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Dutch Light: A Collector’s Vintage-Filled Home in a Former Tavern in Amsterdam

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Dutch Light: A Collector’s Vintage-Filled Home in a Former Tavern in Amsterdam

December 17, 2021

Helma Bongenaar is a collector of the pre-loved: silk scarves, mix-and-match French coffee bowls, hand mirrors, ceramic spoons. “Collecting is in my genes,” she says. “My parents were also real collectors, and as a child I would scour flea markets with them, always looking for a ‘trouvaille,'” a find.

Helma—a stylist and cook, author of the Dutch-French cookbook Aan tafel bij Au Bon Coin, and cofounder of the newly launched Sentimental Journal magazine—lives in a classic corner home in the center of Amsterdam with her husband and, until recently, her two university-age children (“they are out of the house and living on their own,” Helma says, “but they come over for dinner every week to chat and catch up”).

“I always wanted to live in an old, typical Amsterdam split-level commercial building: shop in front, stock in the basement, and living upstairs,” says Helma. “This house was built as a tavern in 1880. Twenty-five years ago we fell in love with it. The whole neighborhood was built at the end of the 19th century for the dockers; at that time the harbor was just around the corner with all the steamships and warehouses”; the tavern would have been a go-to for dockworkers.

Inside, most everything is found, salvaged, made, or repurposed, often with a bit of a wink. “There must always be a sense of humor in the house, like the chandelier with spoons,” says Helma. But it was the palette that first drew me when I spotted the interiors on Helma’s Instagram: pale greens in the living room, two-tone robins’ egg blue in the kitchen. “The color palette is based on the old colors that have been used for centuries in Amsterdam,” says Helma. “Somehow they knew exactly which colors work well with which light. The famous Dutch light!”

Join us for a look inside.

Photography by Helma Bongenaar (@helmabongenaar).

the kitchen and entryway space was once the tavern; now painted in two tone blu 9
Above: The kitchen and entryway space was once the tavern; now painted in two-tone blue, it’s where Helma is known to throw many a dinner party. Note also the painted blue oval on the ceiling, inspired by Dutch canal houses.

“Unfortunately, after a renovation in the seventies, a lot of features were demolished from the old interior,” says Helma. “But we saw the potential of this place right away. Twelve years ago, the whole neighborhood needed to be renovated, so we removed the old remaining elements beforehand and stored them to give them back to the house later. We managed to get back the feeling of an old and cozy tavern and have a modern kitchen at the same time.”

the couple rescued the kitchen cabinets from building sites and dumpsters. (&am 10
Above: The couple rescued the kitchen cabinets from building sites and dumpsters. (“We always ask if we can take them,” they told The Guardian.) “The cabinet with all the liquor above is our self-made tribute to the pub it once was,” says Helma.
&#8\2\20;i was an au pair in paris when i was \18 and lived practically in  11
Above: “I was an au pair in Paris when I was 18 and lived practically in the flea market Porte de Vanves,” says Helma. “My collection of French coffee bowls started here. This is my most precious collection: more than 100 different designs, blue and white, 50 to 100 years old.”
a frame of vintage plates, carefully aligned, hangs above a doorway. 12
Above: A frame of vintage plates, carefully aligned, hangs above a doorway.
a soup spoon chandelier hangs above the dining table. &#8\2\20;i put this c 13
Above: A soup-spoon chandelier hangs above the dining table. “I put this chandelier together from five different chandeliers: a few found at the junkyard and a few found at the thrift shop,” says Helma. “I tried all the variations until I found the right shape and size and attached 88 Chinese spoons. They are so beautiful, sometimes with the grains of rice baked into the porcelain. They are rarely used, which is why the thrift shops are full of them. Seemingly worthless things make my heart beat faster because there is always a way to make something beautiful out of them.”

helma&#8\2\17;s tips for a dinner party: &#8\2\20;good taste takes time 14
Above: Helma’s tips for a dinner party: “Good taste takes time. That goes for food but also for decoration. Take the time to cook a good meal and choose a menu that you can prepare completely so that you only have to do small things during the dinner and don’t miss too much of the sociability of the evening. Choose a theme or a color and set the table with that in mind—anything goes.”
a stairway—with glass doors at the top and built in cabinets on either s 15
Above: A stairway—with glass doors at the top and built-in cabinets on either side—leads to the living area. In traditional Amsterdam interiors, Helma says, “The kitchens were blue because flies don’t like this color, and the living rooms were green, the color of calmness.” Her rooms follow suit.
&#8\2\20;our furnishing is quite a mix,&#8\2\2\1; says helma. &#8\2 16
Above: “Our furnishing is quite a mix,” says Helma. “There are elements of French brocante, Dutch design, vintage and flea-market style, bohemian, upcycled chic, art. I guess they call it eclectic.”
in lieu of an ornate fireplace, helma drew her own. 17
Above: In lieu of an ornate fireplace, Helma drew her own.
built ins and doorframes are painted in shades of green. 18
Above: Built-ins and doorframes are painted in shades of green.
the seven glass doors that surround the living area were given to the couple by 19
Above: The seven glass doors that surround the living area were given to the couple by friends in exchange for a seven-course dinner, according to The Guardian.
a peek into the study. 20
Above: A peek into the study.
a curtain hangs at the base of the stairs to keep the downstairs warm in winter 21
Above: A curtain hangs at the base of the stairs to keep the downstairs warm in winter. “This fabric is a thrift store find, long enough to make two curtains with thick lining in between,” says Helma.
helma&#8\2\17;s favorite sourcing spot in amsterdam? the noordermarkt flea  22
Above: Helma’s favorite sourcing spot in Amsterdam? The Noordermarkt flea market. “It takes place every Monday morning, in the shadow of the Noorderkerk,” a 17th-century church.
the main bedroom is similarly colorful. vintage wallpaper serves as a headboard 23
Above: The main bedroom is similarly colorful. Vintage wallpaper serves as a headboard: “I bought it in a famous wallpaper shop in Ghent, Belgium, called Behang Priem, where they still sell wallpaper from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” says Helma. “The shop is run by two sisters and a brother, all three in their eighties; it’s an experience to visit.” She found the ochre fabric at the Noordermarkt flea market.
the bed in the spare room was a lucky find. &#8\2\20;this is an example tha 24
Above: The bed in the spare room was a lucky find. “This is an example that we are often in the right place at the right time. Maybe we have a nose for it,” says Helma. “We found it on the street just when someone was throwing it away. He told us that it had been in the family for 200 years but he was now tired of carrying it around every time he moved.”

As for the landscape paintings: “Above the bed are curious souvenirs from all over the world, I guess around 70 years old; postcards were stuck on an oval wooden board and the rest was painted on. Who would think up something like that? Exactly what I love.”

the entry—looking in to the kitchen—in snow. 25
Above: The entry—looking in to the kitchen—in snow.

Helma is a believer in salvaging, not buying new. “Old stuff shows craftsmanship, which I admire,” says Helma. “Time was never an issue in the old days; the result was the only thing that counted. When you buy new cheap furniture, it is often made of glued wood pulp. If it breaks, which it very quickly does, it is immediately waste. An old wooden cabinet that falls apart can always be repaired or made into something else.”

For much more in the Netherlands, see:

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