Time to zhuzh! Yes, it’s a word

By Caitlin Kelly

Just try saying it!

As someone who studied interior design and spends far too many hours on Instagram and reading shelter magazines for inspiration, I love nothing more than a good zhuzh  — making something more attractive.

As winter’s short, gray cold days descend on those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, here are some of the recent things we’ve done to feather our nest, a kid-free, pet-free one bedroom apartment of about 1,000 square feet. We’re both full-time freelance now, so this is also a place we do a lot of writing and editing work as well.

Sanding, spackling and painting all cracks in the walls

 

So boring! So annoying! So damn necessary. It’s either us and our own sweat equity or shelling out even more money — again — to a company to do it for us. There will still be some bad ceiling cracks and we’ll pay someone to deal with those. For reasons I do not understand, this 60-year-old building still (!?) settles and creates these damn cracks.

A fresh coat of paint on the dingiest spots

 

The cheapest way to clean and brighten your space. I’m a huge Farrow & Ball fan, and one of the many things I love about them is that they will custom make their discontinued colors, like the yellow-green we used in 2008 for the living room and hallway. Our dining room is painted in Peignoir, and our bedroom in Skimming Stone.

 

Steam-clean major upholstered pieces

 

Seriously! We spent $180 recently to have our seven-foot-long velvet-covered sofa and two cream-colored wing chairs professionally cleaned (in home.) It’s well worth it given how much we use these pieces.

 

Invest in a few good rugs

 

Nothing is cheerier than a few great rugs on a clean, shiny hardwood floor, adding color, warmth and texture. So many great choices out there, from flat-weave dhurries (a favorite) to bright, cheerful cotton ones (like these from Dash & Albert, whose stuff I keep buying.) Avoid harsh, bright colors and crazy wild designs as you’ll soon grow sick of them.

 

Throws for bed and living room lead to much happy napping

 

Is there anything nicer than a snooze under a soft, comforting throw? We have several, in cotton and wool, and they’re very well-used. These, in waffle-weave wool, come in gray and cream. Classic,

 

Are your light bulbs/shades clean and bright?

 

Everything gets dusty!

 

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Stock up on flowers, plants and greenery

 

A room without a plant or fresh flowers — especially on gray, cold, rainy days — can feel static and lifeless.

 

Get out the polish!

 

I know, I know — very few people even want to own silver, or silver-plate or brass now, but few things are as lovely as freshly-polished cutlery, (ours is all flea market) or gleaming brass candlesticks.

 

 

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Lots of candles

 

Obviously not a great choice, perhaps, if you have cats or small children, but we have neither. I keep a small votive candle bedside and light it first thing every morning, a softer way to wake up. At dinner we use votives, tapers and a few lanterns; I buy my votives in bulk at Pier One so they’re always handy and within reach. Here’s a candle-maker I follow on Instagram with a great selection.

 

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Treat your home to something pretty, new and useful

 

Could be a score from a consignment shop or thrift store, estate sale or something new. It might be fresh tea towels for the kitchen, a bath sheet for the bathroom, soft new pillowcases, a vase for flowers…Your home should be a welcoming, soothing refuge. Its beauty can and should nurture you.

Two years ago, I splurged on the above-pictured early 19th. century tea set — with cups, saucers, plates, teapot, tea bowl. Every time I use it it makes me happy.

The comfort of home

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Our view of the Hudson River with its newly-opened bridge

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s hard for me to believe, but this June will mark the 29th. year I’ve lived in the same apartment, by far the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere.

Born in Vancouver, Canada, I lived in London ages two to five, in Toronto ages five to 30 (in 10 different homes, one for a few months, eight of them rented apartments.) Since then I’ve lived in:

Paris (8 months in student housing)

Montreal (stunning top-floor 2-bedoom rental apartment, 18 months — miss it still!)

New Hampshire (18 months in a farmhouse apartment) and…here.

