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Posts Tagged ‘House’

Hibernate, beautifully — 10 easy ways to feather your nest

In antiques, art, beauty, behavior, culture, design, domestic life, life, Style on January 2, 2014 at 2:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Yes, that headline is a mixed metaphor…

Long-time readers of Broadside know that one of my obsessions loves is interior design, which I studied full-time for a while at the New York School of Interior Design, a life-changing experience.

Before stepping into their classrooms, I thought, “How hard can it be?”

I stepped out, (with a stellar GPA, yay!) with a deep, abiding respect for the true challenges of making any space safe, welcoming, beautiful — and usually on a budget. We learned to mix color from scratch, envision rooms from the floor to the ceiling and design an entire room within a week and learn every iteration of interiors from ancient Egypt to the 20th century in Historical Styles, (which every student calls Hysterical Styles.)

Luckily, my husband allows me pretty much free rein in our 1,000 square foot apartment and is mellow enough to not freak out if he comes home to find the furniture re-arranged, again. After 25 years in the same space, you have to make a few tweaks.

In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s frrrrrrreezing for the next few months, so staying in and loving your home is a great choice.

Here are ten simple suggestions to help you feather your nest:

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Bring in nature!

Even in deepest winter, there is color and texture out there for the cutting — bittersweet, greenery, curly willow. I splurge every week for fresh flowers, even $5 or $7 for a fresh lily.

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Add some patina

This battered old stool sits in our small bathroom, holding a metal bowl my Dad brought home from Israel — that holds soap, creams, toothpaste. Both the bowl and the wood add a nice mix of textures and age. Even the slickest and most modern space can accommodate something weathered and worn, a bit of history.

Include symmetry and repetition

Here’s a small shelf in our dining room. The shelf was originally deep blue and hung in our bathroom but was the perfect shape, size and scale for this space as well. (Hint: re-purpose! Move stuff from room to room and repaint as needed.) The two pierced lanterns cost $13.50 each, bought at Tao Foods in Minneapolis in October 2012. (It’s why I keep my eyes peeled everywhere I travel; you never know where you’ll find the next affordable treasure!) The pierced sterling salt cellars were our wedding gift from my father. I like how the circles echo one another, as does the pierced metal, one dull and mottled, one shiny.

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Go through all your cellphone snaps and Instagram images — and frame some!

I took this shot in May 2013 while visiting the Grand Canyon. I keep meaning to frame it, but haven’t yet.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

Here’s one I did frame, taken looking up a staircase on the Ile St. Louis in Paris a few years ago. It sits a few feet away from the pierced lanterns and salt cellars (repeating the theme of pierced, patterned metal.)

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Combine practical and pretty, whenever possible

When we renovated our kitchen and nearby pantry, I designed a breakfast bar, a spot for our juicer and toaster and coffee filters. I had bought the wooden tray years earlier and found the metal holder in a Vermont antique shop. I had no idea what to use it for, but it all came together nicely.

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If you’re living far from your home town or country, keep a few fun reminders of your native culture in view

I found this funny wooden box in Toronto, on Queen Street West, as well as this great old tea tin, with Peterborough and Toronto on the label — where dear friends live and where I grew up. I use both containers in our kitchen. Neither cost more than $20.

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Splurge on a fabric upgrade and/or welting

This, I admit, was a splurge — but one we enjoy every single day during the fall and winter; (we change our throw pillow covers in the spring and summer.) The sage green velvet sofa from Crate and Barrel is easily a decade old, and the original welting was literally worn through. It looked horrible and I struggled for a while to determine a solution. I went back to my trusty fabric supplier (in Rhode Island, discovered on vacation there years ago), who chose this terrific rust-toned linen and made new finger-width welting for the two back and seat cushions. I sent her the striped silk, (bought here on sale a year ago), and had her make 22-inch throw pillows. I wanted a luxurious mix of fabrics (velvet, silk, linen, cotton) while repeating the same colors: deep red, pale green, rich yellow. Total cost for that fabulousness — less than half the price of a new sofa. Score!

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Add color and pattern, preferably playing off one another

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The John Robshaw napkins were found on sale at Gracious Home in Manhattan, the $13 tablecloth at HomeSense. Purple, gray, silver and white was the color scheme I chose, (in candles, napkins, dishes and glasses) for our Christmas meal. We never use paper napkins. I love the color, sensuality and durability of cotton or linen! Good quality cloth napkins can last for many years.

Customize!

