The pleasure of using old things

By Caitlin Kelly

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I know that for some, “old” equals crappy, broken and dirty. Something to ditch and replace as soon as possible.

If you’ve only had other people’s used stuff — and not by choice but through financial necessity — or had to use your own things until they broke or wore out, even after much maintenance and multiple repairs, the allure of antiques may be completely lost on you.

Some things are nicer bought fresh and new, unstained and pristine, (linens, shoes and intimate apparel, for example.)

And if your aesthetic hews modern, then many early styles of silver and wood, glass and ceramic will leave you cold.

Not me!

I love haunting antiques fairs, flea markets, consignment shops and auctions on a treasure hunt. Once you know your stuff, (how a teacup from 1780, 1860 and 1910 differ, for example), you’re set to find some amazing bargains from those who don’t.

Not for me the joys of Ebay or other online sites — I want to see stuff up close, to touch and hold it and know for sure what I’m buying, or not. Practice, lots of looking and study helps. I really enjoy talking to dealers who are as passionate about their stock as I am. I learn something new every time.

New York City, like Paris and London, holds annual antiques fairs, some selling their wares, literally, to museums. Admission is usually $20 or $25, and the quality on offer is astounding. If you love history and the decorative arts, to see and touch Egyptian or Roman objects, or marvel at a medieval manuscript, is a thrill in itself.

The dealers — no matter how wealthy most other shoppers are — are almost always friendly and gracious, even when it’s clear I won’t be pulling out a check with sufficient zeroes on it.

The teacup pictured above is a recent splurge.

I spied the tea-set at a Manhattan fair, in the display case of a British regional dealer whose prices were surprisingly gentle, (unlike the $18,500 ceramic garden stool nearby.)

The set included a teapot, creamer, two serving plates, a bowl and 12 cups and 12 saucers, a rare find all together and all usable except for the teapot, which has a hairline crack inside.

I drink a pot of tea, or several, daily and sit at an 18th century oak table my father gave us. I love 18th century design and this tea-set is likely late 18th or early 19th century. You can tell by its shape and by how light each piece feels in your hand. The bottoms are plain white, unmarked by a maker’s name.

I hadn’t spent that much money on anything fun in many months — only on really boring stuff like physical therapy co-pays and car repairs.

This was just a hit of pure beauty, and one we’ll use every day.

A bit giddy and nervous about making so large a purchase, I sat in the cafe there for a while to ponder, sharing a table with a well-dressed woman a bit older than I, both of us sipping a Diet Coke. One of the pleasures of loving antiques is meeting others who also love them and she was there to add to her collection of armorial porcelain, a specialized niche I know as well.

Turned out — of course! — we were both from Toronto and had both attended the same girls’ school, although she was a decade older than I.

We enjoyed a long and lively conversation and she very generously gave me an extra ticket to the Winter Antiques Fair, which is also on at the same time, which I attended last year, (and where I bought a black and white photo by Finnish legend Pentti Samallahti. The image we now own is in the 6th row down, 2nd from the left. I’m dying to own the third one from the left in that row!)

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Charlotte Bronte’s writing desk

I appreciate the elegance, beauty and craftsmanship of finely made older things and feel honored to own them, wondering who else sat on these chairs and used this table — definitely not while writing on a laptop, but likely a quill pen, writing by candlelight.

Because so many people now disdain “brown furniture” and hate polishing silver, there are some tremendous bargains to be had, all of them costing less than junk made quickly in China.

We’re only passing through.

In their quiet, subtle way, antiques remind us of that.

Light a candle

By Caitlin Kelly

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As I write this post, it’s snowing here in New York.

The world is blessedly silent and softened, flakes swirling in the wind and piling up against our windows and ledges.

Our view of the Hudson River is totally obscured in a blanket of white.

Perfect time for candles!

My vision of candles forever changed about 20 years ago, when I visited Stockholm in late November, when the sun rose at 8:30 a.m. and set around 2:30 p.m.

Darkness arrived so early in the day that it was both unsettling and disorienting.

I’d never before seen businessmen at lunch — dining by candlelight. But it was both a smart way to boost illumination and add to the room’s ambience.

I now start and end my winter days with a bedside scented candle, a gift from a friend.

It’s a soothing start to a dark, cold, windy morning — the scratch of match-head on matchbox, the whoosh and flare of flame, the flicker as it catches the wick and begins to glow.

At night, I breath out, extinguishing it. The day is done.

So much nicer than brilliant, suddenly shocking electric light or, worse, the artificial glow of a tablet, phone, television or computer screen.

(If you ever watched Downtown Abbey on TV, you might recall the Dowager Duchess holding a fan to her face as she confronts the new glare of electric bulbs.)

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Candlelight is silent.

Candlelight is gentle.

Candlelight is timeless.

It reconnects us to the past — from the tallow candles of our ancestors to the elegant tapers of Georgian homes (magnified by enormous mirrors everywhere.)

Try it and see how it alters and softens your mood

As the saying goes — it’s better to light a single candle than curse the darkness.

