Interior Design Feed

That Finnish Lifestyle Is Hard to Beat

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We came back from Helsinki raving about what an awesome quality of life Finns have, and we'd like to give you a rundown of the three main areas that make it so. Finnish style is both Old World European and cutting-edge modern, and that's reflected in the cuisine, physical activity, and design.

Food

Notably scarce in Helsinki society: junk food and fast food. Once we left the airport, we really didn't see too many fast-food restaurants. There are a fair number of Starbucks cafes, which is not surprising, given the coffee-centric culture, and I don't know, maybe a Starbucks looks like a cool, exotic American place to get a coffee if you're a Finn. We avoided them, because why? 

There were also a handful of Subway restaurants, which bewildered us at first until I realized that Scandinavians are all about the sandwich, so to embrace a Subway footlong isn't beyond the pale. I did wonder if they eat it with a fork, though, as sandwiches are open-faced and consumed that way throughout Scandinavia. We went to a "Mexican" restaurant once during our stay, and our tacos came with a set of instructions for how to eat a taco (1. fold, 2. pick up with your hands, 3. eat). I figured that was due to the practice of eating open-faced sandwiches with a fork as well. The rice and beans were actually split peas and white rice, so there you go. Finnishized Mexican food.

There's a lot of soup in Finland, maybe because of the cool climate. We tried salmon soup three different ways during our stay, and the one at Story Cafe in the Old Market Hall was the best.

Salmon soup
A typical Finnish meal, with salmon soup, hearty bread, rhubarb crumble, and "overnight oats" also with rhubarb. They are big on rhubarb in Finland. Overnight oats is a grain porridge, a breakfast staple.

Back to my main point: Finns eat healthier than Americans. Probably not surprising, but the quality of the food is higher, too, with fewer processed food options and much, much less sugar and salt. They're big on bread and cereal; the national food is rye bread. But hold the usual overload of sugar and salt we Americans add to these foods. I find it interesting that the food cultures in European cities tend not to be gluten-phobic, as the U.S. is increasingly becoming. (A popular snack is Karelian pie, a rye pastry filled with rice porridge.) But neither is their bread processed with loads of fillers and chemicals and made from GMO wheat. Rather, bread is usually baked fresh, with just a few high-quality ingredients. Our hotel, for example, offered a daily brunch featuring sourdough rye baked early that morning. 

Yesyesyesdinner
Though the Finns like their meat, which ranges from bear to all manner of fish to reindeer, you CAN eat here as a vegetarian. Here's one of our favorite meals, from the veg restaurant Yes Yes Yes: Halloumi fries with pomegranate, arugula salad with hearts of palm, avocado-pistachio dip, and naan bread.

Meat and cheese are staples, too. Again, rather than dropping these items from their diets, Finns generally prefer to craft them from local ingredients, close to the source, rather than processing and adding preservatives and additives. I've noticed that I've been able to eat a much broader range of foods when I'm in Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Helsinki--all cultures that share this emphasis on high-quality, locally sourced food. (I've written about my experiences in Barcelona here.

Exercise

Finns are a lot less sedentary than Americans. Helsinki is a highly walkable city, with pedestrian-only streets common, along with plenty of walking and bike paths even on high-traffic streets. Beyond that, the Finns take great pride in their physical activities, with an active culture around swimming and using the sauna (Finns super-love to get naked and sweaty, and this is an occasion for a sandwich, too!) as well as a plethora of winter sport options. 

Finns are pretty wild about jooga (yoga). Apparently one of 12 undeniable proofs that you're married to a Finn is that you "yoga breathe in the passenger's seat." 

Jooga

We witnessed many Finns opting to take the stairs, which were more accessible than they are in America, where it seems in a lot of buildings they're only provided for emergency purposes. Our business associates, who've spent a good amount of time in the U.S., remarked that they always gain "at least 5 kilograms" when they travel to the States. They attributed it to the car-centric culture, types of food, and portion sizes. Which is not to say that Finns are New York-skinny; they're not. Finnish women, from what I've seen, look like healthy Midwesterners!