I bought these boring white frames from Pottery Barn and painted them a custom color. I added a museum postcard and gift wrap

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Let your softer side show

I may be a tough old New York journo, but these guys keep me smiling on the roughest days. The bunny was a pre-op gift from Jose. I gave him the brown bear. The battered old white bear has been in my life since I was very small. The pig and elephant were found at Dan & Whit’s in Norwich, Vermont in 1989 or so; they made excellent travel companions, sitting on the dashboard, when I made my first solo trip to the Grand Canyon. (No whining!) The small Steiff black and white bear I’ve had for many decades; I found the small enamel panda last year in a Tucson shop. Jose gave me the wooden walrus and the monkey. My friend Sarah, a fellow journalist in Arizona, sent me the octopus.

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Here are the top 20 posts from 2013, from one of my go-to design sites, Apartment Therapy. You’ll find lots of great ideas and inspiration here.

A beautiful home nourishes us — 10 ways to nurture yours

In antiques, art, beauty, business, culture, design, domestic life, life, Style, urban life on November 30, 2013 at 12:18 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it:
Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe
to be beautiful.”―
William Morris
Chinese Jade ornament with flower design, Jin ...

Chinese Jade ornament with flower design, Jin Dynasty (1115-1234 AD), Shanghai Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the few architecture blogs I read is from Alabama firm McAlpine Tankersley. I love their designs, even though the mega-mansions and second homes they are hired to create are far beyond my reach financially.

A recent post:

Architects and Interior Designers are in the business of affecting the physical plane of our world by producing a scape that can be seen and touched – lived in and on.  Integral to its success is the layering of texture, tones, and the reflection and refraction of shades of light and dark.  Depth and scale of shape in measured doses to elicit a calculated response…

Our sensual experiences have a physiological response by stilling our minds, calming our hearts and relieving stresses.

Great beauty has the power to relax and center our energy and emotions.  Lowering our internal pressures free us to see more clearly and calmly.  It is always a goal to create a meditative space that is restorative in nature, a space that you feel better in and are compelled to linger through.

…Beauty can be a retreat for healing.  Luxury is a tonic for the soul.

As someone who has seriously studied antiques, art and interior design, these words deeply resonate with me.

I spent much of my childhood at boarding school — brown metal beds, chenille bedspreads, weathered floral wallpaper, linoleum floors — and summer camp. Living with other people’s institutional aesthetic choices has left me with a fairly ferocious desire to make every place I live in lovely, welcoming and, as Susan writes here eloquently, a retreat for healing.

Journalism is also a business often conducted in atrocious working conditions: noisy, filthy, crowded and/or filled with stress, whether financial or professional. By the time my husband staggers in the door after a long day and a long train/taxi commute, he’s ready to be soothed!

I loved studying design seriously, understanding why some colors and proportions are inherently beautiful and others jarring and wearying. In our color class, we were taught the color scale and how to use shades and tones. In our materials class, we learned the relationships between textures and how to use them safely and elegantly.

It doesn’t matter if “home” is a small dorm room or a trailer or an apartment or a house. It’s what you make of it.

Here are some ways to create beauty in your home:

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The bouquet above cost $30 — a splurge, for sure — but provided enough material for bouquets in three rooms that will last for at least two weeks.

Fresh flowers, a plant or some branches

Unless I’m totally skint, every week includes a bouquet of fresh flowers or greenery from my local florist. No, it’s not a necessity, but what a lovely touch to have even one bright pink gerbera, the tart scent of eucalyptus or some branches of curly willow. I also stock up on Oasis (florists’ foam) which can turn any water-tight container into a vase and frogs (glass and metal holders that fit into a low or flat container), easily found in thrift shops and flea markets. Or — take your kitchen shears and find some bittersweet or holly growing wild.

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I found these pierced-metal lanterns for an unlikely $13 each in a cafe in Minneapolis.

Candles, votives and/or tea-lights

Not a day goes by that I don’t light a candle, or several, usually as we sit down to dinner. It creates a totally different mood from any other sort of illumination. Instead of leaping out of bed on a cold, dark winter’s morning, take five minutes to light a small bedside candle.

Fresh towels or linens

Even a new $5 dishtowel, in a fun pattern or color, can cheer up your kitchen. I find unusual shams, sheets, coverlets and pillowcases like this gorgeous floral duvet cover at Anthropologie and these super towels in a blue and white pattern from Zara Home.

