Living doll’s house: a remarkable renovation in Amsterdam | Interiors

Naomi Russell may not be an interior designer, but she has precise views about how her Amsterdam home should look. The “perfectly done space that feels like a showroom” is not for her. What Russell, a theatre producer and founder of arts organisation Espaço Agora prefers is a gentle fusion of past and present. It is the approach she applied to her ingenious live-work eyrie. Set on the top floor of a slender 19th-century townhouse, streamlined furnishings and vivacious paint colours are clasped by soaring golden beams so that, as she puts it: “The provenance of the architecture shines through.”

Like most of Amsterdam’s pre-20th century houses, the apartment originally served as a storage space for household clutter. A previous owner converted the 90sqm interior into a home in 2002. The airy, double-height living area – a ladder stretches up to a roof terrace above – basks in the brightness of the south-facing front, with two bedrooms and a bathroom tucked behind.

Stairway to heaven: Naomi Russell.
‘I’d been commuting from London but whenever I arrived here I felt I was home’: Naomi Russell. Photograph: On a hazy morning/The Observer

Russell rented the apartment for three years before seizing the opportunity to buy it when it came up for sale in 2016. “I’d been commuting between London and Amsterdam. Every time I got off the train I’d sigh and say… ‘I’m home.’ It made sense to move here,” she says. The tenancy had been useful. It gave her time to unpick flaws – a lack of bookshelves or wardrobes – and appreciate its “natural beauty… the way the light falls” and the views of the Amstel river, which flows past the house, bouncing aqueous shadows across walls, adding to its peaceful, isolated feel. After the anonymity of London, Russell appreciates Amsterdam’s “petite scale – and villagey atmosphere”.

Rachel van der Brug, the interior designer who helped her to reshape the apartment is a neighbour: “She made sense of my ideas. I needed an external eye.” The jigsaw-like layout means that no two rooms are alike. “I was lucky because our builder was creative. His colleague makes doll’s houses; he was good at coming up with solutions to tricky spaces,” says Russell. “Everything’s an odd size, I couldn’t buy things off the shelf and almost everything had to be made to fit.”

Morning sunshine: the open kitchen shelves and window with views across the rooftops.
Morning sunshine: the open kitchen shelves and window with views across the rooftops. Photograph: On a hazy morning/The Observer

Russell wanted to make the space more efficient, without compromising the architecture. “It was never my intention to gut the place, but to work with what we had.” One solution was the overhead desk space, wedged between beams with a glass floor beneath, like a floating office. You climb a ladder to reach the space because, as Russell will tell you, a head for heights is another prerequisite for living here. “I’ll happily look down,” she says. The window seat below – for equally contemplative vistas – is also new.

Another dead space became Russell’s reading nook, accessed by a set of custom-made, stepped bookshelves. The shapely vase belonged to her grandmother; the artwork of silvery eggs is by German artist Rosemarie Trockel. “She had an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, where I had my second job. After the show we were all given a signed piece.”

A low door leads to some concealed storage. The apartment is near the town’s former Jewish quarter and Russell speculates that it might have served as a hiding place during the second world war.

Noami Russell for The Guardian photography On a hazy morning 025
Earn your stripes: wallpaper by the Netherlands designer Irma Boom. Photograph: On a hazy morning/The Observer

The striped wallpaper by the Netherlands designer Irma Boom, inspired by paintings in the Rijksmuseum, was the catalyst for the confection of colours – burgundies, blues, oranges – used throughout. “I was greedy and chose 11 versions of the paper. I was worried it might be too much. But Rachel helped me make sense of how every space could draw on a different palette.” In its previous incarnation the apartment was all white. No longer. “I didn’t want white, anywhere. Instead, we used a soft pink to anchor the different colours.”

Russell began her producing career at the Donmar and Almeida theatres in London. She traces her affinity for design “with a sense of the past” to 2000 when she worked on plans to rebuild the Young Vic as project director alongside artistic director David Lan. “The theatre was built around an old butcher’s shop with its old tiles and hooks. The original plans involved demolishing the shop. But we realised there were lots of local people who remembered it. The whole point of the Young Vic is that it’s for everyone. To remove the shop would have refuted that.”

Up in the roof: views over the river Amstel.
Up in the roof: views over the river Amstel. Photograph: On a hazy morning/The Observer

She trod lightly, too, at the back of her apartment – leaving the layout untouched, but finding ways to utilise overlooked nooks and crannies. It was her builder who suggested she add the platform bed in the guest room. The gap below is now a wardrobe screened by a colourful curtain. In Russell’s bedroom they used four different shades of blue for the walls: counterintuitively, the mix makes the small space feel larger. When friends come to stay she hangs her clothes for the week from a beam.

The bathroom is next door. In true Amsterdam fashion, the claw-foot bath was hoisted into place through a window, using a rope attached to a hook on the facade An old-fashioned wooden drying rack hovers above; the antique gilded mirror fitted on to the back of her bike. Russell also found the reclaimed doors locally. Chosen for their patina of time, they look – like everything else – as if they have always been here.


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