Exercise sort of blends in with the lifestyle, too, rather than being something designated as separate and requiring special clothing, a scheduled time slot, or a specific place to do it. Finns walk everywhere, and they walk fast, in regular clothes. Which doesn't mean they won't stop for a glass of wine in the middle of that activity.

Cafeursula

Design

Maybe it's not as direct a quality-of-life issue as food and exercise, but the place where form and function meet is definitely important to Finns. Things must not only work well, but they must please the eye as well. Conversely, if they're only pretty but not at all functional, Finns don't want any part of them, either.

Case in point: HVAC ductwork. The below circular art piece--I mean heating vent--is all over Helsinki. This one's from the aforementioned veg restaurant, Yes Yes Yes. 

Ductwork

What's remarkable about them besides how cool they look is that they seem to work a lot better than the ones we have here in the States. The little baffles circulate the air, rather than aggressively blowing it in one direction. You know that problem where you sit down and then have to move because the vent is spewing right in your eyes or making you too hot or too cold? Never happened to me in Finland.

Besides the HVAC, that triple-Yes restaurant was a triumph in fresh interior design, from the gorgeous patterned wallpaper to the simplicity of the retro pitchers and bright, happy colors.

Wallpaper

There's a love of domestic objects here, and a common theme of bright, uncluttered, natural interiors, with both an organic sensibility and clean lines. The natural world is a focus, whether that's how plants are displayed inside or in the design themes themselves, like the magical coffee mugs our hotel used, designed by Finnish firm Ittala

Ittala

I've shared my love of Finland here on the blog this past week, and I hope you'll experience it for yourself. Tomorrow, I'll list my top 5 travel accessories, and tell you about a very special discount, too!

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Heading to Helsinki? Here's What You Need to Know

Wingshotice
Flying over vast stretches of arctic landscape is just one of the many lovely perks of a trip to Finland.

Helsinki, as we mentioned previously, is a great way to initiate your new overseas traveling habit. But there are 5 things you need to know ahead of time, rather than just winging it.

Language. You can totally get by with English, and no one will bat an eye. But why not try out a few Finnish phrases? Here's an easy one for you: Hei. It means hello, so that should be a cinch, right? It sounds a bit different, though, more like the American "hey." You can also say hello by saying moi. (The Finns pronounce each letter distinctly, so it's more like "mow-ee.") Here's another one you can pick up and master: kiitos. It means thank you, and when you say that to your Finnish friends, they'll appreciate it. Since most Americans don't learn other languages (75% are English-only), saying just these two words might feel to you like bricks in the mouth, but do it anyway. Soon you'll be shouting Kiitos! like it's the best word you ever heard, like my husband did. One shop clerk said she thought he was Finnish, but maybe she just wanted him to buy something.

Reindeermenu
There's a lot of English to be read in Helsinki, but don't limit yourself to your home language.

2. Money. Before you go, call your bank and find out what their foreign transaction fee is. This will likely be a percentage. If it's high, try another card. We called around and found that our business credit card would charge 3 percent, but the ATM card linked to our business would incur a minimal fee. Amazon Prime assesses no fee whatsoever (...and that's another reason why the Zon is taking over the world). Also, here's a tip: Finns don't really tip. It's customary to round up the bill, but the big 10-20 percent tips we're used to in the States will only just make you super popular with service staff. Trust us on this; we experienced it first-hand.

3. Helsinki Card. Get one. This is sort of an "all-access" pass that you can use to gain free admission to museums and attractions, as well as discounts at restaurants. It's definitely worth the price, and the sole drawback is that it's good for only 72 hours. We had a weekend plus an extra day and a half to explore, but these were broken up by onsite work days in between, so we didn't get to take advantage of it as much as we would've liked. (They have a card reader system that activates it the first time you use it.) But even so, we still got our money's worth on the museum entrance fees alone, and then we leveraged it for 20% off our restaurant bill twice. I was worried the restaurants included would be too touristy, or international chains, and there is a Hard Rock Cafe on the list, but we went with Savotta, a superb Finnish-themed restaurant (I had the reindeer) and Samrat, where you can eat Indian food that for me was in the top 10 I've had anywhere. By the way, you will see the Finnish world ravintola in signs all over Finland. It's the Finnish word for restaurant (the more you know).