Three or four sources of light per room — and overheads only in bathroom, hall and kitchen

Think about the most soothing and beautiful interiors you’ve been in. They may have been in a hotel or restaurant, where professionals have seriously considered how to create a mood using light and darkness. There are different kinds of lighting, (task, overhead, floor lamp, table lamp) as well as different colors of bulb. Three-way bulbs allow for different levels of brilliance. Overhead lighting — especially fluorescent — is often depressing, unflattering and too dim to be useful. If you can afford it, consider adding dimmers to every overhead light.

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On my desk, I’ve layered a 19th-century woven wool paisley shawl underneath a Peruvian manta.

This hand-embroidered vintage linen tablecloth perfectly covers our headboard.

This hand-embroidered vintage linen tablecloth perfectly covers our headboard.

Vintage textiles

My passion! Few items add as much character and warmth to an interior as an early hand-made quilt, gently worn vegetable-dye rug, embroidered linen napkins or pillowcases. You can easily find vintage fabrics on-line through EBay and Etsy, as well as flea markets and antique shows. If you know how to sew, whip up some throw pillows or a tablecloth.

Scent

It might be a scented candle or lavender sachets tucked between your linens or your sweaters. I love making sachets from vintage textile scraps. (Also great to toss into your suitcase!)

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Lovely flatware

You can find great old things for pennies. We use mis-matched silver plate I’ve found in flea markets everywhere I travel. A bottle of silver polish will restore them to a soft gleam.

A piece of pottery

It might be a spoon-rest or a teapot or a bowl. Having a useful object made by someone’s hands is a great reminder that not everything in our homes has to be made cheaply by overseas labor. I recently wrote to the Ontario potter who made this teapot, which Jose bought for me in Toronto years ago, just to thank him for adding such beauty to our lives.

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Vary the shapes and sizes of your objects and furniture

Is everything you own shaped like a square or rectangle: (sofa, tables, rugs, bed)? Add some curves! A round or oval mirror, a round or demi-lune side or console table, even a long, narrow runner in the hallway will mix things up. An over-sized round lantern or bowl can change the look of a table or chest of drawers.

Pools of darkness, to add mystery

Obviously not in places that need to be very well-illuminated for your safety, like stairs, kitchen or bathroom. But the most alluring spaces have a feeling of discovery or mystery. I found my small, dimmable uplighter lamp at Home Depot for a big $13.05.  This once-dead corner of our living room now contains a round covered table, on it two marble garden ornaments, an antique planter and a pierced metal lantern found on sale at Pier One. The Victorian mirror was an antique store find in small-town Ontario.

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What do you remember of your childhood home(s)?

In aging, beauty, behavior, children, culture, domestic life, family, life on October 26, 2013 at 1:10 am

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Carl Nielsen outside his childhood ho...

English: Carl Nielsen outside his childhood house at Nørre Lyndelse, Funen, Denmark in 1927 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This writer, a columnist for the weekend Financial Times, Harry Eyres, is one of my favorite writers. He recently wrote a poignant piece about emptying his childhood home and finally leaving it for the last time:

Strangely, I dreaded the loss of the house from a very early age. I had nightmares about it.

Leaving a
house you love is hard. Relinquishing a house where you grew up from
your earliest childhood, where you spent your first springs, summers,
autumns, winters, every one of whose corners, cupboards, creaking
staircases, floorboards and smells became almost like an extension of
your being, is harder still…

We bade farewell to the house on a perfect golden September day,
which started misty and hazy and rather mysterious before the sun broke
through. Some people had told me that it would be easier to leave the
house when it was empty, as it would have lost many of its most personal
connotations, pieces of furniture, even curtains. But I did not find it
so.

The house seemed just as beautiful as ever to me on the day of our
departure. In some ways even more beautiful, as being emptied of
furniture can restore a certain youthfulness and sense of possibility to
a dwelling. The upstairs spare room, which had become a sort of dump
before I cleared it out, hadn’t looked so inviting for decades.

We, three generations and a stalwart family friend, had a sunny
picnic on the raised terrace outside the front door, sitting on the low
wall rising up from the hydrangea beds, as there were no longer any
chairs.

I’ve only lived in a few houses with my parents, at least those I can recall.

There was one in London, when I was very small, then one in Toronto, a big brick house with a deep backyard and my bedroom at the very top, where I lay in bed and listened to the radio. I knew my mother was climbing the stairs when I heard her ankles popping. There were brilliant yellow forsythia bushes outside the kitchen window I used to call “for cynthia” — my mother’s name.

When my parents split up, and I was about seven, that was the end of that house. I miss it still.

