Nina Tolstrup, the Danish furniture and product designer, who works under the name Studiomama, has been carving herself an enviable reputation in the UK.
Walking along a narrow cobbled road in a lively part of London’s Bethnal Green with garages and lock-ups arranged in a row along one side, it isn’t difficult to spot Nina Tolstrup’s home. While the other houses on the street all have brick facades, only one is finished in a crisp, clean render with unpainted, matte-varnished timber doors. It has to belong to a designer. Nevertheless, I decide to make sure I’m in the right place before I ring the doorbell. As I’m rummaging around in my bag, trying to find my diary, a voice with more than a hint of a Danish accent floats down from a balcony a couple floors above me: “Grant, hello! Is it not easy to find?”
This quirky but functional design language pops up elsewhere: Her dressing-room mirror can be flipped 90 degrees and locked into place to become an ironing board. And thenthere’s the huge, freestanding medium-density fiberboard (MDF) cube punctured with circular windows that acts as her children’s playroom. “I probably can’t deny that there’s a very strong Danish influence in my work,” she explains when quizzed about her aesthetic. “It’s the form follows function idea that’s ingrained in me. I like quite simple shapes with a certain kind of functionality and truth to them. I’m not trying to do something overcomplicated.” Fair enough, but she’s probably too modest to mention that her products are also laced with a wit that, in a world full of slick, overbranded products, is something of a relief.
After a stint in the fashion industry, a foray into retail, a spell as a photo-journalist, as well as a period as a corporate design manager, it was only when she met her partner, Jack Mama (after whom the practice is named), and moved to the United Kingdom that she began designing properly. “I had no contacts or networks here,” she recalls. “I just picked up the phone and called Habitat and asked to speak to Tom Dixon.” Dixon took her call, then commissioned her to design One Line, a range of bathroom accessories made from half-inch stainless steel tubes.
Despite this initial success, Tolstrup’s career was almost instantly put on hold when she had a family. “I effectively took four years off, which I was really paranoid about at the time,” she says. In 2006, though, she came back with a bang, starring at the Ten, 10, X booth at 100% Design, where a group of ten designers were asked to create a range of products that cost £10 made with materials that came from a 10 km radius of their respective studios. Taking the timber pallets dumped around the market near her home, Tolstrup created a dining and lounge chair, a lamp, and a stool. Assembly instructions can be downloaded from her website for £10. According to Tolstrup, it’s about “taking that sustainable exercise as a designer and really just selling my ideas rather than a product.” Though the £10 pieces made out of street flotsam may not be wildly comfortable, they certainly don’t look out of place in her living room next to the beautifully battered Poul Kjærholm sofa.