having in certain ways been quite isolated on the farm, I loved having lots of people around, I’ve always very much enjoyed connecting with people and generally having a fun time. Wanting to fit in as 16-year-olds do, I found myself coveting a certain ‘must have’ Gucci bag, and other ‘cool’ designer labels. My personal style therefore took somewhat of a downward turn and I suppose some of that irreverence I had as a child did too. When I left school to spend a year in Florence I resolved to avoid that particular type of conformity and follow my own tastes. That’s when I made friends with lots of young English people who went to the art school my sister attended. To me all of these bohemian young artists were just fascinating.
What do you think about children going to school later in Sweden?
Children start pre-school when they are six and they don’t really study the alphabet until then. I do think the school system in the UK is one of the best in the world, but there is something to be said for not starting school quite so early, and letting children be children for a little while longer.
I think education is stricter here in the UK – Sweden is much freer and there is less pressure to meet exacting standards. My English husband attended one of the best schools in the world, and his education is hands-down infinitely better than mine. However, although I went to a local school close to my home, I don’t feel like my education has held me back. You can still be a success, regardless of where you were schooled.
No one pays for education in Sweden. I definitely don’t think you need to spend all of your money on your child’s education. If you have money to spare then why not, but putting all of that pressure on the child to perform academically, while also weighing yourself down with a huge financial burden, instinctively feels wrong to me. We all want what’s best for our children, but it is important for a child to be left to their own devices a little and be given the space to grow and develop. I know I was, and I am thankful for that.
Were you a rebel at school?
Kind of… When I was younger, there was a boy who was bullying my classmate, so I took matters into my own hands and hit him on the head with my backpack. I had a piece of pottery in my bag and I remember it shattering to pieces!
What differences have you noticed in how Swedish children are brought up vs British children?
We follow a routine with my daughters Gurli and Alma – they eat and sleep at the same time each day – and this organised structure seems to work well for both them and us. In Sweden, parenting tends to be much more free-form and child-led. Swedish parents don’t normally employ a nanny since parental leave is so good. (Parents are paid their full salary for at least a year, which means both parents have a substantial amount of time with their baby and this is very much encouraged by the state and completely socially accepted by employers.) After that, from the age of one, the state provides free, fully-funded nurseries for all children.
You seem to be very calm with your girls - how would you describe your approach to parenting?
Alma is still a baby so of course she will cry and scream as babies do, but generally she is very happy. People often comment on how calm Gurli is. I don’t know if that is her innate personality or the impact of our parenting, but I try to be as calm as possible around her. Sometimes my husband and I disagree, but we make a conscious effort to avoid fighting in front of the children. I believe nothing good will ever come from shouting at children – it is always better to talk.
Tell us about your time working for Nicky Haslam?
After I moved to London in my early 20s, I almost by chance landed a position with Nicky through a mutual acquaintance. It turned out to be a dream job and one that suited me perfectly. It was a really amazing, creative environment to learn in and he is a very talented interior designer.
Nicky threw me in at the deep end straight away – I started assisting on projects based everywhere from New York and Moscow to the South of France. I learned from the best, as Nicky is a very fearless and open-minded creative who doesn’t adhere to too many rules. He also isn’t afraid to constantly challenge himself with new projects – for example he recently embarked on a career as a cabaret singer – he does what he feels like doing and I think that instinct serves him well.
Did his free spirit that appeal to you?
Definitely – Nicky didn’t follow conventions and I found that exciting. Moving to London also appealed for a similar reason – I feel like it’s a city where eccentricity is celebrated. Nicky showed me how you can be talented, but also be different and daring. I’ve always been drawn to people who push boundaries.
What made you want to start your own business?
I had been working for Nicky for close to nine years and was approaching 30, and I felt I was reaching the limits of what I could achieve within the company. I managed to secure a sizeable solo project, which gave me the confidence to strike out on my own. I knew even if I didn’t manage to secure any further projects for the year, that one could sustain me financially. I took a risk and it paid off, and it all snowballed from there.
What do you love about building your own brand?
It feels very meaningful to be running everything under your own steam. It is a lot more responsibility than working for someone else, but I actually relish the tasks that some people might loathe, such as the admin. I find it really satisfying when things work efficiently.
I particularly love developing my own products – designing something new that people want to put in their homes is an amazing feeling. I’m also very proud of our studio – we are like a little family and we collaborate and work together in a really respectful and fun way. I feel like we have created our own little world together and it’s a joy to dream up interiors with my team.
Has becoming a mother changed your approach to work?
I work shorter hours now. Previously I would have worked 8am to 7pm, but now I work more like 8.30am to 5.30pm. Otherwise, my working pattern is pretty much the same.
The company has expanded in recent years so I have also learned to delegate a bit more. Having children does mean less relaxation time in the evenings – now I have to co-ordinate bath and bedtime every evening. Having one child felt quite full on at first, but now having two makes me realise it was a breeze!
How close were your girls in age when they were born and did you work through that time?
My daughters were born 19 months apart and when I had the eldest (Gurli), the office was based out of my house, so I never really stopped working. Alma was born in October 2018, so I took a break until the New Year, but I was getting reports and talking to the team almost daily.
Where does your love of design come from?
When I was little, I used to love going to any museum showing how people used to live; be that furniture or clothes, anything that helped me imagine what it used to be like. I loved the idea that you could feel transported to a different moment in time, simply by the environment that you were in.
