Behind the scenes of our photo shoot: Meet Thorsten van Elten
We’ve had lots of questions about the house that provided the beautiful backdrop for our new homeware and accessories collection. It’s the home of my friend Thorsten van Elten, so I crept behind the scenes to quiz him on his impeccable sense of style so we can all steal a little piece for ourselves…
Hello Thorsten! Can you tell everyone a little bit about your design background and how we came to meet?
I set up my own business in 2002, producing and distributing products by young UK based designers. Donna came to see me after her graduation from the Royal College of Art with, if I remember well, a rug made out of glove fingers. That must have been in either 2002 or 2003, I guess. We somehow stayed in touch, and when I opened my London shop in Warren Street in 2005 I started selling Donna’s dolls and all her other wonderful creatures. After that, we were studio neighbours in Bethnal Green for several years after I told her a unit was available in the building so we saw each other fairly regularly – sometimes even in the shared toilets on the third floor having a chat and a moan how freezing the building was. Coincidentally my partner studied and graduated with you at the RCA, so our paths would have eventually crossed anyway.
How would you describe your style?
I used to call it eclectic before that word became such a cliché, so I guess you could call it “playful modern”.
You have an online shop selling all kinds of beautiful design objects. How do you curate your product selection?
I’ve always had the rule that if I wouldn’t have it in my own house I won’t sell it. It may not be the most commercially-savvy attitude, but I have to love what I sell in order to sell it – otherwise I should have become a car dealer or estate agent and earn more money.
What are your favourite design classics that YOU own?
That’s like asking which one is your favourite child… I’m very proud of my original A0-sized 1972 Munich Olympic games posters designed by Otl Aicher (as seen hanging above the orange sofa).
Which upcoming designers should we watch out for?
Since I no longer produce products I’m not as in the loop as I used to be, so I guess it’s more like which designers’ products would I love to have in my house. I love Daniel Emma from Australia but then they are good friends of mine so I may be a little biased, and clearly Jonna Saarinen who designed the wonderful Wir machen Urlaub Tea Towels for me, based on her childhood holidays in Germany. I’m also a big fan of Ian McIntyre who does beautifully simple ceramics, as well as Jono Smart.
Where do you find inspiration?
I’ve recently moved from London to the East Sussex countryside and now have a large garden which provides me with endless inspiration and joy. I can’t go to a nursery without buying at least one new plant, to the point that one lady who worked at the nursery asked me if I had a plant addiction. And since I now mainly sell German/German-inspired products, I try to go to Germany as often as I can to visit flea markets and explore new places and new regions.
More about the house – where is it, what’s it like? Describe what it was like when you found it!
The house is a late 1970s bungalow in the East Sussex countryside, somewhere between Battle and Bexhill, about a 10-minute drive to the sea. It’s been added to in the 90s by the previous owner who was an architect, so it’s done in keeping with the style of the house. It’s split-level, and pretty much open plan with white painted breezeblock walls and a large terrace and garden. It had been rented out for about 10 years so the garden was totally overgrown and the house covered in ivy. The inside also looked a little sad and unloved with all the wrong furniture. Strangely enough, we know the lady who built the house with her ex-husband (she’s a neighbour’s sister) who’s been for lunch and loves the way the house and garden look now.
Do you have a favourite room?
I’ve always dreamt about having a ‘conversation pit’, a lowered seating area, so when I walked into my current house and saw it had one it was love at first sight. It’s particularly cosy in the winter when the wood burner is on. I’m a very lucky man.
We’ve had a lot of questions about your sofa! Can you tell us where it’s from?
It’s a Cuba Sofa by Cappellini which I bought more than 20 years ago when I ran a Cappellini & Christopher Farr shop in Westbourne Grove, West London. I lived in a third-floor flat with a narrow staircase, and the only way I could get a big sofa up there was if I bought it in sections. I had it re-upholstered when I moved into the current house in a burnt orange velvet by Raf Simons for Kvadrat. It wasn’t cheap, but I spend a lot of time on the sofa and it now looks totally new, so it’s money well spent.
And also your big prints – where did you get them, and where can we buy them?!
The really big (green) one behind the sofa is an original 1972 Munich Olympics poster by Otl Aicher. He designed the entire Olympics, from graphics to staff uniforms to the mascot – everything. I also have a few posters which he designed as an identity for the Bavarian town of Isny. Everything is based on simple black and white pictographs. I the big sun print behind the orange sofa at VitraHaus last year. It’s from the Alexander Girard exhibition. And then there are quite a few East German film and educational posters from the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I have a large selection of those available for sale on my website.
How do you find such unique pieces?
You’re forever scarred once you’ve had a shop. You find things everywhere, turn over plates to check the maker’s mark, look for stickers or engravings on products, make notes in other shops when you see something interesting. You never really stop but that’s not a bad thing. I also love flea markets and vintage fairs.
What’s your favourite design object in your home, and what’s the story behind it?
Oh, I think that changes on a fairly regular basis. At at the moment I’m in love with my new Anna Vase by Daniel Emma which was a birthday present they brought with them when they visited last month. My other favourite item is a mirror by Belgian designer Lucile Soufflet which I tried to produce for her about 10 years ago but it was just too complicated to make it commercially viable. But I had to have one so bought one from her and loved it ever since.
A huge thank you to Thorsten (pictured below, second from left) for lending us his home, and to my fantastic photo-shoot team, photographer Gareth Hacker and assistant Amelia Pemberton.