Home is a suburban New York one-bedroom apartment, a co-op, top-floor (6th) with stunning and unchanged views northwest, atop a high hill, of the Hudson River and lots of trees. It’s about 1,000 square feet, plus a 72 square foot balcony which we can’t wait to use every summer and reluctantly leave in October or so.

 

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The ikat fabric covers our bedroom side tables

 

I bought it with my first husband, and it was then a stinking mess, literally — the floors were covered with dirty beige-wall-to-wall carpeting and cat urine had saturated it so badly even the nasty real estate agent stood outside on the balcony while we looked at it.

Nothing a little paint and renovation couldn’t fix!

I blogged here about transforming our kitchen to my design, as I also did with our one tiny (5 by 7 foot) bathroom.

 

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Those little mosaic tiles we bought in Paris and shipped home

 

Staying put in a small-ish space has allowed me, and now Jose, to meet other goals, like saving for retirement and traveling frequently for pleasure. (We have no children.)

The building itself is nothing special, a generic mid-60s red brick thing, but it’s part of a much older former estate, so it’s surrounded by lovely low stone walls, which, when snow-covered look like teeth. The land has many trees, from towering pines to my beloved red Japanese maple.  (And a pool!)

Our narrow, sidewalk-free street is both very hilly and very curvy, so we don’t have racing cars or noisy trucks.

 

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Our summer balcony banquette, (the fabric, a bedspread), covers an ugly glass divider; the bench beneath holds our tools and gardening equipment

But we’ve made it a lovely place, and one that welcomes guests — for a night or several, (on our comfy sofa) for meals, for tea — as often as we can afford. Few things make me happier than sharing our space and preparing good food for people we enjoy.

For me, staying so long in this home means many things:

assured physical comfort and safety; a lovely environment beyond our front doors (nature, silence); kind and quiet neighbors (many of them in their 70s and beyond.)

 

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We found this great Mideastern mirror in the antique shop in one of our favorite vacation spots, North Hatley, Quebec. The carved black horse is from an antique store in Port Hope, Ontario and the silver-plate teapot I bought there at auction. The black and white photo in the reflection of a table is an image of former First Lady Betty Ford standing on the Cabinet Room table. Our gallery wall is all photos by us or other photographers.

 

It’s also been a place of comfort and refuge during times of turmoil: a sudden divorce, the loss of several good jobs, friendships that have disappeared, family dramas.

It’s good to have a place you can just rely on.

Since I spent my years ages eight-13 in boarding school and ages eight-16 at summer camp, creating a place to our exact desires is huge for me — years of drab bedspreads and metal beds will do that! Our greatest splurges are often for our home: original art and photos, linens, custom-made pillows and curtains, antiques and pretty tableware.

 

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Our home also reflects our travels: our bed’s teal headboard fabric is from The Cloth Shop, an amazing find on London’s Portobello Road, (which sold many items to the Harry Potter films’ costume designers). Even some of the bathroom tile I found in Paris and had shipped to New York.

 

Where do you live?

Apartment, cabin,  cottage, house?

Rented or owned?

Why there?

What do you like most about it?

Are you a culture vulture too?

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As someone who grew up with limited access to television, (spending much of my childhood in boarding school and summer camp), my cultural consumption was books, art and music. (Although every dinner at home in my teens began with the theme music to As It Happens, the nightly CBC radio current events show.)

I do enjoy some television, mostly BBC, PBS, Netflix — original series, not the standard stuff of weekly network shows. Favorites include Wallander (Swedish version), Babylon Berlin, Call The Midwife, Victoria.

I confess — I’m also a fan of Lifetime’s Project Runway, now heading into its 17th season.

My favorite media are radio and film.

I listen to radio daily, (NPR, WFUV. WKCR, TSF Jazz from Paris) and typically watch two to three movies a week, either on TV or in the theater. (Not a fan of horror films, which I avoid; writing a book that included gun violence was quite enough!)

Only in later life did I appreciate what beauty I enjoyed in my parents’ homes, filled with Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Inuit sculpture, mirrored Indian textiles and more. That visual feast much shaped my own tastes — whether a Mexican wooden mask or a vintage photograph.