I get a thrill from observing things that are beautiful or interesting, and I love creating special places. Obviously my work doesn’t save lives, but it is life enhancing, and I can see the value in beauty.
Tell us about your parents and your family home...
My parents both studied medicine – my mum then went on to work as a doctor, while my dad ran the family farm. Our home was influenced by the simplicity of Scandinavian design, but also had quite theatrical touches and lots of character. There was a mix of pieces within the house, some items came from the Winter Palace in St Petersburg (my great grandfather perhaps somewhat controversially bought some items when they were sold) and other bits were from Ikea. I would have to describe my parents as hoarders – the house is full of stacks of papers, postcards and books. I definitely would be more like that if it wasn’t for my husband’s influence – he is constantly clearing up and throwing things out of our house.
Is being uncluttered important to you now?
When I design, I try and think about how everything will be tidied away within the space. My designs feature quite strong visual statements – I use a lot of bold colours and prints – so to balance this out, there needs to be some sense of order, otherwise it would look chaotic. Also, if you have children, good storage is essential. Nowadays I love organising my home – I call it my ‘streamlining sesh’ and it’s so satisfying once everything has been put away – it lifts the whole environment.
What is the key to designing a great family home?
Plan – create a furniture and lighting layout – and work out how you will move around the space in your day-to-day life. Think about your body in the space what would be a comfortable environment for you to exist in, then go with your gut feeling.
What ideas could we use at home to create more of a designer feel?
Adding beautifully designed handles to furniture is an easy way to make a room look more luxurious without spending too much – we sell some through the studio and Chloe Alberry in Notting Hill has some great designs. When it comes to furniture itself, look into having things made bespoke. Research local makers in your area – they can guide you through the process of creating something from scratch, and it’s a great way to end up with something unique.
What about artwork?
A home doesn’t look complete with blank walls so my take on it is to just put something up even if it isn’t perfect. In the past, when I haven’t had the budget to buy art, I’ve painted things myself. I have also sourced vintage rugs to hang on the wall, and art exhibition posters often look really effective. Another great source in the early stages where you may not have the budget to buy but lots of walls to fill is the company ‘Surface View’. It has thousands of images in its online catalogue, particularly botanical prints, that you can print to any size. Then you can take your time getting pieces you really love and upgrade things as the years go on.
What other design tips can you share?
Try turning things on their head, for example cover your sofa in a pattern and finish it with plain cushions. Making some unexpected tweaks can create an interesting effect that doesn’t cost more. Instagram is a great source of inspiration, and can provide you with the confidence to try a bold design.
Do you have any favourite Instagram accounts?
You are extremely adept at using colour in the home – do you have any tips on using it more confidently?
Using a muted palette as your base, and then embellishing with brighter colours creates an exciting contrast that can make your room more interesting. In our kitchen at home we have grey/white walls, which are then contrasted against a bright blue fridge, and in the living room the walls are white, the main sofa is light blue and the day bed is covered in a colourful pattern. These contrasts bring the home to life.
Tell us about the beautiful wall mural in Gurli and Alma’s room...
When I was working with Nicky on a project in New York, we visited the Carlyle hotel. Ludwig Bemelmans, illustrator and author of the famous Madeline books, had painted a beautiful mural in the bar (incidentally, he also wrote very witty books for grown-ups that I have been enjoying reading). I loved the effect so much, and it became the source of inspiration for the girls’ bedroom.
It is my favourite room in the house, and both Alma and Gurli love to gaze at the scenes on the walls. The fact that some of the characters depicted are drinking martinis and smoking cigars – it’s quite grown up and cheeky – but we love it. The girls will see their parents doing the same!
Where are your favourite places to source items for the home?
I don’t have a lot of time to trawl shops in person so I buy a lot online. Tat has a great selection of items, as well as 1st Dibs, the Pimlico Road and Kempton Market. Occasionally I shop on the high street too – I like purchasing something from Ikea, for example, and mixing it up with vintage pieces. John Lewis is not very sexy, but I do pop in every now and again, and Zara Home has fun baskets. I just bought a laundry basket in the shape of a frog for the girls’ room.
Tell us about your product line...
We are currently working on a range of more affordable accessories that can make an impact on people’s homes. We want the pieces to provide a touch of whimsy, humour, and colour.
Do you hope one day to have your own store?
It would be wonderful to one day have a shop front where customers could experience the products first hand. Svenskt Tenn, a very famous shop in Stockholm, is the holy grail in terms of what can be achieved. However, for now, we have most of our products in our studio, and any prospective customer is welcome to come take a look. I do think it’s important that we manage all product sales in-house rather than through distributers. This preserves the integrity, which is what we’re all about – we are a personal business and I want customers to have that experience when they buy from us.
How do you stay on top of everything?
I try not to be too last minute about anything I do – I absolutely hate feeling stressed. I plan ahead and I’m very organised. I recommend an app called Wunderlist, where I have various ‘to do’ lists – there is only so much you can hold in your brain!
And finally, what is next for Beata Heuman?
I am excited to be launching some more accessories, lights and fabrics and we are also focusing our attention on the American market. On top of this, I am currently working on a new build in Hamburg, a refurbishment in Rotterdam and also several London projects. We have a busy schedule but we are selective about the projects we say yes to – we want to make sure everything is completed to the highest possible standard and our clients are delighted with the outcome.