I didn’t live in another house until eleventh grade, when I moved in with my father into a white brick house on a Toronto corner. There was a lilac tree just outside the kitchen door and a huge park behind our yard where our dog would get out and run in circles really fast, usually whenever I was having a party and it was the last thing I wanted to deal with.

Since then, after leaving that house when I was in university, I’ve never owned one nor have my parents stayed very long in any of theirs, usually only for a few years, scooping up a healthy profit, and moving into yet another. I watch the houses come and go, envious they’ve even owned a house, let alone several. I wonder if I ever will.

My father had a 200+ year-old house in Athenry, just outside Galway City, for a few years, that’s now a nursing home. I loved my few brief visits there, scything the lawn and staring out through its ancient, rippled glass panes.

When I return to visit Toronto, I often drive past that white brick house. It doesn’t look much different, even all these years later.

Jose’s childhood home was torn down and is now the Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The only remainder of his life there is a tiny courtyard and the apricot tree from whose fruit his late mother once made jam.

Do you remember your childhood home?

Is it still there?

Twenty reasons I (still) love my home, 23 years later

In beauty, behavior, domestic life, life, Style, urban life on August 25, 2012 at 9:32 pm

I’ve never lived in one home this long. Ever.

Growing up in Toronto, between the ages of 3 and 30, when I left, I lived in three houses and four apartments, none of which I owned.

Between September 1982 and June 1989, I moved from Toronto-Paris-Toronto (different apartment)-Montreal-rural New Hampshire-New York.

Enough!

I moved into this one-bedroom suburban New York apartment in June 1989. It was the absolute most we could afford to buy, assuming we’d be moving into a house within a few years as my first husband’s income improved.

Not quite. Finally solvent after years of medical training, he left the apartment and the marriage within two years of our wedding. Sweet!

I stayed, damn glad I’d insisted on the pre-nuptial agreement that made sure I could.

I’m writing this on our balcony. The wind is blowing. A helicopter just buzzed straight overhead, low. I can hear crickets, and the low hum of traffic on the bridge a mile away.

Here’s why I’m still (surprisedly) happy to be here:

It’s been my emotional anchor. Since we moved in, ripping out all the ugly cat-pee-stinky carpeting, I’ve been married and divorced and remarried. I’ve had four surgeries, won and lost well-paid jobs, sold two books. Put my dog to sleep. This familiar space has comforted me with unchanging stability through it all.

The view. A tree is finally growing into our terrific view of the Hudson River. My next door neighbor and I are plotting how to trim it without having to plead hopelessly with the co-op board.

The breeze. On all but the hottest days, a delicious breeze blows through our windows, atop a high hill.

Top floor! 

The pool. I see its turquoise glimmer beckoning me through the trees. It makes me feel wealthy indeed to have access to a pool — and not have to take care of it.

Can you see it?

Wildlife. The other night a very large coyote stood barely 20 feet from me in our parking lot. Deer routinely graze on our lawn, and we hear raccoons often. We even have enormous wild turkeys on our street. All this so close to New York we can see the Empire State Building from our street.

Good neighbors. When you stay a long, long time in one spot, you get to know, like and trust — you hope! — a few of your neighbors. Here’s an essay I wrote in 2008 about my building for The New York Times.

A sense of history. I’ve seen tiny babies, once held football style in the hallways here, go off to college. I still remember, well, many of our older residents who’ve left, a few for nursing homes and far too many to the cemetery.

It’s my ever-evolving design lab. I studied interior design in the 1990s, and have changed the wall colors here many times. The front hallway began a brilliant lemon yellow, paled to a softer version, was coral for a few years and is now, best of all, a Farrow & Ball color, Gervase Yellow. My bedroom walls have gone from sponge-painted Greek taverna-wall blue to aqua to a soft gray. (If you want to make a serious, fantastic investment in your home, try F & B paint. It’s costly, but worth every penny.)

Our bathroom. Love it. I designed every inch of it — all 5 x 7 feet — from the curved wall-mounted wooden vanity to the mirror I had made by re-purposing an antique Chinese frame. Our new tub is 21 inches deep. Heaven!

Sunsets. They’re simply amazing, every one more beautiful than the rest.

An ever-changing weather movie. We see snow, hail, rain and even occasional tornados as they move south or east towards us across the Hudson River. Some mornings the fog is so thick we can’t even see our own parking lot. It’s a New York version of the classic 1857 woodblock by Hiroshige of a yudachi, a sudden summer downpour.

See what I mean?!

Low-maintenance. In the summer, our balcony plants need watering. But rarely do we need to spend for the plumber, electrician or a professional plaster and paint touch-up. I prefer having the additional time, physical energy and cash this allows.

