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The Great Dane: Malene Birger on the magic of monochrome

Having spent the last 17 years flipping homes across the world, fashion-turned-interior designer Malene Birger has become a dab hand at turning a house into a sanctuary of elegance and style.

“To make a space feel like your own, it’s all about the details,” shares creative director-turned-interior designer Malene Birger. “I add my touch by using lamps, music and art. Textiles are also important for bringing softness, pattern and personality.” If anyone would know, it’s Birger. With homes in the Italian Tremezzo, sunny Mallorca, the Greek island of Skyros and the leafy streets of south London, she has been finding and flipping homes across oceans for the last 17 years, four of which are now beautifully showcased in her latest book, Move and Art.  

To Birger, travel has always been a lifestyle. A self-proclaimed nomad and serial mover, the creative Dane spends her days navigating the world of interiors, transforming proverbial white canvases to feel-good oases and moving on before the whiff of fresh paint begins to fade. In fact, not one to stay in one place for too long, she has moved house more than 30 times over three decades and shows no signs of slowing down. “Travelling has always inspired and educated me,” Birger tells Effect. “As H.C. Andersen cleverly said in the late 18th century, ‘to travel is to live’. I have developed a very specific style thanks to travel, and I love bringing home objects, art, textiles and furniture whenever I visit somewhere new. Travelling is also about learning new cultures and meeting new people. My homes are storytellers and express the life I have lived so far.

Malene Birger spent three years renovating her home in Hora, perched on a mountaintop in the Greek island of Skyros - Effect Magazine
Malene Birger spent three years renovating her home in Hora, perched on a mountaintop in the Greek island of Skyros (Photo: Malene Birger)

“I can’t live without moving on,” she adds. “I thrive from the energy of change, the development, creating new spaces, renovating and living in new countries. And not to forget being able to create completely new spaces in my homes or studios.”

I can’t live without moving on. I thrive from the energy of change, the development, creating new spaces, renovating and living in new countries.

Malene Birger

Birger describes her interior design style as “maximalist, eclectic, personal and monochrome”, and this is evident as soon as you step foot inside her London apartment at Onslow Square. Chosen as much for its location between green parks and cosy pubs as it was for its traditional architecture, working with a rental threw up a fair few challenges, but Birger was quick to make the place her own through clever styling that is a reflection of her life as a self-proclaimed nomad. As such, the home is a mix of both the designer’s work and personal life, full to the brim with treasures picked up from her worldwide travels around the Middle East, Africa and Spain, and stylised to showcase her own line of products which includes lamps, arts, rugs and furniture.

What’s more, despite the fact that nearly every square inch of her floors and walls are dotted with objects, there is a comforting sense of calm that echoes throughout. “I have always been attracted to black and white,” she says of the apartment’s monochromatic scheme. “I can’t live with colours, I can only work with them.”

Crossing the oceans to Italy, next you’ll find Birger’s 4,200-square-foot villa set in the expansive gardens bordering the shores of Lake Como. The neoclassical building is the perfect example of how architecture can blend seamlessly with nature and, as her biggest project to date (it took an entire year of deliberation and another for refurbishment before the designer could finally call the place home), it was a true labour of love. “My villa by Lake Como was such a pleasure to renovate,” she tells us. “It was love at first sight when I first saw it, and the most sophisticated house I have ever lived in. I had to rethink my styling ideas and put away my very rustic, handcrafted textiles for a while.”

Working in partnership with an Italian architect and his team of local tradesmen, she transformed the property from the ground up, installing striped marble floors in the entrance, kitchen and all bathrooms, as well as accessories more in keeping with the historical style of the villa.

Move and Art by Malene Birger, published by teNeues in Effect Magazine
Move and Art by Malene Birger, published by teNeues (Cover Photo: Liselore Chevalier)

“In the larger three rooms I added grand hand-crafted rosewood inlay columns from a palace in Jaipur,” she explains. “I also bought all the leftover antique Indian chandeliers from By Malene Birger’s shops and hung them from all the ceilings.”

For the first time ever, she broke rank by painting a number of the walls an uncharacteristically bright canary yellow – although it’s a style most likely not to be repeated. “I just suddenly felt the need for yellow,” she explains. “It was fun living with it for a while, but in the end I realised I need a peaceful and calm colour story in my homes.”

Nestled in the southernmost island of the Sporades, the unspoiled island of Skyros is defined by sugar-cube buildings, remote stretches of sand and a rugged landscape. It was in 2013 when Malene first set her eyes upon a 1350-square-foot house here, which finally became hers in 2015. Perched on the top of a mountain in the city of Hora, it took three years to renovate – a task that wasn’t made any easier thanks to narrow pathways which meant only mules could be used to transport building materials.

“I have been visiting Skyros since I was 28 years old, and I can’t imagine not spending summer there,” she says. “With this project I kept all the original details and designed the house with respect for the Skyrean style and history, while updating it to have a more modern aesthetic.” Inside you’ll find a spartan interior that pays tribute to local craft and personal artworks, alongside handmade kitchen tiles inspired by a traditional Moroccan kitchen. “It became a small gem that was extremely cosy and very egoistic.”

Hall in the Mallorca home of Marlene Birger, with abstract artwork by herself - Effect Magazine
Hall in the Mallorca home of Marlene Birger, with abstract artwork by herself (Photo: Birgitta Wolfgang Bjørnvad)

The final chapter of Move and Art is devoted to the beginnings of Birger’s latest remodelling project, a townhouse in Felanitx on the Balearic Island of Mallorca. “Mallorca is my home. I belong here, sitting under a palm tree,” she gushes. “I’ve done over five renovations here, but I think this is where I will stay.” Malene is currently in a renovated finca as a stepping stone as she renovates her next permanent home on the island, which she describes as a “grand old lady in need of a lot of TLC.”

There are currently plans for black and white tiles on the ground and first floor, a beautiful patio, plunge pool and garden, as well as a gallery and boutique where she will sell her art, ceramic, jewellery and vintage furniture.  So does that mean she has finally found her forever home? “I must admit that I can’t flip houses every two or three years anymore, and as I get older I prefer to stay in one place for longer. Will I stay here? Time will tell. But I will stay for at least three years – I can promise you that.”

Read more:  Interior Designers | Interiors | Vintage | Design | Mid-Century | Books