Swedish Christmas in Kiwi classic

Christmas is coming to this heritage villa with a remarkable history. Built over a century ago, by Sir Edmund Hillary’s grandmother, it was relocated to Warkworth in early 2014 under a storm of controversy. Nowadays its guardians are the Sandström family: writer Vanessa and Swedish economist Claes with their children Oscar, Jesper and Millie, and dog Sparky. 

“We fell for the pressed tin ceilings. And the potential,” said Claes. “It hadn’t been hacked into or modernised, so all period features were intact. At the same time, it had a practical floor plan for a big family, and lots of space for all the treasures we’ve collected over the years.”

“I’ve always been obsessed with old villas, but I never thought we would live in a home with such rich history to it,” said Vanessa. 

“So many people have walked through here – it was the heart of the Hillary family for many years and carries so many stories.”

The relocation of the house to Warkworth is a story in itself.

“Let’s just say it was an ordeal for everybody,” she said. “The neighbours, understandably, didn’t want to see it go, and we had invested everything we had in our dream. It was a major production and it all got a bit heated, with police being called to keep back protestors.”

“I can totally see where they’re coming from - historic buildings are not celebrated enough in New Zealand and we’re all for keeping the history alive. But this house was going regardless, the developer could have chosen to simply demolish it, so surely it’s better off going somewhere beautiful and to a family who will love and honour its integrity?” 

“As a good friend put it at the time: It’s only fitting that a house with strong ties to Sir Edmund Hillary goes on an expedition of its own.”

Claes and Vanessa say the villa has a different feel now it’s settled into its new site. By carefully opening up some of the inside walls, and with a north-facing position, the sky can be seen from every room. 

“It’s almost as if cutting it in half and moving it shook out the old dust and cobwebs,” said Vanessa.    

The couple describe their style as eclectic, slightly gothic, down-at-heel grand, but at the same time fun. 

“Our style reminds me of the old, traditional homes in northern Sweden,” said Claes. “It’s not just the authentic furniture, but the details, like the Höganäs pottery and the way we set a table with wild flowers and tea lights. And of course, the Christmas decorations, with the traditional advent candle holders that light up every Swedish home throughout December.” 

Claes and Vanessa are unabashed foodies, with Claes making creative use of the pizza oven to bake sourdough bread and smoke meat. For Christmas, he bakes traditional Swedish saffron buns. 

The couple met in Wellington back in the late 90s, and their style has been shaped by the places they have lived together since: from London to Stockholm and Zanzibar.

“The fact that we have a limited budget means we have to think creatively and can’t rush into things. We never buy new – everything from furniture to windows are reused, and when the roof had to be replaced we made an outdoor dining table from the old Kauri beams.” 

“Sometimes it’s not what you pay the most for that brings you the most joy. We probably love the brass overflow in the original bathtub more than the new kitchen!” they said. 

“Our biggest challenge has definitely been doing so much by ourselves. There’s been a never-ending list of things to get done, every weekend throughout the past three years. But it’s been worth it - every part of the house has got something of us in it. It’s home, and we love it.”

DesignBianca Howlett