Charlotte Bronte’s dress!

By Caitlin Kelly

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She was tiny: 4 foot, nine inches, with (when corseted) an 18.5 inch waist.

The dress, white with small blue flowers and a brown velvet collar, stood in a display case with her shoes.

Few items I’ve ever seen in a museum struck me so powerfully as seeing a dress worn by a woman, a fellow author, and a woman who broke every convention of her era — the author of the novel Jane Eyre — and who died at 39 after only nine months of marriage.

The exhibition — which includes her marriage certificate, will and many letters, is on at the Morgan Library, on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, until January 2. If you have a chance, go!

The show fills one room, the walls painted a deep turquoise, with some of her quotations painted on it. It’s small, intimate, deeply personal. Like the best shows of their kind, you come away deeply moved by the artifacts and the life story they tell.

Her determination, in the face of overwhelming odds, resonates with any woman anywhere who feels compelled to write — and to be published — to find a receptive audience for her ideas, no matter how chilly the prospects.

Charlotte and her sisters and brother published their poems and stories under pseudonyms, as no woman of the time could be believed as a legitimate author.

There are tiny, tiny books, the writing illegibly small, she produced as a teenager; the museum, thoughtfully, has magnifying glasses available so you can read them.

(I went to the show with a friend, a fellow woman writer and author. We marveled, gratefully, at the enduring physicality of these precious items, the spidery handwriting, the delicate folds of paper. What, if anything, of the 21st century will survive — a pile of pixels? A stack of printed-out tweets and emails?)

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Her writing desk is modest; she was a clergyman’s daughter living in Yorkshire, not a wealthy woman, not someone with access and power and acres of self-esteem.

Many editions of her work carry a copy of her pastel portrait; shown here for the first time in North America. Also a first, a portrait of Charlotte and her siblings, rough and crude, deeply crackled and bent from being folded and stored for many years before being re-discovered.

Perhaps my favorite item of all is the letter sent from her friend living in New Zealand, exclaiming with delight that Bronte has actually produced a book.

Every writer, everywhere, needs a loving, encouraging friend to cheer loudly and ferociously, when they finally achieve their dream.

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The joy (?!) of housework

By Caitlin Kelly

OK, you think, she’s lost her marbles — for good this time.

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The ikat is for our headboard, the check for side tables

How can anyone enjoy housework?

 

I do.

Here are 10 reasons I enjoy cleaning our home:

  1. Jose — my husband, a photo editor and photographer — and I are now both full-time freelance. That means spending a lot more time, together, in a one-bedroom apartment. It’s not only our home, but on many days also our shared work space.  If it’s not tidy, clean and organized, we’re toast. Where’s that check? Where’s my invoice? Have you seen my notes?! Not an option.

Housework also offers me a quick, physically-active break from the computer.

Because I lose no time to commuting, I don’t resent spending 20 minutes a day making sure our home is in good order.

 

People who spend hours just getting to and from work every day — and/or caring for/ferrying multiple children to multiple activities — have much less time available to do anything, let alone clean the bathtub.

 

2.    We live in a small apartment.

There’s no extra wing — or bedroom or bathroom or unfilled closet (I wish!) in which to stash all the junk. If it’s out, we see it. So we spend a lot of time putting stuff away.

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3. Jose does all the laundry.

Every bit of it, every single time. I loathe doing laundry, (machines in our apartment building basement), and am grateful he actually enjoys doing it. Plus he gets to hear all the building gossip.

And I (yes) really enjoy ironing.

 

4. I spent my childhood in institutional settings — alternating between boarding school and summer camp, ages 8 through 16.

That meant sharing space with two to four other girls, stuck with ugly, uncomfortable iron beds at school and plain wooden bunks at camp. School offered basic cotton coverlets and faded paper wallpaper.

Always someone else’s tastes and rules.

I’m so fortunate now to own our home, one in which we’ve invested care, sweat and two major renovations.

In world where so many people are homeless — the indigent, refugees living in tents for years — to have a home that is clean, safe, private and ours?

I treasure it.

5. In boarding school we were graded daily — with a sheet of paper taped to the bedroom entrance — on our neatness. I always got terrible marks which meant I had to stay in at weekends and/or (yes, really) memorize Bible verses as punishment. I can think of fewer more effective ways to make someone hate being tidy.

Today it’s wholly my choice, freely made.

Yay, autonomy!

 

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A table set for one of our dinner parties

6. We own lovely things, many of them old.

It’s my joy and pleasure to take good care of them for whoever gets them next time around. We have no kids, so who knows…A friend? An auction house?

Whether the 18th century oak dining table or valuable original signed photographs, it’s a privilege to own them. Why not take good care of them?

7. I don’t consider it housework but home care.

There’s a very real difference for me.

8. We have no pets or children  and we’re both pretty tidy.

Without mud, dander, fur and jammy hand-prints appearing every day everywhere, caring for a small apartment just isn’t a big deal — two to three hours’ work does the whole place.

