If you’re a fan of interior design and property shows, you may have seen the interiors blogger Juan Sandiego among the nosey neighbours snooping around the finest homes in Cardiff on the recent BBC One show, The Best House in Town. Infused with his personal experiences and stories, Juan’s blog, Boreal Abode, won the Best Newcomer Blog in the UK at the Amara Interior Blog Awards in October 2018. Promoting slow decor ideas inspired by modernism and biophilic design, Boreal Abode’s ethos is to help people to develop a deeper relationship with their living space and to find their “happy at home”. We caught up with the award-winning blogger at his stylishly decorated Victorian home to find out more about his blogging journey and his design philosophy.
For people who don’t know you, who is Juan Sandiego, the blogger behind Boreal Abode? Tell us a bit about your background.
I’m an interior design blogger and student based in Cardiff. I moved to the city from northern Spain around 11 years ago to study my non-creative healthcare degree. I’ve always had a passion for interiors, photography and graphic design but my studies/occupation took up a large chunk of my time… A few years ago, I realised just how much I’d missed that creativity and I’m now in the process of developing a parallel career. Studying interior design is one of the most exciting decisions I’ve made.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
It has to be running into the lounge with my older sister and screaming “The bedroom is on fire!” It wasn’t. And I don’t know what kind of reaction we expected from our parents, but it didn’t go well at all. But, hey, it was ridiculous and fun!
What inspired you to step into the world of interior design? What are the milestones of your journey?
Most of my A levels were focused on engineering and design subjects, with the prospect of choosing a degree in those fields. However, in Spain ‒ back then ‒ architecture and most engineering degrees took five years to complete. And I thought I wasn’t good enough. Instead, I chose a safer 3-year degree in healthcare. That was my first mistake. No one told me I couldn’t become an architect. It was only me who decided that.
The following years I realised you can do whatever you want when you work hard. It took me two degrees and a Master’s in my chosen safe field to convince myself I could be good at design too. The blog was the first step. It helped me unleash all the creativity and passion I’ve been craving for years. Then, motivated by the blog, I decided to study an interior design higher qualification part-time. It’s going to take me a few years to complete, but it’s not so difficult when you’re passionate about it.
Tell us about the inception of Boreal Abode. When and in what context did you first contemplate the idea of starting your own blog and what made it worth pursuing?
I had another blog ‒ now dormant ‒ that I started in 2006. It was your typical personal blog about everything. Creative topics like graphic design and photography were my favourite. But then, social networks started to appear and the way people read and interact with blogs changed. It didn’t help that I went through a busy period in my life over the next ten years and I lacked the consistency and motivation needed to keep the blog alive.
In 2016, my partner and I bought our first and forever home. It’s a truly life-changing experience. It has nothing to do with paying a mortgage or owning a house. It’s about living in a blank canvas and having the freedom to create a home from scratch. This event reignited my creative juices with all the design choices. A few months later, I mentioned to a close friend the idea of starting an interiors blog. I had basic photography, coding and graphic design skills… all I needed was a niche that I was truly passionate about, to ensure full commitment. Six months later Boreal Abode was live.
Boreal Abode… How did you come up with the name for the blog and why is it meaningful to you?
Regarding the name of the blog, there was one thing I was sure about. I didn’t want to use any of the typically related keywords such as design, style, home, decor, etc. The reason why is simple. I wanted a name that could sustain a niche evolution in the future as the blog grows. Also, it had to be a name unique enough so the domain and all social media handles were available.
A few weeks of brainstorming led to a huge number of options, but none of them were too exciting. I kept exploring keywords such as Scandinavian, the elements of nature and positive moods. Then one day, half-way through a brainstorming session, I wrote “Boreal Abode” and I stopped. I repeated it out loud several times and it stuck with me.
Boreal comes from Latin, boreas: relating to the north or the north wind. The word is widely known in Spain as we use aurora boreal to describe the northern lights. In English, it’s not as common yet there’s something magic about it. Paired with the word abode it creates a subtle alliteration. But more than the literal meaning, it was the feeling that made me choose this name. Boreal Abode feels like a cosy home in the cold foggy forest. And even though I live in a city, you can achieve this balance with nature through conscious biophilic design choices.
There are so many interior blogs out there. How is Boreal Abode different from other interior design blogs?
