"Seeing the Light" feature about Alicia's Zimnickas home and her creative journey at Real Home, velvet Magazine, October 2019
When artist-turned-interior designer Alicia Zimnickas bought her Cambridge home, a 1970s end of terrace, it was gloomy and unloved. Six years on and the house is a light-filled masterclass in contemporary design. Alice Ryan pays a visit
From the curb, it looks much like any other terrace in the row: tiled frontage, flat roof, square bay, gravel drive. But, home to artist-turned-interior designer Alicia Zimnickas, the similarities end the minute you open the door.
Eye drawn by the light, the first thing you see is a far wall of windows onto the garden. Filling the open-plan living space with shades of soft sky-grey and lush tree-green, even on a dull autumn day the effect is delightful.
You barely notice the long, narrow hallway, distracted both by the guiding light from the windows and a stretch of ingenious optical-illusion wallpaper. “That’s what good interior design is all about,” says Alicia. “It’s about taking a space and making the very most of it. . .
“I think that’s the biggest reward of design for me: seeing how you can change a space and, consequently, change the way people live and work within it. Improving a space can honestly improve people’s lives.”
Her Trumpington end of terrace, which dates from 1975, is a case in point. When she and her family moved in – she has two children, 14 and 12 – there was definite room for improvement. Despite the windowed back wall, the ground floor living space was blighted with black spots, namely in the entrance hall and stairwell. Widening a doorway, replacing balustrading with reinforced glass, adding a strategic skylight, and turning walls and woodwork white, worked wonders.
“Light is a big thing for me,” explains Alicia. “I have to have it. Some people crave the sea, some crave the mountains – I crave light.”
A professional artist, as well as an interior designer, Alicia’s studio is on the first floor and her paintings hang on many walls. Large abstract tree and leaf-scapes, they fairly glow with filtered sunlight. “It was an art critic, commenting on one of my exhibitions, that first made the connection with light; he said I painted with it. I’d never realised that before, but he was right.”
Raised on the Polish border with Lithuania, her parents farmers, Alicia grew up “in a very rural place, surrounded by nature. That’s probably why nature is such a big influence in my art; everything we experience in life is an influence.”
Her artistic talent recognised at school, Alicia left home at 15 to take up a place at art college in Lithuania. “My parents weren’t at all happy. I was a bright girl; for them, success meant being a doctor or a lawyer. But I was stubborn.”
The transition was a daunting one, nevertheless: “It was a big border to cross; this was a time when there were tanks on the streets of Lithuania. And I was only 15. Looking back, that seems so young. Yet I was determined never to complain.”
A place at Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts followed. Despite doing a post-grad in industrial product design, Alicia continued to paint prolifically and, over a 17-year career in Eastern Europe, found both critical acclaim and a fan following for her work. Among her proudest achievements was a solo show at Arka, the famed gallery in Vilnius.
Then, having married a Brit and had her two children, life brought Alicia to the UK and her second career, in interior design. After doing a course at Chelsea School of Art, she launched her own business, A Z Interiors, four years ago, and has been in demand ever since.
Offering everything from two-hour at-home consultations to whole-house refurbishments – she’s currently working on a £2.5 million renovation project in Oxford – Alicia says she draws inspiration from both the personality of the property (“Is it Victorian, from the Seventies, a new-build?”) and the personality of its owners (“How do they use the space? Do they like colour? And pattern?”).
Again, her own home is a calling card. The interiors scheme doffs its cap to the property’s Sixties/Seventies heritage – take the ochre, grey and green in the palette, the orange glass pendant shade above the master bed, the splay-legged retro dining chairs. But it’s full of Alicia too, from her artwork on the walls to oriental accessories; Japan is her “absolute favourite place”.
Working on corporate as well as domestic schemes, Alicia has just completed a communal office space for Cambridge Intelligence. The walls alone are a triumph, sectioned into tufty living moss tiles, 3D plywood art, and stacks of cute cubbyholes for stools. The office is housed in a windowless basement. From the photos, you’d never know.
Storage is key to a successful interior, adds Alicia, opening a hidden door, camouflaged with wallpaper, to reveal her utility and coat room, and pulling open a plain-fronted kitchen cabinet, concealing the microwave and other sundries, which would otherwise be cluttering the counters.
“I absolutely love what I do,” she adds. “I have a great creative balance between designing interiors for other people and making art with complete freedom. The two go hand in hand, I think: there’s art in interior design, and art is often the finishing touch for a design, too.”
Though leaving Warsaw was an initial wrench, Alicia says Cambridge is now “very much home”. With the city centre mere minutes away, and lovely, leafy Trumpington Meadows behind her house, she’s in the perfect town-meets-country spot. “I live in a beautiful place and I’m able to make my living doing what I love: I think I’m very lucky.”
Senior Editor, Velvet Magazine