The Look of Leif
The subdued Santa Barbara retreat shared by Leif and Birgitte Aarestrup showcases their family’s unique approach to interiors.
Before mid-century modern Scandinavian furniture moved into the hearts and homes of design devotees everywhere, there was Lief, the West Hollywood gallery of Swedish imports focusing on Gustavian and Biedermeier antiques. And before Lief, there was Leif Aarestrup, gallery founder and the visionary who emigrated to the U.S. in 1983 and set up shop six years later.
Since then, the gallery has moved from its original location on L.A.’s Beverly Boulevard to a much larger space on Almont, just off Santa Monica Boulevard. Leif (he transposed the two middle letters of his name when he created the store, hoping to encourage its correct pronunciation as “life” instead of “leaf”) has also turned over the daily operations of the business to two of his sons, Mick and Stefan Aarestrup, and moved fulltime to his home in Montecito, just below Santa Barbara.
When Leif and his wife Birgitte purchased their home in 1992, it was a 2,000-square-foot 1930s ranch house. They spent the next few years clearing and grooming its seven-and-a-half acres and completing a series of renovations that culminated in an 8,000-square-foot showcase for their collection of antiques and artwork. Hardwood floors were whitewashed in the Swedish style, ceilings were raised, and 12-foot high windows installed to maximize the light and views of the Santa Ynez Mountains on the east and Pacific Ocean to the west.
Throughout the home, antiques from the late 17th century Baroque and 18th century Rococo and Gustavian periods harmonize with pieces by mid- century Swedish and Danish masters and contemporary artists. Leif believes everything can mix as long as there is simplicity, but he’s not talking about blending high and low. Each piece in his home is authentic, perfectly restored, and handpicked either by Leif or one of his sons. Trips to Sweden and Denmark have yielded the carefully edited spoils of manor homes and estate sales, and it is clear that this is how the Aarestrup men express themselves: through an eye for fine things.
Every corner of the house exhibits a who’s-who of design acclaim that spans centuries. Downstairs, Arne Jacobsen’s 1958 Egg Chair sits in front of a Gustavian fireplace from the late 18th century. In the living room, large-scale totemic contemporary artwork by Bernadette Chéné complements a Baroque cabinet made of alder root and a pair of Rococo chairs.
By relocating the regal austerity of his homeland to California, Leif uses minimalism to bridge the gap between grandeur and informality. Even the “Gustavian summer room,” filled entirely with pieces from Sweden’s late 1700s, seems almost beachy in this circumstance, with its furniture traditionally painted in light grays and creams set against white walls and pale floors. And the deep, rich blue walls of the dining area are evocative of the nearby ocean. Doorless rooms that flow into one another create a casualness that is also somehow museum-like.
Furniture and design have always been the family business—Leif’s parents owned a store in Lyngby, Denmark, just outside Copenhagen, and two of Leif’s favorite possessions are a chair and desk his father commissioned for him from the renowned Danish designer Fritz Henningsen. Mick, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and a painter in his own right, designs all of the store’s installations, and he curates the Lief collection by making monthly trips to Sweden. He’s also expanded the store’s emphasis to include more modern pieces, as well as those from other countries, such as China, France and Finland. Rotating installations of contemporary artists give Mick an opportunity to engage in the art world, while showing clients how more modern pieces can be juxtaposed with the furniture. “So the antiques don’t look too old,” he says with a laugh. “And the modern doesn’t look too cold.”
One guiding principle Leif and Mick say they use when collecting is to choose pieces that are “soulful.” “It’s about style that transcends any period, medium or hierarchy, and life is about the exploration,” says Mick. In fact, there’s hardly a piece in the house that hasn’t lived several lives, or, like Leif himself, traveled great distances to be here. “My dad’s dream was coming to America,” says Mick, though this is not a story of coming west to find a fortune. That fortune had already been made, first as a lamp designer—for which he won a national award—then as the founder of his highly successful interior textile design company, Denbo. In 1963, early in their marriage, he and Birgitte bought a vacated Baroque manor in Sweden and gave it the full Aarestrup treatment—renovating and expanding it—and that house is where they would raise their three sons until moving to the United States.
Since Mick has now taken over the daily operations of Lief, his father has more time to spend in Montecito. Whenever he visits the gallery, there is usually something he finds to take back home with him, just as Mick does on his visits to Sweden. “Every trip I find something I want for myself,” says Mick. But one place you won’t see Mick or his father is at IKEA, Sweden’s other great juggernaut of style. Although, Leif adds, “I think it’s brilliant. Not every-one can afford the real thing.”
Written and edited by Sally Schultheiss.
PHOTO: Miguel Flores-Vianna.