Light! I thrive on natural light, and with large windows facing northwest, no tall buildings nearby and none ever likely to be erected, this is never an issue. Especially working at home, even the gloomiest days are not oppressive.

Less money needed for furniture/curtains/electronics/art. I’d rather own fewer, better things than inhabit a huge space that’s half-empty or jammed with junk. Living in a smaller space forces us to edit carefully, choosing only what we value, use and that truly delights our eye.

Seasonal decor. Our living room looks very different in summer than winter, as we switch out colors, designs and materials, (like a scarlet kilim rug for a white catalogne; red and yellow paisley pillow covers for white and emerald green.) It saves wear and tear on our things and gives us a fresh look to enjoy. We also move our art — photos, drawings, prints, lithos, paintings and posters — from room to room, sometimes (gallery style) putting some away for a few years so we can appreciate them anew.

A good layout. I should be sick of the same four walls. But with six discrete areas in 1,000 square feet — seven in summer with the 72 square foot balcony — I very rarely feel cramped.

We’re not “underwater.” We’re not making out like bandits, but we have equity in our home and a fixed mortgage rate that’s decent. It’s deeply un-American to stay put, and not keep moving up into larger, costlier housing.  I do sometimes long to inhabit a house again. But knowing we can weather almost every financial storm and not lose our home to some toxic mortgage or sudden jump in property taxes offers comfort in these times of such financial insecurity.

Our stone walls. The property once belonged to a wealthy land-owner who built deep, thick stone walls with jagged edges facing the street. When covered with a layer of snow, they look exactly like a row of teeth!

It’s affordable. While our monthly costs, of mortgage and co-op fees combined, might seem high to some people, they’re crazy low for New York, where $5,000 a month or more is fairly normal for a mortgage, even some rents. I was single and freelance from 1996 to 2001, and could still handle the cost, with the added benefit  of never facing a sudden rent increase or forced sale.

How do you feel about your home?

A whole house to myself

In behavior, cities, culture, design, domestic life, life, urban life on June 30, 2012 at 1:35 am
Herbert Storey Cottage, Westfield War Memorial...

Herbert Storey Cottage, Westfield War Memorial Village, Lancaster (after 1924) (Photo credit: pellethepoet)

I haven’t lived in a house since 1988.

Even then it wasn’t a whole house, just our ground-floor apartment in a house at 42 Green Street in Lebanon, NH. I grew up in a few houses (interspersed with apartments) in Toronto and Montreal, but have never owned or rented one myself.

In NH, I loved the 1930s-era pull-out wooden cutting board in the kitchen. I liked having a lawn and a lot of room between us and the neighbors. I liked that our dog, a small terrier named Petra, could safely roam the quiet street for hours.

For the month of June, first at my Dad’s, then house-sitting, I’ve been living in a whole house. I’m now at a hotel for three nights — then back home to 1,000 square feet, no stairs, one door to enter and one to the balcony.

Houses are complicated!

Multiple doors, and stairs and a back yard and a front yard and a garden and garage and a driveway. (My Dad, typically, turned his garage into a painting studio and most of his gravel driveway into a garden. Kellys are like that.)

I’ve lived in the same one-bedroom apartment, (with such crappy closet space that I need a garage and storage lockers for things like skis, luggage, old paint, out-of-season clothing), since 1989 when I bought it, thinking, up and out to a house within a few years.

As if.

The doctor husband bailed just as he stopped being broke — and I started to. I’ve been there ever since. My second husband, then beau, moved in with me in the fall of 2001. His official moving day — seriously — was 9/11. He told the movers to come back in a week; his quick thinking on that day of terror helped The New York Times win their Pulitzer prize for news photography.

Our home isn’t large, and I also work there. But we have a great river view from the top floor, a balcony, pool, tennis court and a garage. It’s light and quiet and our monthly costs still low enough we save decently for retirement and travel. There are times I feel trapped and claustrophobic, but I value the freedom if offers me to write for a living without panicking over the monthly mortgage.

A house anywhere nearby, (in the northern suburbs of New York City), would cost $300,000+ (plus at least $12,000 a year in property taxes) — usually for an un-renovated 1,200 square foot 1950s box with a postage stamp lot. No thanks!

We could afford something battered 90 to 120 minutes’ train or car ride further north, in a much more rural area, or the decades-long burden of a huge mortgage payment. I prefer quick and easy access to Manhattan — I can be parked near the Metropolitan Museum within 40 minutes.

