How Eleish Van Breems’ Co-Founders Turned Their Love of Scandi Style Into a Thriving Business
Nordic meets New England.
By Miranda Crowell
September 7, 2021
From 18th-century case clocks to mid-century Danish cabinets and Gustavian-style wood side chairs, Eleish van Breems co-founders Edie van Breems and Rhonda Eleish have been bringing Americans the best of Scandi-style—both new and centuries-old—since they opened their first shop back in 1998. Here, the Connecticut-based Scandophiles and reveal why they started their shop, how they navigate their decades-old friendship with the rigors of running a business, and what they’re most excited about in their latest expansion.
Over the past two-plus decades, Rhonda Eleish and Edie van Breems have opened multiple shops, written three books on Scandinavian style, and launched a hugely successful interior design firm. But their design collaboration started small—quite literally, as childhood friends growing up in Connecticut. “I remember Rhonda had a killer dollhouse we would play with,” says van Breems. “We would try to construct furniture for it out of twigs and moss.”
The two parted ways for college, but reconnected in New York City, where Eleish was working in the fashion industry and van Breems was a photographer. They bonded over their love of art and design, and eventually the idea of opening their own antiques shop took shape.
Eleish van Breems co-founders Edie van Breems, left, and Rhonda Eleish.Stephane Kossmann
Originally, van Breems and Eleish planned to carry a broad collection of European antiques. But on the flight to Europe for their first buying trip, they had a design epiphany: “We realized neither of us were crazy about brown furniture,” says van Breems, laughing. Rather, they both gravitated toward Swedish antiques, particularly the delicately carved and painted pieces of the Gustavian era. “They have a romance to them, but their lines are so pure, it’s almost like looking at silhouettes,” says Eleish (both she and van Breems have Swedish heritage).
With the help of Eleish’s great aunt, a major art dealer in Stockholm, the two made connections throughout Sweden, meeting antiques experts, furniture restorationists, and artisans. They filled their first 40-foot container with antiques in just two days. In 1998, they opened their first antiques gallery, Eleish van Breems, converting a historic 1760s building in Woodbury, Connecticut, into their version of Swedish nobleman’s home.
Brass leaf candleholders in the shapes of Chestnut, Avocado and Oak leaves designed by Malin Appelgren, a third-generation metalsmith in Sweden, and sold at Eleish van Breems this fall for the first time.Neil A. Landino
At the time, only a handful of shops carried the kind of high-quality Swedish antiques that Eleish van Breems specialized in. The shop took off quickly, particularly with New York designers, and Eleish and van Breems became known for their deep knowledge of Swedish antiques, as well as those from Finland, Norway, and Denmark. “You can’t understand a decorative style without understanding the culture,” says Eleish, noting they make frequent trips to the region to foster their deep relationships there. “We’ve always approached the business with an insatiable curiosity, really being history geeks, and connecting with the people of these countries to understand the stories behind the pieces we carry.”
They channeled that knowledge into three books—Swedish Interiors, Swedish Country Interiors, and Reflections on Swedish Interiors—all of which highlighted the unique ways Swedish pieces are incorporated in homes around the world. The pair also expanded their business into interior design. “People would come into our first shop and say, ‘Oh, I love this shop, can you come help with my home?’” says Eleish. “So it was a natural extension.” Eleish, who had previously worked for a design firm, went back to school to learn drafting, and began taking on clients. Today, they design everything from über-modern homes to French country–style houses. “Our interior design business is client-driven, so we work in a wide range of styles,” she says. “But when you boil it down, there’s a simple elegance and a less-is-more approach to everything we do.”
Regardless of the style they’re working in, they often find themselves incorporating Scandinavian pieces here and there. “Because the pieces are so clean-lined, they can work with anything. You can take a burlwood 1820s bowl and put it next to a Donald Judd sculpture, or a Gustavian table under a Motherwell painting, and the pieces hold their own.”
The recently opened Nantucket outpost is brimming with Swedish curios and Eleish van Breems furniture.Neil A. Landino
With new Eleish Van Breems Home shops in Westport, Connecticut, and Nantucket, Massachusetts (they relocated from their original location a few years ago), as well as a robust online business, the friends continue to showcase the versatility of Scandinavian pieces. “We try to abide by the Scandinavian model of ‘good design for all,’” says Eleish. They’ve expanded beyond antiques to also design their own collection of Swedish-style furniture, lighting, and paint, and carry contemporary pieces by artisans that can’t be found anywhere else in the States. “Seeking out new artisans and vendors to partner with on signature lines is a big focus for us right now,” says van Breems. “It’s a way of supporting makers whose work we love and keeping the business fresh.”
As they continue to balance the many facets of EVB, Eleish and van Breems’s friendship is as solid as ever, defying the old adage about not mixing business with pleasure. “I think our friendship is great because we approach the business in a similar way,” says van Breems. “If one of us was more of a bean counter, and the other one was more creative, it might be a problem. But we’re both about creativity and curiosity first. Always.”