It’s not a huge house filled with stuff and/or being endlessly re-shuffled and messed by others, some them breathtakingly oblivious to how much time and work it takes to keep a home looking its best.

I’m amazed, (and appalled), by people whose children and husbands or male partners (typically) just don’t do their fair share of laundry and cleaning up.

It’s a huge burden on women who already have plenty on our plates as it is.

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I designed our (only) bathroom and never mind cleaning it.

9. My parents’ homes were/are poorly cared for.

They had plenty of money and each owned some very nice things, so, in my view, had no excuse for neglecting these gifts. I hated seeing dust everywhere and finding a fridge either empty of any food or full of rotting vegetables.

10. Our home nurtures us deeply.

As highly visual people, we’ve chosen every element of it carefully — from wall colors to cust0m-made lined curtains, antique rugs and original photographs, silver and silver-plate cutlery, linen and cotton napkins.

 

We’ve created a home that demands some real attention: dusting, polishing, shining, washing — but that also rewards us handsomely with beauty, warmth, comfort and a place to recharge.

 

We also love to entertain, often holding long, lazy Sunday lunches for our friends or welcoming young journalists to crash on our sofa.

Keeping the place guest-ready means we’re happy to host without panicking.

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$31. Score!

 

 Is housework something you dread and avoid — or does doing it give you some pleasure as well?

A few more style notes…

By Caitlin Kelly

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We love to have dinner on our balcony, a pleasure we eagerly await all year long

A few more thoughts…

Once a year or so, take inventory — toss/add as your budget allows

It’s easy, when you live with the same objects year after year after year after year, to overlook the point at which:

1) you’re bored to tears with them; 2) your tastes have really changed but your home shows no sign of this; 3) your things are now really stained/torn/worn out/scratched.

Towels and bed linens do wear out; try Zara Home for terrific and stylish new options.

We recently took our glassware, wrapped it carefully and gave it to our town’s thrift store, and finally treated ourselves to new, handsome glassware, both for water/juice and wine.

These are the wine glasses, from West Elm, and the juice/water glasses, also from West Elm.

We love them!

A collection can be three (or more!) of pretty much anything. Group them together for impact

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The large black horse, hand-carved folk art, was found in an antiques shop in Port Hope, Ontario and the little wooden one at auction there. The little metal guy? I can’t remember.

 

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Three of these, the angular ones, we bought in Mexico City, pewter; one is silver plate and one…not sure!

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Years of collecting have given me a decent collection of silver and silver-y objects

 

Think long-term

It’s always tempting to buy cheap stuff because…it’s cheap!

But waiting, saving up and paying a little more for better-quality fabrics, better furniture construction and classic design means you’ll be able to enjoy your things for years, maybe decades.

 

Classic doesn’t have to mean boring!

 

I still love the three antique painted rush-seat chairs I sent home from a country auction in Nova Scotia to my then home in Toronto — using them many years later.

Thrift and consignment shops, especially those located in upscale neighborhoods or towns (i.e. drive if necessary!) can be a treasure trove of amazing quality. Craigslist and Ebay, of  course, also have a wide range of offerings.

If you know what you’re looking at — (is it a real antique or a reproduction? Oak or maple? Wood or laminate? sterling or silverplate? glass or crystal?) — tag and estate sales are another great source.

Invest in the best-quality framing you can

It forces you to be highly selective once you start using a frame shop, as even the smallest piece can cost $150 for a custom-cut frame.

It’s money well spent to preserve your favorite things, whether a letter from a grandparent or treasured photographic prints (make sure the mat is acid-free and the glass UV-resistant.)

I like the wooden frames from Pottery Barn (on sale!) and Anthropologie has some quirky and charming ones as well; Pier One can be a great source for more ethnic/rustic styles.

Study every room — what shapes are in it, and how does each piece relate to others?

Most furniture is inevitably square (tables, chairs) or rectangular (beds, chests, sofas.)

Before you know it, you’ve filled every room with big fat chunks of stuff, now looking crowded and tedious. Sigh!

Think about including a variety of shapes (ovals? circles?) and scale (large, small?)

Does each room also include a variety of height (chairs, chests, armoires, etc) so your eye moves around it easily?

Make sure you have at least 24 inches between every piece or you’ll always feel hemmed in and irritable as you keep bumping into things.

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Mirrors!

Our living room — which faces northwest and gets a lot of light — has two mirrors in it; our sitting room has one, and our bedroom has one as well, all decorative.

The mirror pictured above came out of one of my favorite antique shops, in the town of North Hatley, Quebec; it’s clearly Middle Eastern and was filthy…took an hour of Windex and Q-tips to get most of the dust out of all that fretwork! It cost about $225.

 

A pretty mirror fills a few functions nicely:

 

1) it fills up a dead wall; 2) it reflects light into and around the room; 3) a lovely frame can add color, interest and texture relating to the rest of the room; 4) you can see yourself!

Of the four mirrors we own, only one was bought new (from Anthropologie); this one. It’s very affordable — $128 — for a lovely and intricately hand-carved wooden frame that feels exotic and vaguely Indian or Celtic.