Sinebrychoff museum
A peek inside the reconstructed apartment from a wealthy 19th estate at the Sinebrychoff Museum, one of many museums you have free or discounted access to with the Helsinki Card.

4. Weather. Helsinki is the northernmost big city in Europe, and that's something to consider. This is a place where the sidewalks are heated to keep from having to shovel them through long winter months. I understand that tourists flock there during the one-and-a-half months of true "summer" weather. But don't let that stop you from going at other times, when you're more likely to experience it like a local. You can avoid the crowds and enjoy lower prices during off-season as well. We went in May and had both days of lovely weather and not, which is fine. We got snowed on while out on an island off Helsinki, but we were prepared, and now we have a good story to tell! No matter what, pack so you can dress in layers, as even summers can be cool. In this way it reminds me of Seattle or even the northern Midwestern states in the U.S.

Helsinkirain
Who says you can't have fun in the rain?

5. Transportation. The train system in Helsinki is ridiculously good, especially considering you can just walk across the city if you have to. We took the HSL into the city once we landed, which was easy to figure out from the kiosk at the airport. 

There you have it; it's really as simple as that. Get yourself some salmon soup, say yes to the salty licorice, and try not to have a heart attack when you see the alcohol tax itemized on your bill. And remember, Yksi kieli ei ikinä riitä (one language is never enough)!

Check back on the blog tomorrow for 5 Cool Things to Do in Helsinki.

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A Peek Inside the Dragon Flower Farmhouse

Balloonball

Our house turns 115 this year, and that's something to celebrate. Built in the year of the iconic St. Louis World's Fair, she's a solid, sturdy old gal with a few frills and flounces that tell you her history. Let me give you a tour.

The first thing you notice are the ball finials flanking the front porch. They're original to the house; in the above photo you can see them in relation to a hot air balloon, as I took it last fall during the Great Forest Park Balloon Race. The finials are definitely conversation-starters. Recently I was out front conducting spring yard cleanup and a passerby started talking to me about them as if she were continuing a conversation we'd left off previously. They're painted white to match the white vinyl siding, and let me speak on that topic for a moment. We hate the vinyl siding, though it's conveniently maintenance-free, and the porch itself is recycled plastic. Since we can't paint either of those, the big white house will remain so, but the wooden ball finials can be painted, and painted they shall be, along with the front door, which for now is brown.

Yeah, there's a lot of brown in the Dragon Flower Farmhouse. If this were the brown of wood, either left natural or stained, we wouldn't mind at all. But it's brown paint.

Someone--a previous owner or perhaps the contractor who flipped the place--streak-painted brown on top of a dark (and from the looks of it, ancient) wood stain. The overall effect isn't good.

We think this persistent brown paint situation is partly why we were able to get the house for a good deal in a neighborhood that has strongly appreciated since the real estate recovery. Since there are no windows on one whole side of the downstairs due to the close proximity to the neighboring four-family flat, and the hardwood floors are also a dark hue, the brown paint makes for a dim living room experience. 

Livingroom

It's everywhere on the first floor, except for the kitchen, thank goodness. Some of the previous reno upgrades were good choices, as kitchens really make or break a home.

Kitchen
A pic I snapped during our viewing tour, so not our decor, but the dark floor is a great contrast to the white here.

The other reasons we got a good deal? 1) We purchased in November, when the market starts to cool, 2) the basement showed signs of serious leaking, 3) there are train tracks across the street (we see this as a plus, honestly, but others might not), and 4) there's an apartment balcony overlooking the yard, which I've already discussed here a lot when talking about the big fence project.

Apartment Side

Besides the potential for a good deal, which was really important to us when buying a house here in (late) middle age, the house captured us with her charm. Her issues could be solved. But the period details and overall great shape she was in despite her age drew us in. My husband said, "This feels like an old farmhouse," and that was it.