For the past month, I’ve enjoyed the temporary luxury of multiple bathrooms on every floor, a kitchen big enough to swing a cat in, (good thing there’s only a dog here), not to mention a walk-in closet bigger than my only (5 by 7 foot) bathroom at home. Room to keep an ironing board permanently set up.

But the responsibility!

The one I house-sat has huge gardens that needed a lot of watering in a heat wave, and a pool requiring daily attention — which paid staff do at our apartment building.

I prefer sitting very still, with a frosty G & T and a glossy magazine.

Do you live in a house?

Do you enjoy it?

What Do You Love About Your Home?

In beauty, cities, design, domestic life, life, Style, urban life on July 9, 2011 at 11:46 am
The Hudson River

I love the Palisades! And I really love watching barges on the Hudson river...Image via Wikipedia

My favorite shelter blog, Apartment Therapy, recently asked this question and got, of course, some terrific and inspiring answers.

I’ve lived since 1989 — much to my shock — in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in the suburbs of New York. I didn’t plan on any of that; the plan, with my then husband, was to stay for a while, then as our incomes improved, move into something larger, probably a house. But he was gone within a few years and I’m still here.

Yes, there are times I long for a second room, an office, a guest room, a second bathroom, a backyard.

But it offers some things I really like:

lovely landscaping, with mature trees and a gorgeous Japanese maple right outside our front door

a pool and tennis court

a northwest view of the Hudson River impeded only by the tree-tops, from the top floor

our balcony, all 80 square feet of it

lots of light

quiet neighbors

the only sounds are raccoons, hawks, birds and the occasional coyote

our lovely newly-renovated bathroom, with a handmade copper sink we scored in Mexico for $32 and hand-made tile we bought in Paris

watching all sorts of river traffic

on July 4, being able to watch the fireworks from six towns at once on both sides of the Hudson

best of all, (not the home itself), I can be in midtown Manhattan within 45 minutes’ train or drive

What do you like best about your home?

House Lust, The Subject of Meghan Daum's New Book

In Uncategorized, urban life on May 5, 2010 at 11:07 pm
ELIZABETH, NJ - JUNE 20:  Members of the publi...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

She’s been writing funny and revealing stuff about her life for a long time — once famously confessing in The New Yorker that she couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan; that piece became the title of her book of essays,“My Misspent Youth.”

Her new book “Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House” has a title that sums it up.

It’s the American Dream. (That’s one of those phrases Americans — and their realtors — take for granted. There is no corresponding Korean or French or Canadian “dream” of owning your own home, preferably a little colonial with a lawn and a backyard. Other countries don’t allow mortgage interest as a tax deduction.)

Writes Virginia Postrel:

The fantasy of a life transformed is what makes the ads and features in interiors magazines so enticing—no fashion or celebrity magazine glamorizes its subjects as thoroughly as Architectural Digest or Elle Decor—and what gives HGTV’s low-budget shows their addictive appeal. The longing for the perfect life in the perfect environment can make real-estate listings and “For Sale” signs as evocative as novels. This domestic ideal gives today’s neighborhoods of foreclosed or abandoned houses their particular emotional punch. A stock-market bubble may create financial hardship, but a housing bust breaks hearts.

Although Ms. Daum did buy a house in 2004 and watched its value rise and then fall, her self-deprecatingly funny memoir isn’t a tale of real-estate speculation. Rather she uses her lifelong obsession with finding the ideal living space to probe domestic desire, a deeper restlessness than the search for quick profits.

Whether because of alienation or ambition, Ms. Daum’s family, when she was growing up (first in Austin, Texas, and then in New Jersey), shared “a chronic, lulling sensation of being aboard a train that was perpetually two stops away from the destination we had in mind for ourselves.” That feeling manifested itself in a “perpetual curiosity about what possibilities for happiness might lie at the destination of a moving van.” The result was a childhood filled with weekend trips to visit open houses, dinner-time conversations about relocation and, in Ms. Daum’s teenage years, her mother’s sudden move to her own home: “four walls whose color scheme required approval from no one. It wasn’t another man she wanted but another life.” (Ms. Daum’s parents did not divorce.)

I’ve been living in the same one bedroom apartment since 1989. Will I ever own a house? Not anywhere near I live now — a nasty little shoebox with .25 of an acre on a busy street would run me $500,000 with $12,000 a year in taxes. I’m hoping to buy one, or at least rent one, in France in retirement, and living in 1,000 square feet (about the size of an affordable house in my town) allows me the extra cash to fly to France in the meantime.

