A Summer Cottage in Sweden
Magazine editor Ulrica Wihlborg moved her family to a small town for a simpler life—and created a welcoming home that straddles both worlds
The coastal town of Karlshamn, Sweden, may not be the first place you’d expect to find Ulrica Wihlborg. With its old wooden houses, cobblestone streets, and picturesque harbor, the historic municipality (population 20,000) is a far cry from buzzy Los Angeles, where Wihlborg built her career as an award-winning journalist and editor at People magazine. Her daily routine revolved around interviewing Hollywood celebrities—Reese Witherspoon, Tom Cruise—writing human-interest stories, and landing entertainment-world scoops for the magazine’s cover. Fittingly enough, it was at the Academy Awards that Wihlborg’s momentous life change began.
“I was going with a few of my colleagues and the ticket was a treat, because I was attending as a guest. A few years back, that night would have been so fun for me,” recalls Wihlborg. “But this time, all I wanted to do was go back home, kick off my heels, and curl up in bed with my four-month-old daughter and my boys, ages two and five. I was miserable! I know it was ridiculous for me to feel that way. But it was also a pretty significant sign.” She and her husband, entrepreneur Craig Forrest, had purchased a little yellow house in Karlshamn a few years before to serve as a summer retreat in Wihlborg’s native country. Soon, however, the couple were thinking about a more permanent move. “It felt a little scary,” says Wihlborg, “but it also seemed like an amazing adventure.”
Luckily, the pair had planned ahead. The three-bedroom house, a traditional wooden structure built in 1929 by a working-class family, had been well maintained by its previous owners. Soon after the purchase, Wihlborg had photographed each room, drawn up a detailed floor plan, and measured every window. Actress Caroline Lagerfelt, a close Los Angeles friend, introduced her to design consultant Carol Ross, who had been part of Kathryn M. Ireland’s team for more than a decade. When the couple decided to make the move, Ross and Wihlborg began working on the home’s interiors—furniture, fabrics, paint, even custom-made pieces that were shipped to Sweden in a container, along with cans of Farrow & Ball paint—from half a world away.
Wihlborg describes the collaboration as an eye-opening immersion in interiors. “Carol taught me everything from how to pick colors and patterns to the beauty of a handmade Roman shade,” she says. “I bought a gorgeous farm-style table from Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic Couture, and Carol told me to oil it with natural beeswax to make it kid-proof. She took every idea I had and either turned it on its head or made it better.” One key challenge was the home’s size—a mere 1,200 square feet, which had seemed perfectly doable when the couple had bought it as a vacation home with one child, but represented more of an obstacle when settling in permanently with three. Says Wihlborg, “Carol showed me how to maximize every single square footage of that house and still make it feel airy.”
The “pretty cottage look” that Wihlborg wanted would be easily achieved with a palette of pale colors and natural materials. Linen and seed-sack fabrics predominate in the main living area, where a 12-foot custom-made sofa with storage underneath extends from wall to wall. A set of antique botanical prints that Wihlborg found for $50 at a local store are displayed above. “They’re of native Scandinavian flowers in muted colors,” explains Wihlborg, “and even though they're simple and not worth much, they bring a little summer indoors.”
Light was another significant factor. The home was blessed with sun-filled interiors, so curtains would become an important element in framing each room. Wihlborg and Ross commissioned custom draperies in Los Angeles: flowing, pinch-pleated Dupioni silk for the living room, and Roman shades from Raoul Textiles. (The Santa Barbara–based company, known for its hand-printed Belgian linens, was a recommendation from another close friend, actress Kelly Rutherford.) In a nod to her roots, Wihlborg even put her own pared-down spin on a local tradition. “Swedes are enthusiastic decorators of their windowsills, from plants to porcelain statues. They’re a great way to bring in nature and improve air quality during the dark winter months,” she says.
Even the children’s rooms—bereft of loud colors or oversize plastic toys—are cohesive with the entire mood of the home. Three-year-old Liv’s retreat, furnished with a gold-framed mirror, a vintage armchair, and a custom headboard upholstered in Raoul Textiles’ Jaipur fabric, manages to feel entirely age-appropriate. Eight-year-old Axel and five-year-old Gustav share a boys’ lair decked out in pillows made from seed sacks and vintage French fabrics from the Santa Monica flea market. Wihlborg also used seed sacks mounted on canvas to create an appealing installation on one wall. Other walls display the boys’ framed art and a vintage Swedish school poster depicting two turtles. (See Wihlborg’s tips for kid-friendly decor below.)
The home’s relatively small size turned out to be an advantage. “I had to carefully choose every single piece. There wasn't any room for extras,” Wihlborg says. “So I love almost everything in our house because they have some sort of history or meaning to me.” Among her most cherished possessions: an antique chandelier above the dining table that was a gift from her mother, and the aforementioned Raoul Textiles headboard in Liv’s room—“because I spent so much time thinking about her sleeping there and feeling safe in her new space.”
Not every element of the move was so storybook, as Wihlborg readily admits. Giving up a successful career and a circle of friends, as well as the year-round California sunshine, took some getting used to. “Having now experienced being a working mom and a stay-at-home mom, I know for sure that with each choice there are sacrifices,” she says. (She has since founded the lifestyle site Sweden With Love, which encompasses mindful-living tips, home tours, celebrity interviews, and a plethora of original photography.) Still, the benefits are clear: a simpler life, an upbringing for her children surrounded by nature, and a foothold in very different worlds. “I realized that I can truly belong in two places,” Wihlborg says. “It’s a wonderful feeling of freedom—like the world has opened up to me in a new way. I haven’t lost anything, but I’ve gained another home and an opportunity to make life a richer experience.”