You already know about the outside victories--the fence and the French drain. We haven't had a lot of time for the inside, but honestly, we're lucky in that there's not that much to do, and we've already begun to tackle the brown problem. Here are before and afters of the front door and living room windows.

Front door before and after
Before... And after!
Livingroomwindowsbefore
Before...
Livingroomwindowsdone
And after! Yippee! Side note: The drapes are better, too, because they're no longer high-watering at the sill. But we hung them just a bit too low. I'd rather see them just "kiss" the floor.

Other than that, we've been enjoying decorating both generally and for the holidays. The old girl lends herself well to holiday decor, and even though that's not something I did very much during my long sojourn in the Pacific Northwest, I've picked it back up here in the Midwest and might have even gone a little bit berserk (at least by my standards) this past Christmas.

Halloween

Bookcasexmas

Chandelierxmas

My decorating style is what you might call "eclectic." I love mixing old and new, and I love color. Apparently, I can never get enough turquoise, and orange is firmly in my wheelhouse. I once painted the entire exterior of my house orange, back when I lived in Tacoma. I never could figure out why people insisted on drab house paint when the drool-y grey skies made me ache for something more vibrant. The coup de gras was the sunburst pattern on the mid-century modern ranch home's garage door.

OrangeTacoma
This might not be your cup of tea, but I still think it looks fab. And check out the thrift store lantern I repurposed with copper paint and a bamboo pole!

My husband Anthony is present in all of the home decorating decisions. He often comes up with spot-on solutions I can't see. I believe our styles have come together and melded into a new version that is very collaborative. One of my pet peeves is going into someone's home and seeing one half of the couple totally absent in the decorating presentation. Usually with hetero couples, that's the guy. It's not always her fault; dudes tend to check out when it comes to how to make a home. But I've also seen the male vibe completely squelched by too much lady vision. Maybe it's cool; he's got the man room and doesn't really care, but I think it's a little sad? I just prefer to engage with the person I'm planning a life with and really make a life together. My ex-husband (of the orange house era above) and I did this, too. He's an artist, and in his case it meant taking some colorful risks that didn't always work out, like that time we painted a ceiling slate grey and the walls marigold yellow. :) But that's OK. You gotta try, right?

My current evolution is considerably more restrained, as evidenced by this pop of orange in the stairwell.

Orangestairwell

Anthony and I are a much more mature (and, um, compatible) couple, and the Dragon Flower Farmhouse reflects that. He's encouraged my more historic, classic, antique-loving side, and I've opened him up to exciting color combinations and a general modern aesthetic. I love introducing a few more pieces with a fantasy feel to appeal to my beloved gamer geek, such as an antique brass candlestick shaped like a cobra or an original ink print of a raven queen. I won't insist on anything he totally vetoes, and he will defer to my judgment about design rules when they're important.

This pink-themed mantel in the photo below is one triumphant example, as it's built around a painting his mother, A. Grace, bequeathed us when she died. The '60s glass holding feathers is from a thrift store, and it bears Anthony's sun sign, Capricorn. There's the cobra candlestick I gave him for his birthday, which, second-hand, cost me less than $45, but I've seen it in a pair on eBay for $500. The green vase was an antique mall find and is signed by the sculptor, and the mounted print block on the far right I got for about $10 on clearance at World Market. The green bowl is a great example of Japanese kintsugi, a treasured gift from Anthony, and the small chest is his. We found the conch shell buried in our backyard, and the pink bloom grew in the front. While I'm styling the mantel according to design tips and principles, what's important to me is the meaning of each piece. 

PinkMantel

Speaking of design rules... I feel it's only right to pay tribute to my rule muse, Emily Henderson. I've been fangirling this amazing designer for a few years now, and the bit of balance and good styling you do see in the photos above are to her credit. It's not that I was a total design dweeb before I discovered EHD, but good rules of thumb can really make a difference, explaining, for example, how to style a mantel, the proper way to hang curtains, or what height to place your art. I'm much more into color than Henderson is (she hates orange!), and I at first rejected her blue-trending aesthetic, but everything she says makes so much sense. When I make a point to follow her rules, I get great results. I've even started introducing more blue into my life and am considering painting the dining room some blue hue. It helps that it's one of Anthony's favorite colors.

