Helma Bongenaar decorative plate window

Style Warrior Secrets – Helma Bongenaar

My grandmother didn’t walk she glided. I rarely saw her feet because they were hidden beneath that most beautiful shimmering silk saris sometimes detailed with real gold thread and beautiful peacock blues and greens. She was small like me and used to seemingly float along to wherever she was going slowly so gracefully (unlike me) in fact her name was Grace and that’s my middle name which I have probably yet to live up to.

My sister and I would sometimes stay with her on a Saturday night if my parents were out. She would cook all day before we came taking her time to prepare a special meal for us, adjusting the spices carefully for our little palates. I loved bedtime the most. She’d tuck us up in single beds that you practically needed ladders to climb into and would start to speak in an even lower, quieter voice than usual so that our thoughts would unwittingly slow down and our little eyelids would start to droop.

The room was a cool teal blue with tiny pictures placed randomly on the wall and small collected objects from her travels were dotted about -to be picked up and examined if you were interested- along with old battered books on shelves and dark wood furniture. It wasn’t cluttered though, things quietly had their place and had been kept well. Above the bed was an oval picture of a ‘glowing’ Jesus with long glossy hair and airbrushed face (she and my grandad who died before I could meet him, had been missionaries in India before moving over to Scotland where my grandfather became minister of a beautiful little church for years. My dad didn’t followed suit and so the religious side was somewhat lost on us!

I loved this hazy time just before we drifted off to sleep as she would stop talking to us completely but would stand near us at the old dressing table and silently start to dismantle the bun in her hair. No one I knew had a bun like hers, it had it’s own beautifully crocheted black silk cotton ‘cover’ and this defined her silhouette. A crocheted bun cover – just let that sink in and tell me you knew such things existed. She would carefully unpick every hairpin and remove the little cover to reveal a neatly coiled pleat of silver and black hair – I remember it being revelation to me that my grandmother actually had super long silky hair! I also remember feeling slightly guilty about being awake to see this ‘naked’ bun- a bit like catching a parent doing the Santa present drop on Christmas eve.

My grandmother taught me many valuable things but the two most important have been the simple magic in smiling at someone you don’t know and also having patience in every aspect of life.

This week’s style warrior is someone whose whole styling approach is wholly based on patience -from making photo-worthy delicious looking food to placing collected objects in such a way that she releases new life in them. Her beautiful images on instagram , like little stills from a vintage home movie about seeing the beauty in old things and putting them together with great care to create something wonderful are hugely inspirational. Let me take you to Amsterdam to hear the very talented Helma Bongenaar sharing her style secrets…
Hi I’m Helma. We ( my husband, our two children and I) live in an old building in the centre of Amsterdam. 

Helma Bongenaar standing phot taken by Renee Frinking
Style Warrior Helma Bongenaar Photo: Renee Frinking

The neighbourhood was built in the 19th century for the dockers, at the time the harbour was just around the corner with all the steamships and warehouses. Our house used to be a bar in those days and we made a cabinet with liquor in the kitchen as a tribute to the pub it once was. 

My husband is an artist traveling through Europe during the summertime with a very successful act (delinus 03) and in wintertime he constructs places like our place for other people. He operates with only used materials like old panel doors or old cabinets, everything made of real wood.

Our son (20) is studying history and Russian language at the university of Amsterdam. Our daughter (17) just finished high school, currently cycling to Paris with two friends while thinking what education she might do next school year.

Years ago, I finished art school as a photographer, had a career as a photographer but when the digital era arrived, I stopped. I missed working with my hands so I started making curtains and other fabric wallhangings.

Progressively people asked me to decorate their homes or workspaces and later on I worked for interior magazines in Holland as a stylist. 
Cooking is also a big part of my life now; running a home restaurant for special occasions and doing some catering.

Currently I’m working on a cookbook where my skills come together; styling and cooking.

1. How would you describe your interiors style and how has this changed over the years?
It’s quite a mix. There are elements of French brocante, dutch design, vintage and fleamarket style, bohemian, upcycled chic, art, I guess they call it eclectic? Collecting is in my blood, I collect many different items so the interior is literally growing every year.

2. What’s a ‘typical’ week in the life of Helma Bongenaar?
There’s not one week that looks similar to the other. Sometimes I have to cook for my home restaurant, the other week I have to work as a stylist for a Dutch magazine, then I have to give advice about interiors, sometimes I need to make a design for a client. I’ve been very busy with my cookbook which has just been published in November.

Maybe for others my life looks chaotic and disorganised but for me it’s all the same. It’s all about taste in the broadest sense of the word, making everything more beautiful. The children are grown up, living their own life, leaving me with a lot of time left!
Instagram works for me! It’s about beautiful pictures, looking for soulmates and making new contacts in an easy way.

 interior and food styling Helma Bongenaar
A snap shot of Helma’s projects which include food styling, a chandelier she made for a bar in Amsterdam and the last remaining phone booth in Amsterdam which she decorated inside!


