At Home With Helena
May 31, 2020
Danish supermodel and photographer Helena Christensen gives the Sunday Times Style Magazine an exclusive tour of her upstate New York retreat and tells Jane McFarland why she has fallen for the simple life…
A normal day at Helena Christensen’s bolthole in the Catskills could be filed under “idyllic”. For the model and photographer, wild swimming, woodland walks and staging alfresco photoshoots is the “new normal”, thanks to an extended stay in her upstate New York weekend abode with her 20-year-old son, Mingus (whose father is Christensen’s former partner, the actor Norman Reedus), and her friend and business partner Camilla Staerk.
A peep inside Christensen’s stormy-blue clapboard house, situated in a valley with a creek running through it, is like a virtual tour of the 51-year-old’s past life. From the glass walls in the converted barn, repurposed from the walk-in wardrobe in her West Village apartment, to the vintage bedding sourced from the nearby towns Kingston and Woodstock, everything tells a story.
“I always say that I have been like Pippi Longstocking grown up because my homes look exactly like her house,” she laughs, during our transatlantic phone call. “She was a kid living in a crazy-peculiar home with a lot of strange objects, and I have always been searching for that.” Her stylish “valley cottage” is certainly not a carefully curated set-up. Christensen credits her ad hoc approach and the rustic but refined interior design to her dual heritage (her father is Danish, her mother Peruvian) and a lifelong passion for collecting. “I don’t even know how to name this aesthetic,” she says. “I love a mix of real, old-school antiques, but also 1950s Danish modernism that is elegant with a classic feel. I also love the colonial style of the American South, so it’s a very eclectic mix. A lot of different styles, but somehow it works by it not working.”
It was during a photoshoot that Christensen first stumbled across the area, a two-hour drive from her Manhattan apartment. “I wasn’t even looking to buy a house, but I was doing a photoshoot with my friend Fabrizio Ferri, who had this beautiful cottage on a magical piece of land nearby. My son was on the shoot with me and he spent the day playing with lizards and snakes.” That image stayed with Christensen, and when Ferri called her later to say the perfect property was for sale, he put down the deposit before she had even visited it. “I’ve always wanted my son to be as much a nature boy as a city boy,” she says. “I love kids growing up in the city, the mentality they have, the sort of streetwiseness, but nature is equally important. It’s all about the balance.”
Determined to create a weekend escape from their hectic urban lifestyle and undeterred by the ambitious undertaking, Christensen recruited a local “pirate team” of builders (“They were the coolest-looking guys ever and they thought I was crazy”) to create what is now a four-bedroom house filled with antiques, where friends and family convene for weekends year-round. The light-filled barn houses another two bedrooms and a bathtub.
The first thing she did was rip the space apart to create a large, open-plan kitchen with poured-concrete floors and industrial worktops. “The meals are getting more and more elaborate,” she says, admitting the kitchen has become the heart of the house. “I’m not usually a breakfast person, but now breakfast rolls into lunch, which rolls into afternoon tea and then dinner.” A proper foodie, she applies the same impromptu approach to cooking as she does to design, forgoing recipes and precise measurements in favour of an intuitive approach to flavours and taste. “I absorbed a lot growing up in a South American household,” she says, “and I’m continually inspired by Jamie Oliver.”
The windows and doors remain open throughout the day, and Christensen often takes a book (and a cocktail) onto her porch to enjoy the natural soundtrack of crickets and frogs. “It has been a dream of mine since I was little to have a porch like they have in the South. I have a scene in my head about road-tripping through the South in slow motion, driving past all the houses with porches. There’s usually an older person sitting in a rocking chair, with a pipe, waving at you. I wanted to recreate that whole feeling.”
During our chat she talks about the merits of an outdoor life at great length, recalling a childhood spent “roaming by myself” in Denmark. “My mum would have to come and find me in a nearby cornfield, where I was digging for Second World War relics and flint stones, or doll parts, broken ceramics, broken plates and pieces of glass,” she says. “That’s probably one of my first memories — not only obsessed with being outside in nature, but also with history. The two combined made me want to become a photographer and experience nature all over the world, and also be an archaeologist. Somehow I became all of it.”
She fails to mention her modelling career as one of the “magnificent seven”, as she, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson and Claudia Schiffer were dubbed in the 1990s. Even at the height of her fame — frolicking with Chris Isaak in the Herb Ritts-directed video for Wicked Game and fronting Revlon campaigns — she felt removed from the glamour and glitterati, despite her five-year relationship with the late Michael Hutchence. In fact remaining on the periphery is something she has always sought.
“I’ve never lived very differently [to how I do now]. I’m not a hugely active person who runs around, works like crazy and is totally stressed out. Since I started working, I’ve always maintained a balance and always had periods when I wasn’t working, but also being more creative outside of modelling,” she says. She quit full-time modelling when Mingus was born and set about creating various homes while pursuing other projects. “Having a space to be grounded — literally, with your feet planted in the earth — has always been important to me, to have a home in your life that you look forward to coming back to,” she says. “It’s how I’ve felt about everywhere I’ve lived. When I had Mingus, I wanted to create a nurturing, loving atmosphere around him, where he would always feel filled up with that safe feeling of childhood.”
She still models of course and remains “plugged in”, even from the depths of her retreat. Over the course of lockdown, her social media followers have been treated to a series of at-home photoshoots, showcasing the latest swimwear designs from her brand Staerk & Christensen, which is currently donating 30% of its profits to Citymeals on Wheels in New York. “It has been a real family affair. Mingus is at film school in New York, so we’ve done lots of little movie shoots. We’ve all been each other’s photographers, actors and models!”
Christensen is too cool for most self-isolation clichés, but even she has succumbed to a Zoom drinks party, recently posting a snapshot of a video call with friends Julianne Moore and Laura Dern. Stylish Instagram posts aside, the days start with a fresh pot of coffee made by whoever is up first in the household. “I try to hold out for as long as possible, but the mornings are really special here,” she says. She’ll go for a run through the trees with her sidekick Kuma, an Australian shepherd and “the most photogenic dog ever”, before taking a quick plunge in the stream. At dusk the trio retreat to Christensen’s new favourite spot in the house, a smaller living room lined with books and candles, for a drink before dinner. She may have failed to crack meditation or growing her own vegetables during lockdown, but she certainly paints a picture of contentment: “I can literally be outside all day, just wandering through forests and wading through rivers with a camera, taking pictures. I would be fine doing this for the rest of my life.”