By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge Photographs by Jeff Hirsch Like quite a few of our designers, Anna Cappelen is one of those people who scared her parents silly by leaving school in her teens. We like to think that the NYSD HOUSE column offers some consolation to readers who may have children attempting to do the same thing. Anna, who is Norwegian and runs her firm Curious Yellow along with partner Nina Wolff, was candid about the frugal aesthetic that may well inform some kinds of bleak Scandinavian design but her fur-and-leather, shabby-rock-chick-chic may well offer an antidote.
We know that you are from Norway, so I guess we should talk about that first—why are you here in Manhattan?
[In Norway] I wanted to be a photographer when I was sixteen, so I started working for a photographer. I lied and said I could do photography and I couldn’t—he found out really quickly that I couldn’t do anything but he hired me as an assistant anyway. [Later on] I became an art director and that [eventually] led to Manhattan … I left school really early.
And your parents were okay with that?
Er … no.
Original support columns give a classical note to the large open living space. The rear wall is covered in a paper from Osborne & Little.
A view across the kitchen/ living area. The white piano was a gift from a friend
In the main seating area a lamp by Serge Moule stands near a coffee table from India . The silk rug is from ABC Carpet & Home. An oversized photo from Andrew Martin hangs above a console from ABC Carpet & Home.
The living room sofa from Shabby Chic is covered with soft sheepskin throws.
I can’t believe your parents didn’t say too bad, you’re not getting any more money.
I was earning my own money and I did move out early. I grew up in Sweden alone with my dad and then I moved in with my mother [in Oslo] and it was hard for her to tell me what to do—she tried. But I did have a goal all the time.
What was your goal?
I just wanted to be a photographer—still life photography. I loved it, working day and night. I rarely slept. My mom thinks I’m hyper …
Are you still like that?
Yes. Very high energy. I was a junior art director by then but in Norway there are so many rules. It’s really hard to get to the next level. It’s not like here. They said I couldn’t be a senior art director because I had to have the schooling so I moved here and wanted to start at the School of Visual Arts but I couldn’t speak English because I hadn’t been at school … so I couldn’t pass the test. I just did evening classes [there] and worked for a hairdresser, washing hair.
A white grand piano is the centerpiece of the main living space.
Atop the coffee table, a dozen white roses are surrounded by stacks of reading materials.
A black skull candle adds a bit of "goth" to the coffee table.
A pair of Globe lamps stand atop a console from ABC Carpet & Home
So you learned English that way?
You sound very headstrong.
Yes, I think I am. I wanted to work for an advertising agency so I walked around Manhattan with my portfolio.
So you’re okay at taking rejection then because that approach must have been mostly rejection.
[Laughs] I did get a job! I’m not good at details but I’m really good with concept and ideas. I could just come up with ideas for commercials. But then they stopped doing [original] photo shoots—I used to style my own photo shoots—they began to use so much stock photography and every time I came up with ideas the clients didn’t want to do it. I didn’t like it anymore.
In the loft's dining area a chandelier from ABC Carpet & Home hangs above a table and benches from Adrianna Shamaris in Soho.
A view towards the front windows. The African screen is from Adrianna Shamaris in Soho.
Jagger peeking out from under the dining table.
Anna's Noho loft space is designed with a touch of "glamor and goth".
A pair of candelabras from the 26th Street flea market flank a bust from Brimfield.
Were you kind of lost after that?
No, [by then] I was married and pregnant and I started decorating my own houses. We had a house in the Hamptons and my [then] husband had a big farm in Vermont. It was almost like being an art director but instead of putting it together on a computer, you just put it together in a room.
So tell us about this name of your company: “Curious Yellow” – I know it’s from a movie but I’ve never heard of it.
It’s a cult movie from Sweden. It’s a black-and-white movie and [Swedish actress] Lena Olin shows her breasts and there’s a little sex here and there. It’s not a porn movie—it’s really talking about politics and they showed it in America. After they showed it here porn was legalized in America.
Why did all that inspire you?
Because I like the movie. I love Lena Olin and I think it’s fun to express yourself in all kinds of ways … a little sexual too … naked bodies …
Looking past a statue of an angel from Brimfield into Anna's library.
Anna loved this photo so much that she had it enlarged to wall-size.