I first came across the EHD blog through a search for images of "gold" used in a bedroom. I'd found a mint-condition mid-century modern laundry hamper in an amazing gold lamé-like material but didn't quite know how to make it work. Here's the EHD photo that stopped me in my tracks at the time.

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Image credit, David Tsay for Emily Henderson.

I tried to use this as an inspiration on my much, much more limited budget. I think the biggest stumbling block was the lack of funds for those gorgeous gold silk drapes. Faux silk wouldn't work because it's unlined and too sheer, and the light-blocking compromise I made ended up looking more mustard-y than the gold I was shooting for. And tragically, the gold hamper that started the whole thing was a casualty in our big move from Washington state to Missouri in the fall of 2017. The best-laid plans... But that's OK. I still liked the room.

Bedroom
It was fun to play a bit with pattern, from the drapes to the artwork to the etchings on that lovely vintage 60s Italian lamp.

Bedroomcorner

It's all good. I didn't want an exact copy of EHD's room anyway and had been using it mainly for inspiration, which is how I feel about the interior design world as a whole. I like to learn the rules and take inspiration from everywhere but then decide for myself what I can do, given my budget, and what I want to do for my own enjoyment.

UPDATE: I sent a draft of this piece to EHD, and team member Velinda Hellen (loved her tiny kitchen makeover) sent me a nice note back, saying:

Thanks so much for sharing images of your home. You've done a beautiful job.

I was surprised to get a reply at all, as I'm sure they receive like billions of emails a day, so that was a graceful, nice thing to have happened. I'm still blushing from the compliment!

We've rearranged rooms to accommodate a home office since I took these photos, so it's changed yet again. I'll show those later on. 

Thanks for sticking with us here as we plant a butt-root in Midwestern soil. We've both had pretty nomadic existences as adults, so we're looking forward to feelings of permanency and seeing the long-term fruits of our labors, both inside and outside.

Where does your design inspiration come from? Please share your favorite blogs, websites, books, and other sources below! We're always looking for more.

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Inspiration Garden: My Father’s… Grandmother’s Garden…?

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Three generations in the garden. From left to right, myself, Zander (my son) and Don (my father).

Note: This is the first in a series on gardens that have inspired us. First up is Anthony Valterra (the other half here at Dragon Flower Farm, in case you didn't know), giving a lovely snapshot of a garden I've admired ever since we met, as it's in the fam. - Lisa

I don’t have any clear memory of a time when my father wasn’t gardening. Even when we were renting small houses on the outskirts of Walla Walla, Washington, we at least had a vegetable patch. Every year I remember watching my dad buy and plant seeds. Of course, our family also canned fruit, made salsa, and had a root cellar. My father was the son of dairy farmers and my mother the daughter of very poor immigrants. It makes sense that they would continue to see the dangers of the world being mitigated by a small garden and some canned foods on a shelf under the house.

But as time passed, both my mother and father moved from gardens that were purely practical to ones that were a combination of practical and decorative. My parent’s divorced, and although my mother continued gardening, for her it became a hobby. But my father, after he retired from teaching, went pro. He now runs Thompson Landscaping in Walla Walla. And he helps his current wife (my stepmother) Cyndi Thompson with her business, My Grandmother’s Garden. The two businesses are located on their property in Walla Walla, and where one begins and the other ends is probably not terribly clear to someone arriving for the first time. The small cabin that is My Grandmother’s Garden moves seamlessly into the landscape and greenhouses that is Thompson Landscapes. Dear old dad has even had a bit of national recognition with a pictorial of his and Cyndi’s home in Sunset Magazine (about 1989). We're hard-pressed to find a copy, but here's a shot my wife recently took of the entrance to My Grandmother's Garden to make up for it.

IMG_0303
'Seamless' is not hyperbolic. 