3. Can you describe for us what role art plays within your home?
We are surrounded by art, mostly made by artistic friends. For me art must bring some emotion especially joy and laughter. Some people say that we are living in a piece of art! That’s too much of a compliment but our home is our life, our work, our test patch.

4. What’s your favourite piece of art in your home and why?
My parents had a small country home in the south of France and for me as a child it was like paradise. We travelled as much as possible between Holland and France so I spent a lot of time in a car. This painting of a French highway symbolises these journeys. I bought it from a painter (Helcia Cino) some years back but still love it!

Helma’s favourite painting of a French highway hanging above her faux drawn fireplace.


5. What’s your creative process for coming up with interior décor ideas?
All my life I have been fond of painters like Matisse, Bonnard, Van Dongen, Vuillard and Valadon. The colours they use, the topics, the way they paint, all very inspiring. But also contemporary artists like Michaël Borremans or Marlene Dumas are inspirational painters.
I like to visit European heritage like castles, country houses, farmhouses, townhouses like the canal houses in my own city, Amsterdam. Doesn’t matter if they are richly decorated or furnished soberly, old interiors show craftsmanship which I admire. Time was never an issue in the old days, the result was the only thing that counted. The items I design take a lot of time too; everything starts with collecting, then a lot of thinking and trying, after that the assembling and a lot of refining till perfect.

6. Tell us about your favourite creative interiors project within your home…and to make us all feel better, what was your biggest interiors mistake?
Definitely the kitchen! We live in a historic building in the centre of Amsterdam in a former bar. After a big renovation (the whole neighbourhood needed to be renovated) we came back in a hull house. Old from the outside, modern inside. We managed to get back the feeling of an old and cosy tavern and having a modern kitchen at the same time.The biggest mistakes I make are when there is not enough time, fine ideas and good design need time!

7. Can you share your best DIY Style Warrior ‘secret’ tip from your creative projects?
A good collection of old or vintage stuff, whatever you like, combined with something that fits in but is unexpected. Or the other way around, an unexpected collection with a classic touch like my chandelier made with Chinese spoons.

Those spoons are cheap, you can find them everywhere and so they’re easily ignored. And yet still this lamp in our kitchen looks old, chic and is really an eye catcher! My secret is to collect till it feels ridiculous and make something out of what makes you smile, humour is important. Collections are also handy when decorating a house, it looks as though it’s been there for ages, almost random.

collected antique objects
Just some of Helma’s beautifully displayed collections


8. Can you give any gems of advice for those looking to create an individual look in their homes?
Don’t throw away that old cabinet of Grandma’s, it brings history, stories and therefore character into your home. Just add a new item which makes it more your style.

9. If you threw the ultimate house party who would be your surprise star guest (dead or alive!) and what would you ask them to bring?
That would be Julia Child arm in arm with Henri Matisse. Julia bringing a good French dish to feed all the guests and Henri bringing me a tiny, tiny little piece of art, a scratch, to accompany my other art on the wall.

10. What’s your best trait and worst vice that we should know about before we move in?
My best trait is patience, I can wait for years to find that one thing I need to complete a design or a collection.

My worst vice is that I cannot stand the sight of people eating microwave meals and not even bothering to put the food on a proper plate!

Well, please do come in and make yourself comfortable!
I’ll make you a good meal, we shall talk about DIY, interiors and many other things and have a good laugh!

I am totally enamoured with Helma’s approach to styling her home- it’s not about buying a complete ‘look’ that she’s seen in some magazine and wants to copy… and it’s also not static. It’s a slowly evolving personal ‘master piece’ where not everything is revealed in one glance. Things are added to and removed just as an artist might approach a work in progress -leaving it alone for a while, revisiting it when the time is right. Like a master chef perfecting a culinary delight, Helma’s home styling is slow, considered and creative to the core.

As your eyes wander through her instagram feed, you’ll find quietly theatrical corners with humorous and imaginative little decor surprises. Her home has a classic authentic old world feel that is both decadent and homely. Collecting is an art form. To see the value in old things, to select them carefully and then, by ‘re-presenting’ these objects from a bygone era out of context, she lets us experience them in an unexpected contemporary way.
It’s easy to become impatient when it comes to decorating and to want a quick fix, to ‘just get it done’. But all that newness and the quick fixes tend to leave a little emptiness – let’s admit it. Mixing in old, good things that aren’t perfect but that are soulful and well made brings integrity to a space – a sense of belonging to something bigger.

Fast decor like fast food is ok for a while but our homes like us, need nourishment through love and care. Well marinated ideas that mature over time allow the layering of stories that will create future memories.

With a little patience and individual thinking, we can even enjoy taking time out to ‘crochet our bun covers’ and in the process maybe time will pause for a wee while… I think this is truly the art of slow living.
Photos courtesy of Helma Bongenaar – thank you!

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