Winding Roads

Finding Home

John Baker, one half of the duo behind design store Mjölk in Toronto, shares the steps it took to design a unique space for his family to retreat to, one which embraces the nature surrounding it.

My wife Juli and I run a store called Mjölk, which focuses on Scandinavian and Japanese craft and design. We opened it in 2009 and we also publish a series of books about craft and design with the same title. In addition to Mjölk, we have a sister business called Minka, a digital store and magazine, rooted in tools and the natural world.

My wife and I both come from creative backgrounds. I was a musician and worked at a furniture store and my wife was a photographer who studied art curation. As our relationship got more serious, we took a trip to Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland – we visited Alvar Aalto’s house, the Stockholm Public Library by Gunnar Asplund and various vintage furniture dealers in Copenhagen. The trip left a permanent impression on us, and it was during the visit that we came up with the concept of our store.

For me, influences are something that one collects in life’s basket. From the design world, my two pillars are Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, for his deep understanding of the language of nature, and Danish designer Børge Mogensen, who was focused on creating democratic furniture for working-class Danes. I also love the American Shakers and their furniture and buildings which are in themselves altars of worship. I love pottery, especially by Lucie Rie, antique French faience and Dutch Delftware, various forms of Japanese and Yi-Dynasty Korean pottery and botanical textiles by Josef Frank.

We have a pied-à-terre in Toronto above our shop, but the old stone house we live in is a couple of hours away from the city, just outside a small village in eastern Ontario. It was an abandoned stone farmhouse from the mid 1800s and, despite looking quite frightening from the listing images, it was sound when we came to see it in person. There is something particularly reassuring about a stone house. But what really sealed the deal for us was the surrounding property and a small stream that ran along the side of the house.

We do still love spending time in Toronto, but we have two children. We wanted them to experience a childhood with a connection to the natural world and have some space for them to roam around without constant supervision. We purchased the house well before the pandemic, but we never knew how significant it would be to us.

It’s set in a vast landscape of rolling hills, which are quite lovely. We are spoiled by modern conveniences in the city, but here in the countryside we are meaningfully limited and use a wood-fired oven for our cooking, we have a record player for music and we don’t have wi-fi. Of course, we can “hotspot” our phones in order to do emails and get some work done, but the internet is spotty and just frustrating enough that you don’t want to get involved with it.

I’ve come to appreciate that creativity can be scheduled. Once we had children and dogs (and a cat), you realise if you don’t make room for yourself, you will never get it. I started to wake up really early – before anyone else in the family. Generally between 5:30–6:00am – I get that undisturbed time to do whatever I want. The first ritual of the day is simply taking the dogs out for a walk in the morning.

I was doing some research into those early Canadian settlements by Scottish people and how they built their homes from the field stone collected from when they initially cleared the land for farming. It didn’t take me too long to find a real estate agent online who specifically profiled old stone houses and it was love at first sight when I saw this old Georgian-style one. It was suspiciously cheap, and had been on the market for a couple of years. There were some issues with the severance of the land and of course the house was abandoned, so people were rightfully cautious. We took the weekend to drive out and see the place in person, and that night over dinner we put in an offer and we got it. We found out later, if they didn’t sell the house they were going to just knock it over and turn the land into more farm fields, which would have been terrible. I think we saved the house in that way.

As for renovations, we’ve been through a pretty significant renovation in the city when building our store and the apartment above. It took much longer and cost much more than we were initially told, and though we’re happy with the result it was a very stressful endeavour. I decided for this home, I would be my own GC, and hire all the trades separately. Though I knew it would take longer, it was much less expensive getting various quotes and finding the workers who would be sensitive to the needs of an old building. The other thing we did that probably saved us the most money was work within the existing room plan of the house – we could reimagine their function but essentially we kept all of the structural walls in the same place and only needed to repair the plaster work, refinish the wood floors and paint the panelling.

We take inspiration from such a hodgepodge collection of places. Obviously places we have visited in person leave a deep impression on us, but we also love finding old interior books of places we have never been. In a way, I think it’s the places we’ve never been that provide us with even more inspiration. What I mean is, you see an image and your mind fills in the gaps. If you let your imagination run wild, you can build up the place you see in the picture to be an even more impressive place than it is in reality. I think of places like Kettle’s Yard, or Vincent Van Duysen’s apartment in the 1990s or Isamu Noguchi’s apartment in Queens. Of course I’ve never been to these places but I absorb them and it pushes me to work on making our own home more special.

