British Vogue: Helena Christensen photographs her Catskills retreat

Mermaid tales

Helena Christensen photographs the idyllic weekend retreat she has carved out high in the Catskill Mountains. But why the nautical talk of pirates and mermaids? asks Ellie Pithers. Portraits by Jason McDonald

Several years ago, Helena Christensen was taking delivery of some furniture, purchased from an antiques store near her Catskills home in upstate New York, when she noticed something else in the back of the van. Wasn’t that… a mermaid? She insisted the delivery guys unload the statue, an imposing 1940’s Norwegian piece carved out of a single tree trunk, intended for another customer. “I looked at it and said, ‘OK, that is not going anywhere, I must have it. Tell the other customer it’s been stolen in transit,'” she laughs. 

The mermaid now presides over a cosy corner of the antiques-filled living room in this upstate bolthole, a two-hour-long flit from Christensen’s apartment in Manhattan’s West Village. “I’m obsessed with mermaids: I would definitely choose to be a mermaid if I were given the offer,” the 48-year-old original supermodel says, only half-joking. “I’d happily give up my human existence.” She’d be mad, though, to give up this place: a clapboard house painted grass green, with a barn rendered in a stormy blue, where, thanks to the nearby river, the only sound is of rushing water and the views are all lush green firs, scarlet Japanese maples and a tranquil pool she had built to resemble a natural pond. 

Christensen still models, of course, and is an accomplished photographer who also co-founded the perfume company Strangelove NYC. She didn’t set out to buy a home in the mountains. It was the photographer Fabrizio Ferri, an old friend, who forced her hand, putting a down payment on the house for her in 2007, when Christensen had yet to even see the property, let alone express interest in owning a Catskills home. (She also owns a cottage on the coast of her native Denmark.) “I thought he was crazy. But I drove up alone to take a look,” she recalls. “The house needed a lot of work – you could see the sky through the roof, and the whole layout was illogical – but there was definitely potential.”

Having bought it, she set about the renovation with a team of local builders and joiners she fondly calls her “pirate team” – “because they looked like they had been assembled on a pirate ship”. Communication was a little fraught: none of the pirates had email, and Christensen, certain of her vision for the house, didn’t want to use an architect, so outlined her ideas with hand-drawn sketches sent in the post. “I mailed them little pieces of wood or a rock that I liked, my drawings, specifics on things I knew I liked,” Christensen says. “Looking back, I have no idea how it got done. It was miraculous – a virtually silent renovation.”

The result is a heavily accessorized four-bedroom house (there are two further bedrooms in the barn) that both conforms to Christensen’s homely modern tastes and also looks as though it has always been there. The original structure comprised a series of poky little rooms and had no central heating. Christensen conspired to open up the space to create a large kitchen that blends industrial modernism (toughened metal counters, poured-concrete flooring roughed up to look like a French factory floor) with the living room’s mid-century eclecticism (Kaare Klint safari chairs, vintage Turkish and Scandinavian fabrics). It’s quirky without being tweee; the perfect balance of vibrant patterns and craftwork, which Christensen attributes to her Peruvian blood (via her mother), and cool blues and hygge corners, which she ascribes to her Danish roots (her father).

If her dual heritage has influenced her ad hoc style, however, it is by cultural osmosis rather than any lived experience. “Now my parents’ house looks very like mine, but when we were growing up in Copenhagen it never did,” she says. Far more formative, aesthetically speaking, were the years she spent in the Basque country as a house guest of the Danish artist Kurt Trampedach. “I would visit him with my friends in my late teens. We’d go trekking in the mountains, live in his home, watch him paint, learning from him,” she recalls. “It was very primitive, like how they live at the beginning of the Braveheart movie. But he had an innate sense of style.” Trampedach’s home, a mix of antiques and hand-crafted pieces – his sink was a giant rock he had hewn himself – seeped into Christensen’s psyche. “I arrived a chubby-faced teenager with a bad perm. I had a pink bedroom with music posters and a bean-bag chair,” she laughs. “And I left as a different person.” She has a lithograph and two of his oil paintings, and has acquired his gift for unearthing treasure in antique shops: she has truffled out paintings by the local artist John G. Ernst, which now sit above the sofa in the grayish-brown living room, where she is often to be found watching a movie. 

Christensen drives an SUV from New York up to the house as often as she can, often with her 18-year-old son, Mingus, and a gang of friends in tow for the weekend. She always takes her violet-eyed Australian Shepard dog, Kuma, with her – “she sits in between the front seats staring straight out the front window, so giddy and excited, ” she says – and a stack of comfortable  “upstate clothes”, comprising sweatpants and vintage swimsuits. The Christensen weekend line-up sounds resoundingly relaxing: if she’s with friends, she’ll have a massage therapist come to the house, “and we’re all lined up, first a trip to the steam room, then a massage, then a swim in the river”. After that, everyone flops down in front of the open fire to watch a good movie and have some home-cooked food. Christensen concedes she’s a “decent” cook, though she sounds like a brilliant one. She’s certainly always been foodie, and took up boxing in her thirties and, more recently, pole-dancing, with the sole aim of being able to eat what she likes as a consequence. Her gastronomic streak, she says, is influenced by her mother’s South American habit of emptying the contents of the fridge into a pot and seasoning it with delicious spices. Helena’s specialty: tilapia-fish stew. “I basically mix in whatever comes to mind,” she says, characteristically blasé. 

She spends the rest of her time pottering around the garden – “We have a planted area I call my Monet garden, full of beautiful flowers and a pebble path” – and tending to the herbs on her deck terrace, or shopping for vintage tablecloths, bedspreads and furniture in nearby Woodstock and Kingston. Route 28’s  Scandinavian Grace, a shop full of contemporary Nordic tableware, and Always Neu, a vintage clothing and furniture store, are frequent haunts, as is the Milne Antiques store in Kingston, where she picked up her latest trophy: a giant green marble conch from the 1930’s, originally intended as a wedding gift. Her favourite one-stop is Little House, also in Woodstock, where she purchased the zingy cushions and fabrics that litter the beds upstairs and also adorn her velvet sofas and chairs. “You go in and want to buy the whole shop,” she sighs. 

Mingus – her son by former partner Norman Reedus, an actor – is just as at home as his mother in nature. Still at school, he has the honeyed skin and feline eyes that have made his mother one of modeling’s most enduring faces, and made his catwalk debut last year at Calvin Klein’s spring/summer ’18 show. Christensen admits she worries about his generation’s obsessively plugged-in nature, but clearly the weekend ritual of escaping to the mountains, where, as a young child, Mingus would spend hours capturing and studying snakes and lizards, has stuck – not least because the West Village apartment currently houses two bearded dragons. “It was paradise for him as a little kid, then there were a few years when he wanted to stay in town with his friends,” she says. “But what I love is that even though there’s a lot of gaming, a lot of computer time, he will push it away and say, ‘Please can we go upstate this weekend?’ I reply, ‘Sure’, all nonchalantly, but inside I am so happy. There’s a basic yearning for nature – and that gives me hope.”