It now sits on an apple-green wall so there’s a nice contrast between the background and the wood.

The rest came from antique stores.

Several favorite sources for stylish new mirrors include the websites Horchow, Wisteria, and Ballard Designs.

Mirrors are also more versatile than highly-colored artworks, and can easily be moved from room to room as your tastes change.

Style notes: 12 ways to make your home (more) lovely

By Caitlin Kelly

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I admit it.

I’m obsessed with style, the ability to make our home comfortable and memorable, usually on a budget.

Our home is full of books on design, art, art history — and stacks of interior design magazines. I also studied it in the 90s and now teach at my old school, The New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan.

I was lucky to grow up with parents whose visual sense, always, was strong, eclectic and interesting — from Eskimo sculpture to Japanese uki-o-ye prints to faded wool rugs from the Mideast. Mirrored pieces of bright cotton from India, woven shawls from Peru, early silver.

Having studied art and antiques has also helped me recognize good/old things cheaply and quickly when I find one — like the teapot from 1780 I found upstate for $3, (whose exact twin made the cover of House Beautiful.)

Then I married another highly visual man, a career photographer whose own home when we first met was filled with quirky details and strong colors.

Today, 16 years into our marriage, our apartment is a mix of objects old and new, photos and drawings and posters, things and images we’ve collected on our various travels and adventures, from Ontario to Paris to Mexico.

 

We even bought our hand-made hammered copper bathroom sink in a small town in Mexico — for $30; knowing the exact dimensions we needed allowed us to buy it with confidence, (and bring it home in our suitcase.)

 

Here are some images and some ideas…

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The ikat is for the headboard, the checks for the tables

 

Pick a few colors and start collecting textiles, art and objects that relate to one another

It might be bright yellow or hunter green or pale blue. Once you’ve chosen your palette, your eye will start to see it everywhere and you’ll know it will fit nicely with what you already own.

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Breakfast on the balcony — everything in the photo acquired through a mix of retail stores on sale (pillow covers, blue bowls), auctions (vintage blue platter, creamer), antique stores (tablecloth), flea markets (coin silver spoons, blue transferware dish and silverplate cutlery) and on-line sites.

Our main living room colors are sage green, a Chinese red, black and cream, echoed across the sofa, rug, throw pillows, curtains; the bedroom a range of soft blues and greens. The living room and hallways are painted a soft yellow-green (Gervase yellow, Farrow & Ball) and the bedroom the crisp green of a Granny Smith apple.

We live on the top floor, staring at tree-tops — inspiration!

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A vintage tablecloth, scored in Maine

Mix old and new things

If you love clean, simple minimal design, mix in some older elements to soften the feeling of all that metal, plastic and glass.

You can often find gorgeous bits of silver, glass, crystal and porcelain at local thrift and consignment shops for very little money.

A mix of textures helps as well — linen, wool, velvet, cotton.

Brown furniture is currently deeply unfashionable — hence cheap — and often of terrific quality

Flea markets, auction houses, tag and estate sales and thrift and consignment shops are full of this stuff, often inherited.

One of my best finds, a reproduction Pembroke table, (a style with a drawer and two leaves), came out of a consignment shop in Greenwich, CT. It wasn’t super-cheap ($350) but in excellent condition and is light and versatile.

If you really hate a brown piece of furniture, but it’s well-priced and handsome, you can always paint it.

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Five of these for $10 at our local thrift shop

Keep your eyes peeled

 

You never know where you’ll find just what you’re looking for, and sometimes in the least likely spot.

 

We recently dropped into West Elm — a national retail brand known for modern pieces — and found, on sale, four metal brackets to hold wall-mounted plants for our balcony. We also scored three faux branches of mountain laurel, for the price of one week’s fresh flowers.

One day, out for lunch in small-town Ontario, we stopped in at antique shop across the road. Boom! The perfect small lamp we needed for a corner of the bedroom, an early ginger jar, in an unlikely shade of gray. (I had a new white linen shade made to fit.)

Five red goblets — $10 — at our local thrift shop. Score!

Re-purpose

I found two large wooden storage boxes at a local plant nursery. I’m not sure what they were supposed to be used for, but I stacked them and made them into a side table. A former grain measure (I think!) now holds magazines.

When I needed a lot of fabric, cheaply, I found a couple of printed cotton shower curtains on sale and used them for curtains, a headboard cover and a table cover.

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A table set for one of our dinner parties. We love to entertain and do it often.

Keep a tape measure handy and use your camera phone

The only way to be sure that a piece of art of furniture is going to fit into your home, (and play nicely with your current belongings), is if you know exactly what dimensions you need.

If you see something you love in a store but aren’t sure, snap images of it from every angle and measure it carefully.

You can have things shipped

Two of my favorite pieces came from very far away — a great vintage Chinese chair I found in New Orleans and shipped home via UPS and a teal armoire (possibly 18th century) no one wanted (!) when I bid by phone on it through a regional auction house I used to visit when I lived in New Hampshire.