After I had gone off to college, Dad’s interest in and skill at gardening and garden art kept developing. His skill with layout and plants was always good, but it quickly become noted enough for him to be contracted to landscape local wineries, the local community college, and private homes (often of the people who owned the wineries – lots of money there). But one of the more ironic twists in my father’s gardening journey was his discovery that dried grapevines make a terrific artistic medium. My father taught junior high and coached. All his life he has been an avid sports fan – both professional and college. Being a teacher, and a sports fan - he would sometimes remark on the academic potential of college athletes who seemed (at least in interviews) to not be terribly bright. My dad’s go-to comment was that they were taking “basket weaving” classes.

IMG_0290
Lisa tells me these are not grapes. Shows what I know.

As I said, my father grew up poor, and so he has the attitude of, "Well, why should I buy that? I can make it myself?" One of the first businesses he and Cyndi tackled was flowers for weddings. And one of the common elements of those arrangements is a "flower basket." They grew the flowers, but where to get the baskets? Dad convinced himself (and his clients) that he could weave them out of dried grapevines. And he succeeded. Thus my father found that weaving baskets was not something to be taken lightly, and also (when filled with flowers for a wedding) could be very lucrative.

IMG_0149
A friendly visitor.... wild grasses... and a Honeysuckle Trumpet (not all Dad's plants are natives)

Now in his late 70’s, my father has slowed down. The garden around his home is still immaculate. It is filled with gorgeous flowers, grasses, and trees. He does have some edible plants, but they are mostly planted for their appearance - such as an exquisite dwarf lemon tree - rather than to be eaten. His garden attracts all manner of pollinators and even the occasional wild animal (moose, fox, deer, rabbits have all been seen wandering onto the property). He still has large greenhouses where he grows plants both to sell and for landscaping. But nowadays he spends most of his time designing, and he lets younger hands lift the heavy trees and do the planting.

But if you ever get out to Walla Walla (and trust me, the only reason you would wind up in Walla Walla is if that was your destination) – it is worth a short trip down 3rd street to see My Grandmother’s Garden and Thompson Landscapes.

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DIY Whiteboard Wall

Writingwall

Remember when you were a kid, and you wrote with marker on the wall, and you were sent to your room without dessert or TV that night? Well, now you can write on your wall and eat your cake, too. 

In the image here it looks like I've ruined my office walls. But all that bright marker scribble totally wipes off! It's a miracle.

Writingwall Writingwall

It's all made possible through the magic of dry erase paint. This product has been out for a little while and has been popularized in creative offices where, I guess it's assumed, Millennials really wanna be writin' on the walls. 

I held back at first because I don't like the whitey-white look of whiteboards. But then I discovered a clear version, which means you can turn any color wall into a dry erase surface, and I decided to take the plunge.

If you try it, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. If your surface is not perfectly smooth or painted in something glossy, you will need to prime it first. In other words, if you don't have anything but the average household wall painted with flat paint, you will need to prime it first! Otherwise, your wall will be thirsty for this stuff. 

2. I suspect that even if you do prime it, you'll need more paint than you think. I used Rust-Oleum's Kit and needed to run back to the store for another one (the store in this case being Home Depot, because I live in the sticks, and that's what we've got). 

3. The product I used claimed to be low-VOC, but it definitely needed to be well-ventilated for at least 12 hours afterward. Note that there's a "curing" time as well, so don't go writing on your walls just because you think it's dry. It needs several days first.

4. Even though it's clear, it does darken the overall hue of the wall. So it will no longer 100% match the surrounding walls.

5. Just like a regular whiteboard, and a chalkboard for that matter, your wall will not look like a perfectly clean wall again after this. I almost bought some whiteboard cleaner, but then I read in the comment section for the product on Amazon that plain old rubbing alcohol is best for removing the worst of the marker detritus. 

6. I used a foam roller but cut in with a regular brush. Someone at Home Depot might suggest a foam brush, and they will be steering you down a path toward foam brush hell. Don't listen.

So there you have it. I painted a dormer wall and a regular wall, as in the pics below, and I love the write-on-the-walls freedom this gives me to plot out my novel, draw cover options, schedule out my life, and more. Happy dry-erasing!

*I have not received any endorsements from Rust-Oleum or Home Depot for this post. Yet.

Writingwall

Writingwall