Home is a way of life for Dutch designer Irene Mertens. It is one that prioritises thoughtful choices in materials and textures. A place that both stimulates and calms the senses. The name behind the lifestyle brand that she runs with her business partner Sam IJsbrandy, Sukha, translates to mean ‘joy of life’.
Irene grew up in Oss, in the south of the Netherlands, but has lived in Amsterdam for 25 years. She studied at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute and the Academy of Art and Design in Arnhem and worked in publishing for 12 years before starting her own business seven years ago. At first, she worked alone but now she runs it with Sam. What started as a shop in Amsterdam is now an atelier with products that sell all over the world.
But this is not a story of global expansion but rather sustainable living. Good-quality and natural materials are at the heart of the story, and they are all road tested in a space that Irene calls home in the broadest sense. About four years ago she found a former garage that she wanted to turn into a studio space for her business and a place to live with her husband, Gabriel van Beek, a recruitment consultant. ‘It was a really dark space with no light,’ she says. Her vision was to create an ecological home. All the walls are straw bale and the design is according to shamanistic principles. Fire is in the corner and water from the kitchen and bathroom are positioned nearby. ‘It’s so the energy stream can go through,’ Irene says. ‘It’s all done naturally, and it is better for your health.’ The idea was to work in an area near the front door, live at the other end of the 35 metre-long building and keep the space open. ‘We like to see the streets and the garden – and that’s the idea,’ Irene says.
After getting permission, the build process took about two years. Initially the plan was to keep the whole space open plan. ‘When I bought the place I didn’t expect to have a child so that’s why we didn’t build any rooms,’ Irene says. However, she now has a two-year-old daughter, Juul. Window frames have helped to create partitions while still allowing light to flood through a skylight that covers most of the building. They were added during the reconstruction of the roof, which resulted in the discovery of original wooden beams hidden behind a concrete ceiling. Despite the arduous build process, the home appears as if it has always been this way.
The family moved into the completed house two years ago and continue to adapt it to their needs. ‘It changes all the time because we have the space,’ Irene says. ‘And we make a lot ourselves.’ Many of the products from the atelier make their way into the home. In some ways Irene has struck something of an ideal work-life balance, because it’s all a joy. ‘For me, home needs to be relaxed: no TV, natural materials, relaxing music, good food, nice people, a lot of plants and greenery, an inspiring book and a nice chat and laugh with the people around me – joy and creativity. The house also needs to be clean and organised. No mess, and well kept.’
What attracted you to this home?
It was a big space in the city centre; it was a garage but with a lot of potential. You hardly see places like this, with over 300 square metres.
What changes did you make?
Everything – only the four walls and ceiling stayed; the rest was renovated in an ecological way. We installed water, electricity, a bathroom and a kitchen. There was nothing here.
What didn’t you want to change?
The ceiling. We did a lot of reconstruction in the ceiling, renovating the wood. It was wet and dirty, but we cleaned it. The ceiling is one of the most authentic parts of the house.
How does your home make you feel?
Relaxed and calm, because of the colours and the materials like clay and wool. All neutral and organic in natural colours. There is a kind of emptiness with a warm feeling.
How often do you edit your home and its collections?
It changes all the time because we have the space. And we make a lot ourselves. We test Atelier Sukha products at home.
What objects hold a special meaning for you?
Things bought on my travels.
How do you choose which items enter your home?
Only natural ones; no plastics or metals in the house. We love to work with wood, clay, wool and cotton.
How has your style evolved over the years?
It’s stayed consistent, natural and more and more pure over the years. Natural dyes and organic materials are very important.
Which materials are important to you?
Wood, wool, cotton and clay. I love different kinds of papers too.
What gets priority in your home?
A relaxing space like the couch.
What’s your favourite space?
In the back near the fireplace. It is very silent.
When are you happy at home?
In the morning drinking my first coffee or late in the evening with a relaxing tea.
What do you think makes a welcoming home?
Warm materials and a good smell.
This is Home by Natalie Walton (Hardie Grant, £30) Photography © Chris Warnes