Even with the shipping charges, it cost less than a new piece on sale, made in China.

One of my favorite belongings is a photo I found in Sydney, Australia and sent home to wait for me.

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Fresh flowers — a must!

Don’t forget the charm, color and texture of live flowers and plants

We keep fresh flowers and/or plants in every room year-round.

Invest in a few frogs (metal and glass holders for floral stems) and some blocks of Oasis (the green foam florists use to make arrangements), and you can use almost any container to make a pretty display.

Paint!

Nothing is less expensive or as easy to change if you need a new look — and it can be a chair or stool or box, not an entire room.

If a wooden floor is hideous, paint it!

Don’t be terrified, as so many people are, of: 1) using color; 2) choosing the wrong one. There are tremendous design websites all over the internet to help; I like Apartment Therapy.

A few things to consider: 1) what direction does the room face? (north light is colder); 2) how do you want to feel in that room? Revved-up? Soothed? (choose accordingly); 3) remember that the floor and ceiling are also “colors” in themselves; 4) choose the right finish — glossy is a nice touch here and there, but matte finish usually looks more elegant.

Keep it clean and tidy

There’s no point creating a lovely home if it’s dirty, dusty and cluttered.

One simple and good-looking solution is using baskets to hide magazines, books, assorted mess you haven’t gotten to yet. Like this one, well-made and strong.

The Container Store also offers some great-looking boxes, like these, which we own.

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This Tizio lamp is one of my favorite possessions. The light it casts is clean, bright and has two intensities. Because the base is so small, it’s versatile. The lamp can also be flipped upwards to cast reflected light instead. I also had to wait years until I could afford it!

Love where you live, right now

It’s easy to say…why bother? It’s a rental or a dorm room or I’m only here for a few years.

It’s your life! It’s your home, whether shared or solo.

 

Let its beauty nurture you, every single day.

 

 

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I spied this little guy in a shop window of a children’s clothing store in the 7th arondissement of Paris. I love having him home with us now!

Seek inspiration

There are people who couldn’t care less about how their home looks — but some of them are simply freaked out by the whole idea of decorating or home improvement: Where to start? What to choose? I’m broke, dammit!

Every image, every bit of light and shade I see, can inspire me visually. It might be the symmetry of an allee of trees or the curve of a Moorish arch. It might be the bubbled glass of a 17th century window.

Put down your phone/computer and really look, long and thoughtfully, at the world around you.

Snap photos. Make notes. Revel in beauty!

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$31. Score!

Our attachment to objects

By Caitlin Kelly

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Silly, perhaps, but I get such pleasure from using my red leather Filofax!

Why do we form our attachment to certain objects?

Whether something inherited from a beloved ancestor or a gift from a friend or our partner or spouse or something we buy that we’ve always wanted or have saved hard for.

I was listening to the terrific NPR radio show Radiolab as I drove into Manhattan recently to attend the Winter Antiques Show, arguably the best show in that city each year, and probably one of the world’s best places to look at — and buy –museum-quality objects of every possible material, design and period.

 

Radiolab’s episode was all about why and why we become emotionally attached to certain objects or why some of them fill us with awe.

One of my favorite travel moments was finally seeing the Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux, Normandy, France. As someone passionate about early textiles, I had long wanted to see it in person, and so we did. Amazing! It’s actually embroidered on linen, 230 feet long, created in 1070.

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Another object, also red, that I enjoy. I found this little robot in the window of a children’s clothing shop in the 7th arrondissement in Paris

I grew up in a home filled with interesting art and objects, from Japanese prints and Eskimo sculpture, (now called Inuit), to a Picasso lithograph to my father’s own handiwork in oil, silver, lithography and etching.

I’ve also been lucky enough along the way to be able to buy some art and photographs and antiques, so our apartment is filled with reference books on art and design and a variety of decorative objects we enjoy using or looking at.

So attending the Winter Antiques Show was a special treat. Admission is $25 and it’s held at the Park Avenue Armory, an enormous red brick building on Park at 67th. It accepted 75 dealers from all over the world, from Geneva to London to California, some of whom wait for years to be allowed into the show.

And what a show!

 

Imagine being let loose in a great museum, able to touch, hold and examine closely the most exquisite objects — whether a fragment of an Egyptian sarcophagus or a 16th century atlas or a piece of porcelain made in 1740.

You can wander about with a glass of white wine or champagne, coming face to face with a boy’s sword from 1300, ($20,000), or an astrolabe made in 1540 for the Spanish king ($1.3 million). I assumed I wouldn’t be able to afford a thing, and many prices were four, five and six figures.

But, despite my worries, it never felt snooty.

Sure, there were women wearing furs and quite large diamonds and lots of cashmere; I wandered about in my black Gap cotton Tshirt and black leggings. I’ve studied antiques at several institutions and bought and sold them at auction, so I know what I’m looking at when it comes to several categories.

For me, it was absolute heaven, and most dealers were surprisingly kind and welcoming,  making time to explain their objects’ design and histories, like a $55,000 blue enamel pendant made by a famous British architect as a birthday gift.

