“When you’re in love, you don’t see the bad things,” Andreas Ullenius says.
Ullenius is calling from Skarpö, an island of about 250 residents in the Stockholm archipelago, to talk about the 111-year-old house he and his family bought here four years ago this month. Full of willowy charm, the Villa Solbacka—roughly “sunny hill villa”—had sounded to them like a get from the get-go. But even the broker who sold it to them seemed to know better. “Everybody kind of loves it. Nobody buys it. Why would you?” Andreas recalls him asking of a house that lacked modern plumbing and electricity, not to mention vehicle access. All trifles, the couple decided.
Lisa Ullenius, now 44, had her hands full with IKEA and other clients at her Stockholm design firm Edholm Ullenius, but Andreas, 48, had just cashed out of his co-founding role at North Alliance, a Nordic communications network. “I was an executive, and it was so boring,” he says. “When I left it—and I’d loved it—I felt I needed to get closer to the actual entrepreneurs.” (He’s now consulting on branding for startups.) That summer, floating in a hammock at the family’s rental cabin, a laptop open on his stomach, Andreas spotted the headline “Five Dream Spaces That Can’t Be Sold.” Villa Solbacka was No. 1. “It was typical clickbait,” he remembers. “That article is still up online.”
Once a subsistence farm for its hardscrabble owners, the nearly three-acre property the couple bought included an 1840s cottage, a one-room cabin of indeterminate age and the two-story villa, built by white-glove buyers in 1911. Houses in the Stockholm archipelago are like sandcastles, getting lower, smaller and sturdier the farther out you go. Skarpö island, within an hour’s commute of Södermalm, the Stockholm quarter where Lisa and Andreas live with their two school-aged children, is scattered with lofty summer villas. “Ninety-five percent of those houses are on one half of the island,” Lisa says. “Ours is on the other.”
From the outside, the Villa Solbacka was noble and atmospheric. Inside it was something else. Spiders had colonized the basement, almost all the window glass needed replacing, and the house was literally sliding off its natural rock foundation. “My father almost cried when he saw the photos,” Lisa says. “Now, when we look back at them, I think he was right. It was a mess.” In the moment, though, the couple saw the property as an opportunity for a creative recess almost two decades into their careers. “We’d been building worlds for clients,” Andreas says. “Could we use that experience for something completely different? The house was its own design platform.”
For a year they commuted to Skarpö every weekend, exploring the island as they interviewed contractors who might not bolt at the prospect of bringing in running water and modern wiring, replacing a buckled roof and laying down a road on which to truck in, well, everything. The even-tempered contractor they hired punched a screwdriver into a wall and deemed the wood better quality than anything they could source on the current market; finally, a positive. With a construction team in place, the couple began designing bathrooms and kitchens that would smudge the perceptual line between the centuries.
Tireless collectors, the Ulleniuses saw the interiors of Villa Solbacka as a new story waiting to be adapted from an old script. They fast-forwarded the living room with a Mario Bellini sofa in raspberry cotton and a bench slotted together from raw pine planks by young Stockholm designer Linn Fredlund, and towed an old single bed out onto the second-floor porch for napping. As if the storage unit the Ulleniuses had been filling wasn’t adequate, the elderly couple who sold them the house made them an offer. “They didn’t know how to empty it without a road,” Lisa says. “What a hassle, they told us. Could we just take the furniture too?”
Four years into their adventure on Skarpö, their work done, the couple is at a turning point. “We don’t exactly know what to do with the house,” Andreas says. “It’s kind of big for us. I can kind of agree with the kids—shouldn’t a summer house be a place to relax?”
Not that it hasn’t served a purpose, Lisa observes. “To have the privilege to be this broad in your creative work enriches everything you do,” she says. “Even when I’m designing someone’s company logo now, the creative space just gets so wide.”
They’ve talked about using the place as an online gallery for a vintage resale business, so they can keep collecting. A hotelier approached them about luxury rentals. They’re still not sure. “We heard the former owners had artists come to stay,” Andreas says. “That would be so cool. To create something like that.”
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