There are indeed many established and successful interiors blogs around. The only way to stand out is to offer something different and to deliver it with personality. Boreal Abode offers long-form articles featuring original photography. Creating few, but high-quality design stories helps Boreal Abode stand out. There is a lot of research behind each blog post, and they vary in length between 1,000 to 4,000 words. It’s definitely not the easiest blogging route, but it’s the one I feel most comfortable with.
Additionally, infusing the blog with a bit of personality is the other key element to stand out from the crowd. I can’t compete with the top interior design blogs, which are mostly London-based. They attend the best design events and are always aware of the latest industry news. Instead, I have to focus on bringing my own experiences and stories into my writing. Each piece then becomes less editorial and more relatable. You get to know me post after post.
At the end of October 2018, you won the Best Newcomer Blog in the UK at the Amara Interior Blog Awards. How did that make you feel?
I still believe it was some sort of miracle! I feel incredibly privileged to have been named Best Newcomer by the most reputable blog awards body in the field. Amara follows a dual criteria method for the awards. Both popular vote and expert judge score are taken into account. I’m so grateful for that. Because of it, a blog like mine made it through despite having one of the smallest audiences in the competition.
How did winning this award change your attitude to blogging and affect your visibility and opportunities?
Winning the award was solid proof that there is space for everyone. I constantly hear the blogging world is saturated. But ‒ guess what? ‒ when I started my first blog in 2006 there were already people saying “blogging is dead”. If you have something interesting to write about, there’s always someone who will read it.
The visibility of the blog has increased slightly. I’m lucky to be part of an incredibly supportive interiors blogging community that knew about the blog already. One of my intentions for this year is to bring Boreal Abode to more people. No rush, though. I’m letting the blog grow organically to prevent burnout.
Since the award, there hasn’t been much change regarding traditional blogging opportunities such as brand collaborations, etc. The blog is still small and most PRs only look at the number of followers on social media. However, there is one massive unusual project that came up recently. I ended up on BBC One as a local judge for a property and interiors show.
How would you describe your design aesthetic?
My style is heavily influenced by modernism and 20th-century design in general. This includes the popular mid-century modern style. However, it’s important to bring some fresh air into modernism, so I enjoy playing with contemporary elements as well. Modernism is timeless and it will survive trends for generations to come; it’s a style that’s redefined what design is. The simplicity of form and function.
What role does sustainability play in your approach to interior design and home decor?
The easiest way to embrace sustainability at home is to make conscious purchase decisions. The home decor industry is now following the steps of fast fashion. You see new collections appearing every single season. And we’re told to update or decor accordingly. That’s not how I want to decorate my home.
Every piece of furniture or accessory must be part of the overall puzzle of a room. There is no room for “it does the job for now” stuff. I’m an advocate of the slow decor movement. Where decisions are taken after studying the space and needs over a period of time. Only then you know exactly what your home needs to complete the puzzle.
Whether it is a charity shop find or an expensive designer piece, I look for items that will last. And ‒ rather than accumulating more and more stuff ‒ it’s so much nicer to focus on furniture and accessories that resonate with you or have a strong personal meaning. Imagine if you actually loved every single piece of your room puzzle. That’s my aim.
You recently finished redecorating the living room. What were the ups and downs of this project and what would your advice be for someone thinking of redecorating their home?
I must confess I had never redecorated a whole room before. It was indeed a learning curve fuelled by YouTube tutorials! Luckily, there were no big mistakes as the project was relatively small and simple. Perfectionism is one of my weaknesses, but I’m slowly learning to let go and embrace things the way they are. Every little crack and chip speaks about the history of your home.
One thing I’ve learned for future makeovers is to plan in advance with plenty of time. Take it easy, assess your needs and discover the potential of the space. The layout, the furniture choices, colour scheme, etc. Then, try to do all the messy work in one week or so. It’s best to work hard on it for a few days, rather than dragging the whole process out for months as I did.
What makes your house a home? Do you have any favourite items or possessions?
A home is a house that has absorbed the owner’s personality over time. It’s a true reflection of who you really are, not who you aspire to be. From meaningful decorative items and paint colour choice to the functionality and purpose of each room. All these elements capture the essence of the homeowner.
There are some special items in my home. I wouldn’t say I have a favourite one, though. What makes me happy is that they all fit the overall puzzle of the room they belong to. Finding the perfect piece is so satisfying. For example, for months I had been looking for wooden shelving for my living room. Time passed and ‒ one day, all of a sudden ‒ I discovered the perfect pick whilst browsing the web. It was worth the wait.
How does the city of Cardiff influence you creatively and how would you describe its art and design scene?