It was originally found at a flea market!

Having bought some good things for low prices at auction and flea markets, I’m also always curious to find out their current market value and learn more about them. Dealers are de facto always passionate about their area of specialty, so no one seemed to mind my curiosity.

I even bought a photograph.

That was a huge surprise, and I hadn’t bought art in ages. But I discovered a Finnish photographer whose black and white work mesmerized me and the price was manageable — less than the cost of three months’ groceries.

Here’s a link to his work, and the gallery I bought it from.

One reason I so enjoy flea markets, auctions and antiques is making my own design choices. My maternal grandmother owned some very good things — but she never bothered to pay tax on her inherited fortune, so when she died almost all of it was sold to pay off those debts.

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This Tizio lamp is one of my favorite possessions. The light it casts is clean, bright and has two intensities. Because the base is so small, it’s versatile. The lamp can also be flipped upwards to cast reflected light instead.

I never saw a thing from either grandfather or my paternal grandmother and almost all my mother’s belongings were also sold quickly when she suddenly had to go into a nursing home.

Jose’s parents left him a few belongings, but we’re not a family buried in heirlooms.

Almost everything lovely in our home, then, is something we’ve bought, and an expression of our aesthetic and taste. My husband is a career photographer, (here’s his blog), so we have a growing collection of images, from one you might know (of JF Kennedy standing at the window of the Oval Office) to an early Steichen.

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These 3 pendants were given to me by my mother, a friend and my late grandmother. They have sentimental value to me as a result.

My favorite objects include:

my Canadian passport, a stuffed Steiff bear the length of my thumb, another small stuffed bear, a few good photographs, two silk Hermes scarves, a photo of my paternal grandfather, who I never met.

What — if any — objects do you treasure and why?

 

More simple pleasures…

By Caitlin Kelly

That low, golden, slanting light of autumn

Lying by the pool, snoozing, listening to the symphony of cicadas, planes buzzing overhead and sprinklers

Dinner on the balcony at sunset

Frozen yogurt with sprinkles

Blueberry pancakes with bacon and maple syrup

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Watching “Casablanca” for the umpteenth time — “Of all the gin joints…”


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Maple syrup — on almost anything

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A stash of my favorite Canadian candy: Big Turk, Crunchie, Mackintosh toffee and Crispy Crunch

An icy gold gimlet, (expertly made by my husband)

Our balcony garden

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And its shadows

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Sitting at an oak table made 300 years ago, wondering who else has sat there over the centuries

Listening to Joshua Bell playing Mozart at Lincoln Center

Having my hashtag go viral — #MissingTheZero — because too many Big Name Publishers are paying us pennies now

Candles flickering, tapers and votives and lanterns

We love to have dinner on our balcony, a pleasure we eagerly await all year long
Dinner on our balcony

A cotton vintage tablecloth

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Savoring a book I like so much I don’t want it to end (The Goldfinch)

A new pair of pretty shoes

Freshly ironed pillowcases

A cool breeze

Lighting a fire in the fireplace

Playing co-ed Saturday softball with the same friends for 15 years

Writing a story I know will make a difference, like this one

And you?

Making a pretty home: grace notes

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s the next in my ongoing series, which includes 10 tips; lighting; choosing and using color and customizing/DIY.

If you’d like personalized help or advice, send me some photos and I’m happy to help you find a solution to your decorating dilemma. I charge $150/hour.

As a former student at the New York School of Interior Design, I learned a lot in those classrooms!

The smallest home — even a shared dorm room — can still be made personal and lovely. And it doesn’t have to take much money, but a bit of imagination.

A few ideas:

 

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— Look for items that are similar, in size, shape, color and texture. Group them together

A small (or large collection) has much more visual impact than one item. Here are two wooden horses I found in Port Hope, Ontario, a small town east of Toronto. I found the smaller one (new? not sure) at auction for a few dollars. The larger one, hand-carved folk art, was more than that, just over $100. But the pair work nicely together.

— Don’t overlook the beauty, color, texture and life that flowers, greenery and plants can add

But have fun with it. Don’t keep them in their sad little plastic nursery or grocery store pots! A funky antique or vintage tin, a glass jar, a pretty pottery container are so much nicer; this site, Jamali Garden in New York City, is a trove of amazing and affordable ideas. Keep an eye out at your local thrift and consignment shops for affordable ideas and inspiration. I found this terrific metal cachepot at a local consignment shop for $25 and have been adding various pieces of greenery and flowers over weeks, replacing them with fresh ones as needed.

 

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Treat yourself to a few tools, like Oasis, the green foam used by florists to line pots and dishes so you can adapt a wide array of containers to any design you like. A frog, a glass or metal holder into which you stick plant stems, will also offer you more arrangement options.

 

$10 for five at my local thrift store. Score!
$10 for five at my local thrift store. Score!

— Color!

A calm soothing white/cream/neutrals color scheme is gorgeous (albeit difficult with small children and/or pets). But adding pops of color keeps it fresh. I scored five of these lovely wine glasses for $10 at my local thrift store. So pretty with a holiday table!