My Dad has been scouting houses in coastal Maine, trying to figure out what to do with his. I know a house is a major dream for millions of people and you need a space with room(s) for kids and their toys and pets and activities. We lived in a house when I was little, and when I was in high school, but, other than my rental on the top two floors of a Toronto house, and our rented apartment in an old house in rural New Hampshire, it’s been apartment living since then for me.

There are some amazing houses in my town, one, a huge shingled Queen Anne painted the pale pink of strawberry ice cream with green shutters and several with wisteria trees snaking up across their verandahs and eaves. There are one or two I would love to live in, but could never afford them.

I really love our apartment. I’ve re-painted it a bunch of times, especially since attending interior design school. We have astonishing views northwest up the Hudson and I have hawks and geese and crows swooshing so low over my top-floor balcony I can hear the wind through their wings. I love the light and quiet and feel blessed to own my own home. Its small-ish size and manageable mortgage makes me feel safe, even while working in an industry shuddering through insane and terrifying changes.

I basically see a house as a money pit, something that endlessly needs upgrades and repairs, mugging you financially when you can least afford it — new boiler! new roof! new driveway!

How about you? Do you love your house?

When Volunteering Fails: A Cautionary Tale

In behavior, US on January 10, 2010 at 9:44 am
Helping Hand

Image by Jeff Kubina via Flickr

Fellow T/Ser Michael Salmonowicz blogged recently about the need for, and the power of, volunteerism. There’s no question that choosing to offer your time, skills, intelligence and compassion to someone in need — and that someone might be, or have been, you as well — is the right choice.

It’s the moral choice. What if it doesn’t work out?

My goal is not to dissuade anyone from doing it, but my experience of being a Big Sister was sadly instructive and left me very wary of making such a commitment again. That quite likely deprives me, and others, of some good results.

We rarely hear about the ones that don’t work out because, after all, the idea is to encourage volunteerism, not scare people off.

I became a Big Sister in 1997 or so, handed into a relationship with a 13-year-old Hispanic girl I’ll call Pilar. She lived in a small, crowded, squalid house in my county, a mere 15 minute drive away but might have been in another country. Her mother had disappeared five years earlier and she and her younger brother were being raised by their grandmother, a woman of astonishing ability to lie, spin, deceive and manipulate. But it took me a while to learn this.

I liked Pilar from the first minute we met. Feisty enough to be fun but sweet enough to be likable, she said she wanted to become a writer. We spent about a year and a half together, seeing one another every three weeks or so, as mandated by our agreement.  I took her sailing with friends — her first time on the water, she learned quickly and eagerly. Same thing on the squash court. God bless her, she was game for all sorts of new WASPy adventures.

Sometimes we’d hang out at my apartment or go for drives or just talk.  I took her to her local library one day to work on homework, but she had no idea what a librarian was or how she could help.

By the end of our time together, I decided one way to help her escape the craziness of her home life — lots of shouting, a mother who’d returned suddenly a week after our match and now lived in the basement watching videos all day, junk food, nowhere quiet to read or study — might be boarding school, at a prep school near me that accepts full scholarship students. We went for the meeting, Pilar in her best clothing, her manners eager, awkward. I didn’t even think, I’m ashamed to admit, she’d need coaching for that interview.

They agreed to let her sit in on a full day of classes, to see if there was a fit. She never called, never showed up. I never got an explanation from her family or caseworkers. I had started calling her three days beforehand to help her choose her clothes and talk the day through. No one returned my calls and at 10:00 p.m. the night before, her brother casually mentioned she was at a a relative’s house.

Had she lied to me about her grades? Her eyes lit up when she saw the grounds and buildings of the prep school. “I’d love to go here,” she said that day.

I was, clearly, naive and idealistic. The more I got to know and like her and see her potential, the more I wanted to do to help her get a great education, make new friends, work with her athletic potential, get into college. My family had warned me from the start that this sort of aspirational intrusiveness was dangerous territory.

Her family wanted her as is, even if her granny made a habit of poking Pilar’s belly in front of me, barking “Are you pregnant?”

Only half-way through this increasingly challenging relationship did the caseworker finally admit: “This is one of our toughest families.” You think? Her therapist told me she thought Pilar one of the most manipulative girls she’d met.

Great — liberal, middle-class optimism/guilt/hope meets…what?

Volunteering demands humility. You have no idea, often, what effects — if any — your relationship has on this other person. Should this matter? Matter a lot?

Maybe you teach them a new skill and you can see that happen. But maybe not. If you are a goal-oriented person, this can be confusing.

