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?"
Very quietly Tolstrup, the Danish furniture and product designer, who works under the name Studiomama, has been carving herself an enviable reputation in the UK. At the 2007 100% Design Festival in London, forinstance, she picked up the Best Contribution award for the Made in Denmark stand she curated. She also walked away with first prize at Design Nation’s Eureka exhibition for a collection of elegant pewter bowls she developed with Wentworth. Surprisingly, though, Tolstrup came to the profession a touch later in life, hitting her stride at 38 once her two children had reached school age.
And this, I discover, is reflected in the family’s home, where her work area takes up a minimal amount of space. As she escorts me to the second floor, which contains the kitchen and lounge area and also her titanium PowerBook, it only takes a glance to notice that we’re surrounded not only by Tolstrup’s own work, but also by pieces from designers she admires. The kettle is from the collection Jasper Morrison designed for Rowenta; tucked under her office desk–cum–dining table is an old Hans Wegner Wishbone chair; I spot an Arne Jacobsen tea pot; and we sit on some Rodney Kinsman–designed Omkstak chairs reclaimed from a rubbish bin at the Royal College of Art.
The fact that there’s an outdoor shower on the balcony—–not something you tend to see in this part of town—–adds to the interior’s contemporary Scandinavian feel. "As a kid there would not have been a day where I wouldn’t have been exposed in one way or another to these kinds of design icons," she shrugs. And sitting snugly next to all these classics are pieces from her own portfolio. In fact, the house acts as a rather sweet retrospective of her fledgling career, including her commercial work represented by the brightly colored, button-free OnOff clock—–so called because to turn the alarm off you tilt the clock sideways until it rests on its outstretched arm.
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.
Initially trained in marketing, Tolstrupnever quite felt at home being a client. "I was wanting to be much more involved in creating things," she says. Salvation came when she visited Les Ateliers school of industrial design in Paris with an artist friend. "It was a fan-tastic old factory building," she recalls, "that had all-new equipment and workshops. But it was totally disorganized. You arrived in the morning and there’d be no one there. Come midnight everyone was working and there was loud music."
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.