I’m quite sentimental of the objects here in this place. First of all, I think of the collection of books we inherited from Juli’s great uncle – Canadian painter Narcisse Pelletier. They are all lovely leather bound books of art, Greek mythology and philosophy and all have an ex libris print with the tree of knowledge that Narcisse made on the inside jacket. You also will find little drawings and favourite passages underlined. It’s just beautiful to flip through those books and I keep them on a carved Irish oak bogwood bookstand with an Irish wolfhound on one side and a harp on the other.

I also love our secretaire desk by Josef Frank, which was found by a friend of ours. They are very rare this side of the pond and I can’t help thinking about the desk of Pippi Longstocking, which was full of shells, pen knives and artefacts. I kind of did the same thing and filled the desk with feathers and spinning tops and I’d like to think our kids look to it as a bit of a cabinet of curiosity.

Finally, the stone tub we found was very ambitious for us. We didn’t put in a glass shower, just a tub, so we all use it. It weighs thousands of pounds and we had to bring in a specialist to install it. It was mesmerising to see them move it in place – it was like watching a team build the pyramids – they used rollers and never needed to exert any effort at all. The tub simply glided into place, it was remarkable.

Any interior we design or live with we want to “naturalise”. We want to use elements pulled from the landscape. That comes from choosing materials that aren’t overly finished – soaped oak, honed stone, etc. I can’t help looking around and notice that quite a bit of our art has elements to nature, and that the chaise here in our living room is upholstered by a print by Josef Frank with a nature scene full of flowers, birds and water. For us in this place, there was a section with two massive garage doors in the workshop, which was for a horse and carriage to pull through and unload and be able to keep going without turning around. We took one of these large openings and put in a huge window. It’s a place where we can sit and watch the birds and animals without them seeing us. We call it the “nature channel”.

Nature provides the exhalations required to still the mind. If I am struggling with something, I’ll just take the dogs out on a long walk, or head into the garden for a bit of weeding and deadheading.

For me, seeing the sphinx moth return to our garden is the most exciting thing in the world. I had never seen one before but after we planted a drift of monarda, they came in droves. They are large like a hummingbird and are mythological to me and my kids.

Here in the high summer it gets quite hot, and I kind of let the garden get a little wild and slow down on maintenance and just enjoy it. The plants have reached their highest point, and most of them are as tall as me and have swallowed up the pathways. It’s amazing to walk through them like this – you feel like a child again. Also, in the heat, there is nothing better than getting really hot in the sun and plunging into the pond. Our kids spend hours swimming and the water has brought so many new birds and critters to our property that we haven’t had before.

In the summer, we like to keep the doors and windows open since we don’t have air conditioning. The vases are all brimming with flowers from the roadside and the garden, and it brings a nice freshness into every room. We’ve likely planted more fruits and vegetables than we can consume, so a lot of it is being harvested for our own meals, and also to give away to our neighbours. The thing we always look forward to the most in high summer is the swim pond and cooling off in the water.

I find high summer colours of warm yellow and indigo very calming. I have a beautiful antique parasol that was used in France by a shepherd. The cloth was dyed an indigo blue, and the handle is more of a club shape than a cane. For a warm yellow, I can’t help but think of the sun, honey and the delicate yellow hue of our coreopsis flowers. I also love the structural shape of eryngiums like rattlesnake master and sea holly. The bees love them as well. I also love anything from the mallow family, and the ones we grow have silver foliage with soft white and pink flowers. They smell incredible.

I’m working on a new book and exhibition about Juli’s great uncle, Narcisse Pelletier. I’ve become obsessed with his life and his work. His most important paintings are held by one of Canada’s most important museums, but because of some spotty paper work with the donation they weren’t shown for over 40 years. We worked with the museum to finally get them released and are looking forward to sharing them in person in the next year or so. It’s certainly a passion project for us, but it’s been a very exciting journey so far.

Photography by John Baker

Discover more about John and Juli’s world @john_at_mjolk, @juli_at_mjolk, and their store @mjolkshop