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— Add a personal and unexpected detail

This velvet sofa is at least a decade old and the welting had worn thin on the cushions. Replacing it was too costly, so was re-upholstering or slip-covering. All that needed fixing was the welting. But the scale of the welt was also key, something bold and interesting. I looked at plenty of polite, safe pale green options on-line before going in this direction instead. Love it.

 

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— Relate texture and colors to one another

I found this Victorian mirror in Port Hope as well; its soft apricot velvet interior echoes the color of fabric on a table below and several frames we hung nearby. The table-covering is dark embroidered silk (texture, color, pattern), with a pierced copper-colored lantern (texture, color, pattern) atop a bold cotton print (pattern, color.)

 

At night, with a votive inside it, it casts such gorgeous shadows!
At night, with a votive inside it, it casts such gorgeous shadows!

— Keep your eyes open for surprises

I found this pierced metal lantern in, of all places, a shop at the back of a cafe in Minneapolis, when I was out there for a presentation at the University of Minnesota about my book, Malled. I’m a curious traveler and, no matter where I journey, even for a short business trip, I build in a day or two to explore local shops, museums and/or restaurants. Regional tastes can vary widely and you never know what you might find. This one cost very little — $13.50 — so I bought two, (pairs always have more impact!), and shipped them home via FedEx since they were light but too bulky for my suitcase.

 


 

One error many people make is assuming their rooms have to be all-done-all-at-once. Buying everything from one place, whether Ikea or some other retailer, can make a room look cookie-cutter and boring.

If you’ve inherited some nice pieces, find ways to incorporate them, whether some lovely china and glassware or a great old chair (if the shape and condition is good, re-upholstering is well worth it.)

Read design magazines and borrow some books from your local library, (not to mention hundreds of on-line sites for inspiration), to find rooms you find really attractive — so much so you want to go live in them!

Don’t worry if they’re in a huge mansion or tiny cottage; don’t focus on cost or whether you’ll find something just like it. Look at all the details you find appealing and figure out why so you can make (more) thoughtful and informed choices when you buy something to add to your home. 

Clear, fresh colors (lemon yellow, aqua, fresh white) or moody, jewel tones? Worn and weathered surfaces or clean, shiny modern ones? Do you prefer a floor of bare hardwood (and what color)? Or an area rug? Maybe sisal?

The most interesting of all rooms are added to, (and subtracted from!), layer by layer, year after year, decade after decade. The richest, visually, use different textures, tones, materials — like wood, glass, stone, metal, wool, silk, cotton, velvet, mirror and ones that relate to one another the way old friends find much in common to discuss.

Also look at some specific styles of design, whether French, English, Japanese or Swedish; you might find you’re suddenly and deeply passionate about tansu chests, Navajo rugs or bergeres. (Hello, Ebay….)

This book, from 1977, A Pattern Language, is widely considered extremely helpful.

I like this one, Decorating With Pattern, from 1997; (as you can see, the newest books aren’t necessarily the best!)

Of all my many design books, I love Home, by Stafford Cliff, with great photos and interviews with people about their quirky, lovely homes. Certainly the only design book I’ve ever seen with an athlete included (Sebastian Coe)!

Have fun!

 

 

 

Making a pretty home: choosing and using colo(u)r

By Caitlin Kelly

This is the first in a series of four posts, each one focused on an aspect of making your home (more) attractive. As a former student at the New York School of Interior Design, I learned a lot, and color theory was one of my favorite classes…

All those teeny, tiny paint chips!

Few decisions are as stressful for many people as choosing the colors for their homes: walls, ceiling, baseboards, floor, front door, interior doors, window trim, shutters.

Not to mention all the rugs, pillows, bedding, furniture, lighting.

Your wisest first step?

A few basic questions:

— Where does the majority of the light in each room come from? If north light, which is cooler in temperature (i.e. bluer), factor that in. If the room gets little natural light, will you paint it a rich, deep jewel tone that absorbs even more light?

The view, of a Pennsylvania field, out my friend Scott's window
The view, of a Pennsylvania field, out my friend Scott’s window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

— What do your windows look out onto? We live on the top floor of a suburban building, and face trees, hills and a river, i.e. all natural tones. Maybe you live in the middle of a noisy, crowded city, or out in the quiet countryside. Consider your outdoor surroundings as well.

— What mood to do you hope to create? Bright and cheerful? Calm and soothing? Warm and welcoming? Bohemian gypsy? Formal and elegant? Every color, and combination of them, carries a feeling and a mood. Make sure it’s the one you really want!

— What are the most flattering colors in your wardrobe, the ones you wear again and again? Yes, really. Interior designers often take many of their initial cues by carefully observing what colors their clients wear. Makes sense — if you absolutely love black or navy blue or creamy white, (or coral or pale yellow), why wouldn’t you want these in your home as well?

