For Charlotte Semler, the co-founder of natural fragrance brand VERDEN, moving from the Cotswolds to central Oxford was a wrench. She talks to Jessica Jonzen about how she created a sense of familiarity in the city, keeping her connected both to nature and her Scandinavian heritage
THE SITTING AREA IN CHARLOTTE SEMLER’S OPEN PLAN KITCHEN, WHERE FAMILY HEIRLOOMS BLEND WITH PIECES COLLECTED OVER TIME. IMAGE: COURTESY OF CHARLOTTE SEMLER
Moving a young family from the city to the countryside is a classic trope of parenthood. Yet for Charlotte Semler, her husband and their twins, the time arrived in 2015 when they needed to do the reverse.
“We were living in a large country house in the Cotswolds, and it started to become clear that we would need to move into Oxford in order for our kids to go to secondary school and for us to have a family life together,” says Charlotte. “It was a very difficult decision to leave the country but, in the end, we felt it was the best thing for our kids so off we went.”
Having undertaken a dramatic renovation of their home in the Cotswolds, Charlotte, knew she wanted another project. She certainly got one. “The house we found was near-derelict – it hadn’t been touched in 30 or 40 years. It had a very aged lady living in it and there was no kitchen as such, just one ring burner, and no working bathroom. The garden was fully overgrown – you couldn’t walk into it,” Charlotte recalls. “The kids knew we were house hunting, and they would pass it on their way to school and say, ‘just please don’t buy that house.’”
Despite their children’s misgivings, Charlotte and her husband could see that the aspect and the bones of the early Victorian house, with its large windows and tall ceilings, were good and decided to buy it. “We didn’t tell the children for a while and didn’t bring them on site until things were pretty much ready and they could start to see what it was going to look like,” says Charlotte. “Young children can’t imagine how it’s going to look, and I think that’s very unsettling for them.”
If managing the renovation of a near-derelict house wasn’t enough of a challenge, Charlotte was also in the process of launching her skincare brand, VOTARY, together with her business partner Arabella Preston. Both projects were delivered with aplomb, with VOTARY launching straight into Liberty and the house being ready to move into soon after.
When the twins finally saw the house for the first time, there was a pervading sense of familiarity. “There are big similarities between the home that we had in the country and the home that we now have in the city because we made the same decisions,” says Charlotte. She chose the same paint colours they had in their former home, and the kitchen is configured in exactly the same way as their previous one. “From a practical point of view, I think that you get used to a particular configuration of cupboards and so you want the same things because it worked before and it makes things easier,” she reasons.
Charlotte knew that having a boot room and an open plan kitchen with a dining area and spacious sitting area were priorities. “That’s how our family lives and it was really important for us to recreate that – we don’t really use any other part of the house,” she says. “And, of course, once we put our furniture in, it all started to look very familiar; it felt like home almost instantly.”
THE KITCHEN DINING AREA IN THE EXTENSION IS FLOODED WITH LIGHT, THANKS TO THE SOUTH-FACING SLOPING GLASS CEILING. IMAGE: COURTESY OF CHARLOTTE SEMLER
Born and raised in Denmark until she moved to the UK at the age of 15, Charlotte’s Scandinavian roots inform her approach to home design. “If in doubt, put in another window!” she says. That wasn’t possible in the internal stairwell so she tackled this by commissioning a metallic floral mural from China to help bounce the available light around.
“I’m very aware of light and orientation, so I would only ever buy a north-facing house if I knew I could effectively turn it around,” she says. Which is what she did in her previous home, where the extension essentially turned a north-facing house into a south-facing one. “Of course, you can’t do that in the city, and it was critical for us that we had a lot of light coming in from the south and west.”
While the kitchen extension leads onto the verdant east-facing garden, the sloping glass ceiling above the run of kitchen units is due south, letting in a vast amount of light. Charlotte saved money on the kitchen by having the units made by a joinery shop in Poland. “I don’t do expensive kitchens,” she says. “I’m more interested allocating the budget to natural materials for surfaces.” She chose granite for the backsplash, having learnt from experience that marble, while beautiful, is not necessarily very practical.
Signs of Charlotte’s Scandinavian heritage can be found throughout the house, from art to furniture. In the sitting area off the kitchen, a pair of armchairs from her parents’ Danish summer house take pride of place beside the stove.
The summer house has occupied a central place in Scandinavian culture for hundreds of years, and these often simple cabins offer city-dwellers a chance to escape the metropolis and reconnect with nature. Charlotte spent blissful childhood summers at the family summer house on the coast but after she left for the UK she rarely returned to Denmark.
THE MORE FORMAL SITTING, WHERE A PAIR OF ‘THOMAS’ ARMCHAIRS BY FLEXFORM SIT BENEATH AN ANTIQUE DANISH LANDSCAPE. IMAGE: COURTESY OF CHARLOTTE SEMLER
Around the time she moved from the Cotswolds to Oxford, Charlotte returned to the beach where she had spent so many idyllic childhood summers. “I felt so happy to be there again. The sense of isolation and connection with nature and the sheer joy that gives allows you to feel a whole load of positive emotions that can be really difficult to access when you’re not connected with nature,” she says.
It is this beach which provided the inspiration for VERDEN, the natural fragrance company which Charlotte and Arabella went on to launch in 2021. They had known they wanted their next venture to be rooted in fragrance but hadn’t worked out what the concept would be.
“It was really only when I went back to that beach in Denmark that I was struck by how powerful the natural fragrance associated with that particular ecosystem is, and just what an impact it had on my emotional state,” Charlotte says. “It was then that I knew that this was what we wanted to do; we wanted to help people reconnect with nature via natural fragrance to help them feel better. And then I knew in that moment the brand would be called ‘Verden’, which is a Danish word meaning ‘the Earth’ and it was going to be rooted in that Scandinavian design heritage.”
At home in Oxford, Charlotte maintains her connection to nature through breathwork, a central pillar of VERDEN, retreating to her bedroom to practice every day. “My bedroom is my sanctuary; we’re very lucky to have enough space to have a sofa in there it feels like you’re withdrawing momentarily from the world into your own space. I tend to sit in front of an open window, irrespective of weather because it’s one way of connecting with the elements, even if you’re in a town or city. Just feeling the air moving across your skin can be meditative and beneficial, I think.”
Charlotte’s twins are now 18 and this city house, once neglected and bought for practical reasons, is now a bright and beautiful space. It has served as the backdrop to the children growing up and seen Charlotte launch not one but two businesses. It is both a supportive, nurturing retreat which tells its owners’ stories and an inspiring launchpad. It is a home.
The armchairs from Charlotte’s original family summer house, recovered in vibrant fabric.
Charlotte Semler at home.
The garden, once so overgrown it couldn’t be entered.
Charlotte commissioned floral murals on metallic paper to bounce light around the windowless stairwell.