I often think about Pilar and wonder who and how she is. She’s now in her 20s. Did she ever go to college? Avoid early single motherhood? Is she happy?

I wish I knew.

Here is Michael’s essay in Good magazine.

Sprucing Up Your Castle — On The Cheap

In design, Style on November 7, 2009 at 8:39 pm
Almost a Castle

Time to spruce up the castle...Image by liber via Flickr

As we head into winter, hunkering down into long, dark, cold evenings, now’s a good time  — before the costs and frenzy of the holidays — to consider sprucing up your home, even if you can’t spend much. I once planned to leave journalism and studied full-time at the New York School of Interior Design, some of the most challenging and happiest days of my life. I’m still here, but my passion for design and making my home clean, calm and lovely remains as strong as ever.

Some ideas:

1. Flowers, greenery or a plant add color, texture and life. A bunch of supermarket tulips can cost as little as $8; if you can splurge on several, arrange them in an unusual container — a teapot or low bowl or basket. Florists will sell you a block of Oasis, that green spongy stuff they use in arrangements, and cutting it into the shape and size you need gives you plenty of options.

2. Lighting is the jewelry of a room. How’s yours? If all your lighting is from overhead sources, put as many of them on dimmers as possible. Offbeat, unusual table lamps can be found cheaply in thrift shops, flea markets, consignment shops, yard sales and estate sales. A new, fresh, pretty lampshade can make the difference between chic and shocking; try Pottery Barn or Bed, Bath & Beyond, even Target or KMart for simple choices. Dust all lampshades and bulbs. Over-lit is as depressing as dim.

3. A pair of new, fresh hand towels — $20 to $30 for two — freshens up any bathroom. Thick, plush cotton feels luxurious every time you touch it.

4. How about your bath soap? Quality soap, even at $8 a bar, will last a month and scent the room. Try Roger & Gallet’s scents (the carnation is exquisite) or Maja, an old-school Spanish brand whose olive green bars come wrapped in crisp black tissue paper.

5. A new wooden spoon or sharp kitchen knife can inspire a weary cook, while a few fresh dishtowels can add color and life.

6. Clean! While housework is a miserable chore for some people, a sparkling, fresh-smelling home shouts “Welcome!” A bottle of lavender water, about $12, spritzed onto your pillowcases as you (yes) iron them offers a gentle way to drift off to sleep.

7. A throw rug adds softness, texture, color and pattern. Consider a cozy sheepskin, sisal, a dhurrie or a rag rug. If you live anywhere near a decent regional auction house, check out their offerings in person; the Senneh kilim — an antique flatweave with intricate designs — in our hallway was $50 at one of my favorite spots, William Smith’s in Plainfield, New Hampshire. Most auction houses list their items on-line and you can always call and ask for more details about size or condition.

8. A can of great paint, some rollers and a few hours of your time can totally change a room. Farrow & Ball, a British company whose products are sold internationally offer terrific, interesting colors; Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams also have lovely choices. Check out SW’s Modern Gray, a pale, gentle shade the color of cigarette ash and F & B’s Blazer, a soft red, Gervase Yellow, a pale yellow-green and Babouche, a brilliant, rich, egg-yolk yellow. Put ‘em together with a crisp white — gray and yellow make a gorgeous combination.

9. Make a folding screen. Wood, hinges, glue and a few yards of fabric can be sourced for about $100. I made ours from cream-colored barkcloth and silk obis I found at a vintage textiles fair — it hides our clunky, old, black TV in the corner. This weekend I’m revamping it with striped faux-silk for a new look.

10. Visit a few fab websites, like apartmenttherapy.com for inspiration. Borrow some gorgeous coffee-table design books from your local library, read them slowly and make notes of whatever inspires you most. Start a design file of colors, textures, materials and periods you love, whether mid-century Noguchi, Art Deco, 18th.-century mirrors — or the newly classic Ghost chair, made of clear plastic.

11. New knobs and/or a fresh coat of paint on kitchen or bathroom cabinets can instantly and stylishly change the feel of a room.

12. New cushions, or cushion covers, can add a spot of style to your sofa or loveseat. Here’s a fun sunflower cushion, $35 — a pair would be great. Symmetry and repetition adds punch.

A few favorite sources:

Rugs: Dash & Albert (small, cotton rugs in plaids, stripes and solids); Ballard Designs

Decorative Accessories, like mirrors, small frames, vases, and lighting: Wisteria, Anthropologie, Gumps, Sundance

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