Living in Cardiff has taught me to appreciate our beautiful domestic period architecture. There’s so much charm in the little terraced cottages and grand mansions of this city. The people in Wales are open and welcoming. And that translates into spaces with a focus on friends and family entertainment.
Most of my friends work in non-creative fields. Thankfully, social media and blogging have introduced me to a host of local artists, designers, makers and creators. I can’t help it but be inspired by them. My current workplace also features a small exhibition space where artists showcase their latest work on a regular basis.
What are some of the most important buildings in Cardiff?
It’s easy to get carried away by the landmarks in Cardiff. However, I think the most important ones are the everyday period houses and commercial buildings in the city. There is so much Victorian goodness all over the city, with a few Georgian gems, and even older ones! For example, the Greggs shop on High Street is one of the oldest buildings in the city centre. It’s such a brilliant little corner house. You can almost get a feeling of what the city looked like back in the day.
Butetown has an unusually high concentration of grand commercial buildings thanks to the coal industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sadly, many are neglected and in a poor state. Developers are just waiting for them to collapse so they can plonk their sterile new-builds there. I always say if I ever win the lottery, I’ll buy them all and restore them back to their former glory.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
A bit of meditation every day can go a long way. I try to be present and in the moment, without worrying about what happened yesterday and what could happen tomorrow. My life is too busy to pay attention to unnecessary thoughts that don’t help me. Weeding out those thoughts simply feels great.
My local park is a hidden gem. I always find an excuse to go for a walk and surround myself by trees and the sound of birds. Your mind feels clearer and you notice new things you were not aware of before. Indeed, studies have proven how beneficial it is to spend time in green spaces. You could say my local park is a little oasis of calm (except for the noisy ducks!).
Who are some of the inspirational characters in your field that you follow and what do you admire about their approach?
The interiors blogging circle is ever-expanding, even though it’s not as established as the core fields like fashion, beauty and travel. There are some bloggers that stand out, not just because of their talent and eye for design, but because they promote change in educating their audience. Medina Grillo (Grillo Designs) and Meera Pendred (First Sense Interiors) use their platform for good. They help raise awareness of the significant diversity issues in the industry.
Jumi Awomosu from The School of Artful Living is another one to watch. She understands the deeper meaning of artful living and she shares her evolving journey with her community. I discovered her on Instagram and, believe me, you’d want to read every single caption she posts! It’s not just about the inspirational images. She can see the positive impact design has on people.
What interior trends are you looking forward to in 2019?
Darker wood furniture is making a comeback and I couldn’t be happier. And this doesn’t mean antique furniture only. There is a misconception that the ever-popular mid-century modern style is all about pale and blonde wood. In reality, most wooden finishes in the 50s and 60s were dark. It’s only recently we’re stripping old varnishes and opting for lighter finishes instead.
There is also a subtle trend emerging: curves. From beds and mirrors to globe lamps and simple accessories. Curved geometric patterns and soft lines are popping up everywhere. Like a contemporary take on art deco with a sophisticated influence from the 70s. This trend is here to stay for a while!
What new design ideas are obsessing you at the moment and where do you think they will lead you?
Over the last year, I’ve been exploring the fascinating field of biophilic design. How design inspired by nature, or that adheres to certain scientifically-backed principles, can improve your well-being, from indoor air quality to natural light. Ultimately, biophilic design is the science to make you feel happier at home and at work.
That resonated with me and even led me to change the blog’s tagline. Now it reads “Find your happy at home”. It’s also the name of a hashtag I use on Instagram (#findyourhappyathome) to build a community around this concept. It’s not about the perfectly styled room shot, but the meaning and story behind it. This subtle change has been one of the most important decisions I’ve taken for the blog.
And finally, what are your dreams and ambitions for Boreal Abode? How do you see it growing and changing over time?
I want Boreal Abode to grow organically as it reaches more and more people, looking to create a space with style and well-being in mind. Raising awareness of the deeper relationship between ourselves and our homes is not going to be easy. It’s going to take time. Slowly, people will realise it’s great to master styling ‒ but a long-term plan is also needed to create a truly happy place.
Once I finish my course in a few years, I want to set up an interior design studio offering consulting services locally and online. I would love to complement this with workshops, seminars and online services/products to reach people whatever their location. Finally, it would be a dream to publish a book or series of books in my field. It’s a matter of time!
Thank you, Juan for the hospitality and lovely insight into your personal realm.