How to Create a Spare, Modernist Apartment Where Young Kids Can Run Wild

Emilee Geist

Photo credit: Erik Undéhn
Photo credit: Erik Undéhn

From ELLE Decor

As a creative director, Anton Wikner is experienced in transforming rough gems into sleekly faceted stones. Still, he stacked his decks when he and his wife, a writer, purchased a “run-down” (in his words) apartment in Stockholm as the home base for their budding family. The 882-square-foot residence, whose interiors hadn’t been updated in decades, is in a circa-1960s modernist building by architects Ragnar Westrin and Stefan Szejnman in the charming Södermalm neighborhood, more often home to cottages and turn-of-the-century places.

“I think the facade and the building itself scared a lot of people,” says Wikner, who is the founder of the branding, design, and art consultancy Unestablished. “What attracted us to a modernist home was, one, that we’re a family, and a lot of modernists or International Style modernists were obsessed with function. And also, the rejection of all ornament and color resonated with our mindset at the time.”

Wikner designed the space with input from his wife; the two live there with their two children, ages one and four. He spent three months planning out the changes and another 12 weeks completing a total renovation, while still preserving the basic layout. The apartment comprises an open space divided into dining, living, and lounge areas; a kitchen; a bathroom; a small study; and two bedrooms, separated from the public spaces by alderwood panels, some of which function as sliding doors. The decor, which leans toward minimalist furniture by Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand, and Jean-Michel Frank, embodies cool restraint, though Wikner notes that it is hardly a done job.

Photo credit: Erik Undéhn
Photo credit: Erik Undéhn

“It’s very fluid and far from perfect,” he says. “You can always add a bit more or remove some pieces.”

Here, Wikner discusses the challenges and triumphs of crafting a modernist home in a small space for a family of four on a tight budget.

ELLE Decor: How did you find this apartment, and what state was it in?

Anton Wikner: My wife and I were spending a couple of months in Los Angeles. We saw this very run-down apartment on the market [online]. We saw that no one was interested in it. As soon as we got back to Stockholm, we started investigating if we could get it, and if so, at what price. And as soon as we got it, we had a proper look at it to see what we could do within our limited budget. What we liked about it was the style of the building—the use of lightweight, mass-produced industrial materials really resonated with our mindset at the time. I guess because we had spent so much time in Los Angeles surrounded by modernist buildings, it felt suitable for us as a fresh start for our family.

Photo credit: Erik Undéhn
Photo credit: Erik Undéhn

I think the architecture of the building really represents a vision to break with the past. It’s a late 1960s building, and it’s quite modular. Basically, it’s glass and super-hard concrete. So one of the main challenges was that we really couldn’t change that much structurally—even a slight rewiring of the electricity really challenged us because of the super-hard materials used. Nothing had been changed since the 70s and 80s. And not in a good way! We had to tear it all out and start from scratch. There are a few other modernist buildings in the area, although it’s surrounded by cute cottages and turn-of-the-century houses. So it looks quite odd where it sits. But we started to investigate other modernist houses in the area and the materials they used, like the travertine flooring and the alderwood panels for the walls. We were trying to use materials that were in line with the building, but still keeping a contemporary touch.

ED: So how did you design a layout that worked for you but was also doable given the material challenges you faced?

AW: Everything we found was super functional, but also by modern standards, very small: the ceiling height, the doorways, the stairways. Everything is sort of crammed in. So that was a challenge, to keep the floor plan as close to the original as possible but to open it up a bit, and to try to keep all the furniture very low, which helped make it feel bigger. We had to use a crane to get some furniture in via the balcony because we couldn’t get it inside any other way.

ED: Did you reuse your existing furniture, or did you design or buy new pieces with this apartment in mind?

AW: We actually kept a few things from our last place, just lamps and lighting. When we saw this place, we had a certain style in mind and we were really interested in pairing 60s and 70s European designers like Antonio Citterio with their predecessors—all the French postwar designers like Francis Jourdain and Charlotte Perriand. I feel like there’s a bond between them. The main inspiration behind not just the furniture, but the whole apartment, was Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson—the International Style modernists. When we paired all of that with the modernist building, it all made sense. And then we used what we could find within a certain budget, obviously.

ED: About that budget…were there specific things design-wise that you initially envisioned but that you couldn’t afford?

AW: Originally, we wanted to make it more…I’m not sure hard is the right word, but when we first discussed things we wanted to use stone flooring throughout. But then we settled on oak parquet. In the end we went with something that’s softer in terms of materials, like a lot of wood, and it’s not as minimal as we first thought.

Photo credit: Erik Undéhn
Photo credit: Erik Undéhn

ED: Can you tell me about the artwork? It provides the lone pop of color in the apartment.

AW: My grandparents on my mother’s side had a gallery really far up north in Sweden. They started it back in the 1950s, when my grandfather went to Paris a couple of times every year. He was a primary school teacher, and his passion was art. He became really close friends with some of the artists, and my grandparents held exhibitions with them in the north of Sweden. And some of them had very successful careers afterward. About 20 or 30 years later, my parents started a gallery in Sweden as well. So we’re the only ones in the family who haven’t owned a gallery. On the other hand, we have the art.

ED: You also have two young children. How do you keep such a minimalist apartment tidy with a one-year-old and a four-year-old?

AW: Basically, two things: One, you have a designated place for everything. If you have a lot of toys, you must have a designated place where all of them go. And the other thing is, don’t have so many things!

ED: But with children, things accumulate, don’t they?

AW: They do. So you end up with loads of stuff. And so every other month my wife and I go through the stuff and see what we can keep and what should we get rid of. And we chose furniture that works with small children. Everything is wood; they can climb on anything. The sofa is leather, so you can just wipe it off. It’s actually super practical. I think that’s a misconception—that if it looks “designed,” it’s not for kids. But I think it’s almost the other way around. Everything is so well designed, it can definitely manage a couple of kids.

ED: Overall, what would you say is your secret for attaining your aesthetic goals on a tighter budget?

AW: It’s tough. Because you either have money, or you have time, or you have energy. But also it’s about finding those designers that you’re purposely attracted to, regardless of trends. For example, the Wishbone chair by Hans Wegner: it’s been so overused for the last decade. It’s not unique. But the chair is so comfortable, and it’s so beautifully designed that we really wanted it. I think it’s about finding your own themes and your own favorites regardless of what’s “in” now.

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