How John and Juli Baker, Owners of Toronto Designer Shop Mjölk, Live with Books
John and Juli Baker are the owners of Mjölk, a purveyor of housewares and furniture from Scandinavia and Japan, that has been winning over keen Canadian collectors since 2009. For the husband and wife duo, it all comes down to functionality, craftsmanship, and timelessness. “We look to our daily lives to find inspiration for the products we carry. In our view, there is a beauty to be found in even the most simple, everyday tools.”
Not surprisingly, this perspective extends to their home life as well.
Like their business, which doubles as a gallery when the artisans they work with are in town, their two story Japanese-inspired living space is considered and minimal—an oasis of style in Toronto’s rustic but rising Junction neighborhood.
We visited John and Juli at their home to see how they live beautifully with books and talk about the role that digital plays in keeping their physical collections flawlessly curated.
What inspired you to start Mjölk?
At the time home design blogs were becoming quite popular, so we were first inspired to start a blog. We enjoyed thrifting and midcentury design but soon our tastes evolved to include a wider range of style beyond vintage. We started Mjölk because there weren’t any local shops selling the types of things we were interested in. It seemed to be a natural progression.
What does Mjölk mean? How did you choose it for your shop?
Going with “Mjölk” meant breaking a cardinal rule in retail: always pick a name that people can pronounce. But we loved the look and sound of it (it means milk in Swedish and Icelandic), and we think it describes both the Scandinavian and Japanese design aesthetics we focus on well.
What is your design philosophy?
Our philosophy is about surrounding yourself with only things that you enjoy. Natural materials are essential. The majority of items we sell in our shop we enjoy in our home, and it ultimately probably ended up in the shop because we first acquired it personally.
And your personal philosophy?
When we were younger it was all about acquisition. Collections were a big thing, as was hunting for thrift store deals. Now that we’ve matured and have a limited amount of space in our home, we limit what we bring into our home to only those objects we truly enjoy.
What type/genre of books do you prefer?
I prefer fiction, and it usually ends up being coming of age novels. I’ve been trying to find books lately that tell the experience of mothers, though I could use some recommendations! I am reading book four of the Neapolitan series which has filled both requirements (coming of age and motherhood). It’s been interesting reading an individual struggle with self-actualization during motherhood.’
What books do you keep versus read?
John buys all the physical books that we own, and he actually does use them as resources and for inspiration. They aren’t just pretty covers on a shelf. At the same time, reading digitally has made it far easier to curate our collections
We mostly keep larger books that have lots of visuals.
Has reading digitally let you simplify or declutter your life?
Yes, especially since I read a lot of fiction, and it just doesn’t seem to be something I need hanging around after reading it. There are way too many books out there to imagine reading something a second time!
What the greatest joy that comes with owning the business?
Personally, we are able to spend a lot of time with our children, and make our own hours when we need to.
Professionally, we have to take care of a variety of aspects relating to the business, so it keeps things interesting. Plus, we have the freedom to take on new projects, like our books [below], product collaborations, and more, which exercise our creative side.
Do you ever pick up design ideas from books or magazines? We have less time to read design books these days, though recently books about Japanese gardens, Shaker buildings and artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Donald Judd have been resources.
What kind of reader are you?
John seems to get zoned in on one subject or type/style while I read fiction with a side of parenting books—having two kids under age five requires some study to get through the drama. I have found some great resources.
When do you usually read?
We only have time for pre-sleep reading. Can’t wait until I can read a book leisurely in the daytime. Will there ever be such a day?
What book did you love most as a kid?
I have a children’s picture book from my childhood, The 329th Friend by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, that is special to me. I was an only child and it’s a sweet story about being content with your own company. Also, My Everyday French Word Book by Michele Kahn. I was in French Immersion and the pictures were engrossing. And Barbapapa! As a tween, it was the 1980s so The Babysitter’s Club, R.L Stine, Cynthia Voigt, Gordon Korman, Judy Blume…
What is your most prized bookish possession?
I don’t have a definitive answer for this because books ebb and flow in our world and they hold special meaning depending on what’s going on in our lives at the moment. Currently, Shaker Built by Paul Rochereau is on heavy rotation, as is a newly acquired Spencertown by Ellsworth Kelly (signed) and Nature Form & Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima (signed by his daughter Mira, during our exhibition a few years ago).
Does your love of Iceland, Scandinavia and Japan extend to the books you read?
John reads A LOT of Japanese fiction.
What book do you find yourself recommending over and over?
Recent favourites include:
- Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
- I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
- Neapolitan Series by Elena Ferrante