— How adventurous am I willing to be? Unless your landlord forbids adding color to your walls, it’s all up to you to decide what your choices are: a ruby-red dining room, a bright yellow hallway, a charcoal gray bedroom? Simply defaulting to safe/boring white or beige can leave you and your family stuck in neutral (pun intended.) My living room, over 20+ years, has morphed from grey/beige sponge-painted to a rich deep Chinese red to its current pale yellow/green. The hallway has been several shades of yellow, coral and now the same color as the living room. Paint is the least expensive way to change the look and feel of any room.

— How much physical work/time are you willing to put in? Almost every piece of furniture can be painted to a more interesting and beautiful color. Some of my best finds have been objects that I bought in another color and later painted, like the wooden table lamp whose base was a sickly pale green with pink (!) striping, but the shape, size and price were perfect — $55; a $7 can of matte finish cream color spray paint and it looks fantastic. Ditto the enormous baskets I bought at Crate & Barrel but whose unfinished surfaces didn’t match anything. Two coats of pale turquoise paint later, they’re a nice accent atop an 18th century teal-toned armoire of the same color.

— Find inspiring colors and color schemes everywhere — from hotels, restaurants, even the movies! One iteration of our living room was inspired by the film “Gosford Park”, with deep ruby-colored curtains against rich red walls. Gorgeous! I’m still dreaming of the deep, rich turquoise walls in “The Last Station” about Tolstoy’s final days. The kitchen in “It’s Complicated” is often cited as one of the dreamiest ever.

A fact many people easily forget — the floor itself adds a large block of color! 

Before you start piling on even more new colors, look carefully and critically at each room’s floor color to make sure it will work well with everything else in the room. A common error is buying a bold carpet that ends up visually dominating the space when a softer mix of tones gives you inspiration instead.

The loveliest rooms are so harmonious in their mix of colors that nothing stands out on its own but adds to the overall look.

How, then, to choose the colors for a room?

If you’re starting from scratch, the two common and easiest inspirations are curtain/bedding fabric and/or your rug(s), as most will have a mix of several colors and tones to work from.

 

I lovelovelove this duvet cover from Pottery Barn: soft colors, classic pattern, rich but not wearyingly busy
I lovelovelove this duvet cover from Pottery Barn: soft colors, classic pattern, rich but not wearyingly busy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which is why solid-tone curtains are difficult! Do you really want an entire wall of…beige? Dark blue? Cold white? Check out the lovely linens from retailers like Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Anthropologie and Zara Home and see what sorts of color combinations speak to you; once you’ve  chosen a harmonious palette, look for ways to repeat it throughout the room, remembering that every piece of furniture in the room, even just the trim, (if it’s wood, for example), adds yet another color to the mix as well.

Download or buy a color wheel, so you understand color relationships.

Red and green are complementary colors, and we tend to associate bright red and deep green with Christmas…but color comes in every possible tone and shade. Our living room works well visually because its color scheme is, at root, red and green — but a variety of reds, from rich bright red (rug) to Chinese red (a chest of drawers) to a burgundy/rust tone as the sofa’s trim. The greens range from sage (velvet sofa) to olive (cotton, loveseat) to pale yellow-green walls.

We found this small rug in Montreal, the exact colors and tones of the living room
We found this small rug in Montreal, the exact colors and tones of the living room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue and yellow work beautifully together for the same reason. Consider a room in the same tones on the wheel: cool tones like blue, violet, lavender, leavened with cream, silver, white, for example.

I love an English country-house look — a bit weathered, lots of antiques, pattern — and that sharpened my eye when I chose this fabric for our lined bedroom curtains, a metallic-printed linen from Ralph Lauren (yes, he makes fabric, too.) It was surprisingly inexpensive and adds a depth and warmth to the room that thinner, plainer curtains never did.

A soft metallic blue overprinted on pale blue linen; note the large scale as well!
A soft metallic blue overprinted on pale blue linen; note the large scale print

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our vertically striped living room curtains, (like the bedroom, custom-made and lined), also offered a very wide palette of possibilities and I’ve used almost every single color in them, whether in pillows, sofa trim, rug, lighting.

Once you’ve chosen a color palette for each room, find ways to link each object in the room to that scheme — I repainted plain white Pottery Barn picture frames a deep turquoise, for example, in the bedroom.

And keep your color scheme coherent! Few things are more visually exhausting and confusing than a rainbow riot of color in every space.

In our one-bedroom apartment, the dining room and bedroom are a pale, soft gray (Sherwin-Williams Modern Gray), the living room and hallways are Gervase Yellow (Farrow & Ball), the kitchen Clunch, a cool cream (also F & B) and the bathroom a rich mustard (F & B again.)

The pale gray in the bedroom is starting to feel tedious, so it’s soon to become a clear, crisp pale apple green.

When in doubt, look to nature…it’s all there!

 

Gorgeous!  A fall sidewalk in Maryland, seen while out antiquing. These are the colors of our bathroom
Gorgeous! A fall sidewalk in Maryland, seen while out antiquing. These are the colors of our bathroom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(I can help you — send me your questions and photos! $150/hour.)