Today, thanks to the Internet, we all have ready and free access to millions of exquisite images, through the British Museum  (37,000 images) and many more. Even if you live very far from a gallery or museum, even just scrolling through Instagram, you can stumble across an incredible array of beauty and history.

I’m not as familiar with, or fond of, contemporary art and design (I try!); I do love the work of Julie Mehretu.

Growing up in Toronto, a large and multi-cultural city with good museums and galleries, also helped me develop my taste. Travel to Paris, Venice, Florence, London, Berlin, Boston, D.C. and San Francisco, (to name a few places),  has showed me more amazing art.

Two of our favorite museums focus on Asian design — the Sackler in Washington, D.C. and the Guimet in Paris.

 

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A very rare event for me — I went to this auction and bought two 1920s French prints (Dufy, Vlaminck)

 

Musically, I feel woefully behind! I haven’t (she says embarassedly) yet tried Spotify, so I need to expand my horizons, although I’m not a fan of rap, hip-hop or country.

Only in the past month have I seen two operas, the first for me in decades, and enjoyed both. I don’t attend as many classical music performances as I could — in New York and environs, there are so many to choose from! — but enjoy it when I do.

As for popular music concerts…sigh. Some of the people I want to see sell out within minutes, generally.

I recently loved Old Stock, a terrific Canadian musical that’s just ended a two-month Manhattan run, and is headed for Bristol, England and Edmonton, Alberta.

I also saw a dark/powerful art show, “Berlin, Before and After”, at New York’s Neue Galerie, one of my favorite (small!) museums.

Living anywhere near New York City costs a fortune: highway and bridge tolls, taxes, commuting costs, crazy-high rent so you have to take advantage of all its various cultural offerings.

A daily list of low to no-cost NYC fun is The Skint; (“skint” is a British word for broke.)

 

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This amazing image was in the hallway across my room in a boutique hotel in Rovinj, Croatia

 

I do read a lot, but mostly non-fiction, magazines and newspapers. I just finished astronaut Scott Kelly’s memoir, “Endurance” and am now reading “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” from 1929.

I write for a living (as some of you know!) so am always hungry for inspiration.

 

How about you?

 

What has shaped your cultural tastes — friends? family? the internet? TV? YouTube? formal education?

 

Any terrific recommendations to share?

 

Oooh, I love a good flea market!

By Caitlin Kelly

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All sorts of oddities await!

 

I make a beeline in almost every city I visit to its local flea market.

When I lived in Paris for eight months in my 20s, I went almost every weekend, and not only to the enormous and overwhelming Puces de Clignancourt, but to Porte de Vanves as well. (Here’s a helpful guide.)

Here’s a great 20-point list of how to best shop flea markets anywhere.

In London last summer, I was up by 6:00 a.m. to visit the Bermondsey Square market, a small, courtyard-contained group of vendors. I bought a great hot breakfast from a guy making eggs and bacon, and sat on the edge of a cart to eat it.

Here’s what I bought, paying 10 pounds for a ceramic shard found on the banks of the Thames by a man who, like many there, is a mudlarker — someone who digs in the riverside muck and pulls out ancient treasures buried there.

 

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I’ve been trying to research it, but so far, no success; guessing 17th century or so.

 

Here’s a great description of mudlarking from The Guardian:

 

Over the years I’ve eased buttons, lace ends, buckles, dress hooks and thimbles from the mud and plucked clay wig curlers, wooden nit combs, needles, beads and bodkins from its surface. I’ve even found a beautifully decorated gold lace end, with possible links to the Tudor court, lying on the mud just waiting to be picked up.

But perhaps the most personal objects are leather shoes. The anaerobic properties of Thames mud means that its treasures are cocooned in an oxygen-free environment, which preserves them as if they had been lost just yesterday. My Tudor shoe is a moment trapped in time, with wear creases across the top and indentations in the sole from the toes and heel of the last person to wear it more than 500 years ago.