Pillows made out of Pucci scarves cover a white sofa from Site.
A pair of statues carved out of trees from Adrianna Shamaris flanks a vintage movie poster.
Daughter Mila's dollhouse.
Er, how would you describe your aesthetic then?
I think it’s a little rock-and-roll.
Yeah, I read that. What’s so rock-and-roll about it?
Not right now. But I like fur and dark mirrors. I like leather and I like old things. But to be honest if I could re-do my apartment right now, it wouldn’t look like this.
Sort of tough-girl chic. So I guess people know who hire you that that is what you do. What kind of people are attracted to this look?
It sounds like we’re bragging so much but for some reason all our clients have really big homes, like 8000 square feet up to 12 000 square feet, really big houses.
A view across Anna's open bedroom and bath. The bed is covered in linens from Bella Notte.
A console from Adrianna Shamaris is filled with bedtime reading. The sconce was purchased at an antiques store in Bridgehampton and the photograph of Jackie O. was a gift from a close friend.
A flat screen TV hangs on a wall opposite Anna's bed.
A view outside the oversized bedroom window.
So you’re not daunted when faced with a massive room …
A little bit.
So let’s talk about Norway then … Nordic design.
I don’t have that Scandinavian style but my whole family is architects, so I grew up with that. My grandmother was the first female Norwegian architect after the war. My stepdad is an architect; my aunt is as well. I grew up in that really Scandinavian-no-furniture-just-benches and I was so angry when I was growing up, like why can’t we ever have anything comfortable? Like everything had to be so simple!
Yes, there’s a thin line between simple and boring …
And really uncomfortable!
A full length mirror stands opposite a metal hospital dresser from Brimfield.
Anna's bedroom bureau is filled with jewelry, fresh flowers and perfume bottles.
Anna's massive tub is accessed by this white step-ladder.
[Lesley] I’ve lived in Norway for years and it’s the mountain cabins that get me with those narrow, hard sofas and chairs and tiny windows with little gingham curtains, all turned away from the view …
And they have to have a toilet that’s outdoors. You have to walk out in the cold. I mean you’ve been out skiing all day and then you come in and sit on a hard bench and you have to have a cold beer. It’s from the war. You shouldn’t be too comfortable.
It can be so rigid with the paint colors for this kind of building and that kind of building … that red color everywhere.
The whole of Sweden you see that color. It used to be made out of [pigment] from bricks and was for the poor people but now you have to use it. The yellow is for richer people, like those big [manor] houses and farms you see with a driveway lined with trees leading up to the house.
Mila's doll carriages and crib are lined up against a wall in her room.
Mila's room. In the corner is a photo of Anna and her twin brother Per.
Paper butterflies float from the ceiling of Mila's room.
Mila's window ledge is filled with favorite stuffed animals.
I’m interested now in your decadent, anti-Norwegian-ness. Do you think that is what draws you to the fur and the soft couches?
I want to be cozy. When I come to my Mom’s house and you’re sleeping with one pillow and it’s cold and you’re in a hard bed. Now I have twenty pillows and it’s so oversized and it’s so comfortable!
I think it’s changing, certainly in Oslo. Things are more comfortable.
It is but certainly not for the architects in my family.
Perhaps that strict Lutheran sensibility was the starting motor for all that clean Nordic design.
Norway is beautiful and I do think that from my background and the way I grew up means that I do have an eye for understanding a room, where the door should be or where the window comes in. That definitely comes from being dragged around all different houses. Also in Norway, things are really well made too. It could just be from the old days where they were so practical.
Rolling coat racks provide extra hanging space for Anna's wardrobe.
Interior windows let extra light into the guest room.
Project boards fill a corner of Anna's home office.
Anna's office is conveniently located off the main living space of her Noho loft.
Fabric swatches from a recent project hang on a wall above a desk and chair from Ikea. The leather couch nearby is from Design Within Reach.
There is another Scandinavian look that’s quite romantic, the 19th century styles for example, the old Swedish furniture and so on.
I love the Carl Larsson look. And the Swedish castles with the hand-painted wallpapers that don’t match, and orange borders on blue paper and the big tiled ovens … I love all that.
So what is about life in New York that beats life in Oslo?
I like chaos and that doesn’t fit into Norwegian life.