See inside architecture and design firm Studiomama’s colourful and idea-filled London home

From ELLE Decoration

Remember that period during lockdown when it seemed as if everyone was posting Instagram pictures of their sourdough loaves?

For the ever-inventive Nina Tolstrup, it inspired more than just a love of home baking. She began asking questions: ‘How do I store the bread so that the crust stays just right? What is the optimum humidity?’ Suddenly, a social trend had led to the creation of a helpful new product. At the moment, the wooden breadbox Nina made exists only on her kitchen worktop, but that’s how so many of this design partnership’s products begin: at home.

Founded in 2000 by Denmark-born Nina and her partner Jack Mama, a Greek-Cypriot from London’s East End, Studiomama is all about solving problems in fun and functional ways. Working across architecture and product design, the duo has collaborated with a variety of brands and organisations, from Habitat and Skagerak to the Danish Embassy and the Serpentine Gallery. Today, the studio’s beating heart is this family house in the backstreets of Bethnal Green.

Photo credit: Elsa Young/Frank Features

The building’s industrious history precedes its current owners. Once a sweatshop – ‘we found so much cotton under the floorboards; the remnants of 50 sewing machines going at pace’ – it is also rumoured to have belonged to a German sausage maker. Since Nina and Jack moved in almost 18 years ago, the hard work has continued.

‘When we bought it, the place was incredibly raw,’ says Jack. ‘Basically, there was maybe one window, so we had to create a whole new façade. My father was a builder and I forced him out of semi-retirement to work on the project with me.’

Today, the three-storey property features an independent ground-level flat that is rented out to a family friend and a floor that houses Nina and Jack’s studio, plus bedrooms for their two children – Otto, 20, and Lula, 17. The open-plan top level, which leads out onto a terrace, serves as kitchen, dining room, living room and main bedroom. It hasn’t always been like this, though. This is a home in perpetual creative flux.

Photo credit: Elsa Young/Frank Features

‘We just never want to build anything permanent,’ explains Jack. First, when the kids were very young, the couple created a little shed, a small home within a home, for them. Then, when they began to demand their own space, a unique set-up involving more than 25 salvaged wooden doors was devised. They joined up to create two separate cubes – each with a bed and a desk beneath – and could also be opened individually. ‘It was a bit like Monsters, Inc.,’ says Nina. ‘Great fun.’

This kind of ingenious approach to space has become a signature of Studiomama’s architectural work. Their ‘13m2’ house, completed in 2016, transformed a former north London taxi office into a tiny home, and their own beach hut in Whitstable shows similarly smart ideas. Key to the success of both is Nina and Jack’s thoughtful approach to colour.

Their trick is to use one hue or material extensively, which has the effect of making the rooms appear bigger. In the case of ‘13m2’, it was plywood offset with pastel tones. In their own home, it’s white with contained bursts of yellow, green, pink and red.

Photo credit: Elsa Young/Frank Features

‘We love colour and that little bit of daring,’ says Nina, ‘but there’s something liberating about every wall being white. It means the interior can constantly be reorganised.’

Furniture, as well, is subject to regular rearrangements. The duo’s new designs jostle for space alongside pieces by their heroes. There’s lighting by Ettore Sottsass and Achille Castiglioni – two Italian designers Jack praises for ‘not taking themselves too seriously’ – and a leather sofa and armchair by Poul Kjærholm that Nina bought when she was living in Copenhagen. Among these classics sit items inherited from Nina’s grandmother. These include vases and sculptural knick-knacks, plates and kitchen utensils – things that are, says Nina, ‘unintentionally lovely’.

Photo credit: Elsa Young/Frank Features

A consummate upcycler, Nina can find beauty in most things. ‘You’ve got to watch out when you walk past a skip with her,’ jokes Jack. True to Studiomama’s ethos of sustainable design, she is prone to plucking objects from near-destruction and giving them a new lease of life. Whether it’s a beautiful old ladle that just needs a replacement handle or, in the case of her and Jack’s ‘Re-Imagine’, ‘Life After Catwalk’ and ‘Waste Not Want It’ collections, discarded furniture, waste fabrics and pallets destined for the dump.

‘It’s very difficult to throw something out when you know it is nicely made,’ adds Nina. ‘It goes without saying to work sustainably. It’s about constantly thinking, “Can we justify this? Can we sleep at night?” Because we love to create, that’s what we do, but at the same time we are looking at the state of the world.’

Their solution is to think long and hard about the materials they use and only make pieces that solve a problem. Because, if you make something useful that’s also beautiful, people will hopefully keep it forever. For a couple so fond of change in their home, that sentiment is perhaps the one constant.

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration November 2020

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