Kassina Folstad is paving her own path with design studio and shop Hello Norden.
Sitting in the black-walled office of her St. Paul home, architectural and interior designer Kassina Folstad oozes an effortless cool. Her wavy hair is pushed casually atop her head, just grazing her slate gray Guns N’ Roses T-shirt. In the portrait on her website, Folstad is sporting big glasses and a bold lip; today, she’s fresh faced yet looking just as enigmatic. And if it wasn’t for the occasional coughing fit (she has a cold), one would think her gravelly voice just another layer to her self-described outlier status.
Though Folstad characterizes herself as both modest and introverted, she speaks about her business and personal life with a measured self-assurance. It’s well deserved. In seven years as owner and principal designer at Hello Norden, a Minneapolis design studio and shop, she’s staked her place in the industry through a distinct business offering and rugged Northern style.
That Folstad found her way into this work has much to do with her upbringing in Mahtomedi in a family of building hobbyists. “Nights and weekends, they would build their own homes,” she says of her parents and uncles. Over the years, their impact added up. “On the street that we lived on, for example, my family built, probably, I would say around 10 of the houses,” Folstad says.
When a young Folstad, known then as Sina Zimmerman, wasn’t biking around town, drinking root beer floats at Four Seasons or playing competitively in the local soccer league, she recalls the long days helping her family build homes and cabins from the ground up. “There’s video footage of my cousin and me being on the second floor of the house, no railings of course … just hammering nails in the subfloor,” Folstad says. “It was just kind of a cool family thing.”
Building a Business
The skills honed over the decades, from both her family and schooling (Folstad has degrees in computer science and visual communications/business from the University of St. Thomas) have given her a unique perspective when it comes to home and interior design. “It bred a lot of hard work,” she says.
Though she spent years in advertising and as an independent consultant doing large program development, Folstad never stopped pursuing the family trade in her free time. “I bought my own first house when I was 25 and ripped the roof off it, put a second story on it and completely changed the main level layout,” she says.
But it wasn’t until complications arose during the birth of her daughter in 2015 that Folstad considered capitalizing on her building and design skills.
“I started [Hello Norden] out of necessity when my daughter nearly died in childbirth,” Folstad says. After the traumatic birth experience, her daughter spent the first weeks of her life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Minnesota and later spent months in and out of appointments with a handful of specialists. The emotional toll and financial strain of the situation led Folstad to pivot the course of her life and career to support her daughter.
“I suffered a lot with the trauma of what happened to my daughter. I was just a deer in the headlights for the first three years because I just had to make money,” Folstad says. “I just had to make it work.”
Initially, Folstad would walk through homes with Realtors and potential buyers, giving them ideas and renovation dollar amounts on the fly. When the home sold, she was hired to do the work. A year in, she was doing $100,000 projects. “It didn’t surprise me because that’s literally what I did my whole life, so I thought, ‘Cool, here we go!’” Folstad says.
Homes that Heal
Though Hello Norden’s scope has changed in the years since—now honing in on complete architectural and interior transformations—the presence of mind and heart in her designs stems from this origin story.
“When something happens to the magnitude of what happened to me, it changes you forever and makes you appreciate life,” Folstad says. She simplified her approach to work and life in Hello Norden’s first years, tuning into what made her feel whole. But still, months and years later, Folstad was experiencing symptoms that she would later find out were physical manifestations of her trauma.
“I was becoming really sensitive to noises and lights and sounds and stuff, and then I noticed that I was designing spaces in certain ways, but I didn’t understand why at the time,” Folstad says. Her friend, who worked as a trauma therapist, was the one to suggest that what Folstad was experiencing was due to her trauma. The pieces all came together.
“What I’ve been learning is that the way that I approach design is from a nervous system regulating standpoint,” Folstad says. “I was applying all these design principles that I didn’t have a name for them, but they were ways to design spaces that felt good for me.” All of Folstad’s signature detail-oriented processes—specific light placement and dimming, acoustics, safe window and door locations, soft-edged furnishings, organic and monochromatic colors, shapes and textural layers—bring a sense of control, comfort and safety as much as aesthetic.
“I apply my principles to every project, more overtly in certain ones than others,” Folstad says. “… Every human has experienced some stressor and trauma in their life, so it helps everybody.”
While much of Folstad’s work revolves around interior transformations, she’s equally attentive to nervous system-informed design principles in furnishings and décor. At the Hello Norden offices and shop in Minneapolis, new and reimagined offerings include heirloom quality pieces with an edge—think antique wool rugs, leather club chairs, sheepskin throws and rustic coffee tables—all with a heart for anti-consumerism and eco-friendly design. Folstad has also curated a collection of kitchen and dining, home décor, apothecary and bed and bath products. “I want to be that go-to space for people looking for a highly-curated aesthetic,” Folstad says.
Since opening the Hello Norden shop in January 2016, Folstad has worked even further to bring more of her unique style to visitors through her Misfits of Creation line of reimagined home furnishings. The pieces, antiques and odd-balls made anew in Folstad’s creative vision, are statement-makers reflective of her signature mountain modern aesthetic.
“I use a lot of vintage and really sort of unique shapes that are not for the masses … You don’t see anything in my designs that you just would be able to point to and say, ‘I know where they got that,’” Folstad says. “We’re highly custom, highly textural, and, so to me, it was just sort of a natural extension to be able to carry all of these pieces that have a story and that, a lot of them are one of a kind.”
And now, Folstad is expanding Hello Norden’s offerings to include a custom furniture line available to both designers and homeowners. The products will be made in the U.S. and sold online and in store with a predetermined selection of colors and sizes. But, ever the creative, Folstad wants to make it possible for clients to get their exact vision with this new line.
“We will also accept customer-owned materials,” Folstad says. “Any designers can come to us—or even homeowners, too—if somebody just wants to come into the shop, we have tons of fabrics there, and we can do anything, really. Sky’s the limit.”
At the end of the day, Folstad is just hoping to help others create a space that feels entirely their own. “The spaces that you live in should tell a story, and it should tell your story. I don’t want to walk into a place and know the stores that you got things from or to have it look like anything else [or] other people,” Folstad says. “Make your space unique and tell a story … it’s going to make you more proud to live in it.”
“My company name, Hello Norden … Norden is German and Scandinavian for north, and so it’s sort of a play on words. Hello is just to give you that sense of easygoing, approachable, and Norden … clearly we’re the northernmost state, but also my aesthetic is very Northern, so it’s always going to make you feel like you can cozy up and put your feet on a coffee table. All of our spaces feel that way,” Folstad says.