 

In Dublin’s monthly flea market, I found a terrific mirrored small handbag from Rajasthan for 10 pounds and a fistful of heavy silver-plate forks for the same price. (All our cutlery is flea market material, heavy silver plate in a variety of early styles.)

I also scored a gorgeous fuchsia hand-crocheted sweater. Even if I decided it wasn’t for me, (and I re-sold it to a consignment shop), it wasn’t a huge investment.

 

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In Toronto recently, I found a tiny 1930s Paris pin, with a dangling Eiffel tower, for $2  — and am still regretting passing up four gorgeous lilac engraved crystal glasses for $20.

Flea markets reward the decisive!

Toronto’s major flea market runs Sundays behind the legendary St. Lawrence Market downtown, held in a large white tent. It has washroom facilities and several very good places to eat, literally next door — including the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted.

 

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I really enjoy the banter and wisdom there — vendors are often also collectors, full of  knowledge about the things they’re selling and generally happy to share that intel, even if you don’t buy something. (Um, not so much with some Paris flea market vendors, who have been downright snappish with me, même en français.)

 

Flea markets, the best ones anyway, bear witness to our material past — not only the gilded elegance we see behind museum glass but the daily household objects we once valued

 

or our ancestors did: typewriters, enamel, tin and copper cookware, porcelain and crystal and silver, delicately embroidered and crocheted linens, (old pillowcases and sheets and tablecloths are so soft and lovely!), early editions of books.

 

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There are much beloved/battered old teddy bears and toys, handmade patchwork quilts and homespun blankets, wooden breadboards, buckets and piles of old coins.

You do have to be cool with crowds and being bumped constantly — and they’re best enjoyed without the responsibility of a dog or small children.

 

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If you’re really serious about collecting things like silver (is it EPNS or sterling?) and jewelry, bring a loupe (a tiny magnifying glass) with you to read hallmarks.

Never denigrate the goods!

Almost every vendor is willing to be a bit flexible; ask, very nicely, “What’s your best price on this?” Or “Would you take (name a price maybe 10 to 20 percent lower) for this?”

Take cash!

 

Are you a fellow flea market maven?

 

Which ones have you enjoyed — and what did treasures have you found?

 

A New York City museum of everyday life

By Caitlin Kelly

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If you’ve never been to New York City, you’ve still probably heard of the Met Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. Maybe the Guggenheim.

If you’re planning a visit, I urge you to visit one that will forever change your perception of the city, and of the early immigrant experience in the U.S. — the Tenement Museum.

It is simply extraordinary, in telling the true stories of the lives of early immigrants to New York City, who lived in these two narrow buildings on Orchard Street, on the Lower East Side at the start of the 20th century.

It’s also extremely popular, with tickets selling out months in advance. 

I visited it years ago, and never forgot it. This week I was lucky enough to be able to have a quick group tour in the evening and it left me, once more, deeply moved.

I can’t show you any images as photography is not allowed.

You climb steep metal stairs into a brick building, constructed in 1863, and step into a narrow dark hallway with battered metal mailboxes set into the wall on the left-hand side.

The building stood empty from 1935 to 1988, so you’re stepping into a time capsule. The walls are cracked and the front wooden doors to each apartment still have their original panes of glass above them.

Inset into the front hallway walls are large oval paintings and bas-relief curlicues, attempts at elegance.

The steep stairs to the second floor have pressed metal treads and the banister is thick, smooth dark wood. A narrow hallway there offers one tiny public room containing a toilet — shared by all occupants of the floor’s four apartments.

We visited one apartment that had belonged to an Italian family, and which contained some of their personal belongings: a lace dresser scarf, photos, other objects.

It’s a stunning reminder what life was life for these newcomers, who left their hometowns and villages and cities many miles behind them, mostly from Europe.

They might have once enjoyed gorgeous, sweeping sunlit views of woods and farmland and fields and mountains — and now their two front windows faced east over a grimy, noisy, narrow city street lined with brick buildings in an unfamiliar city in a new country.

The apartments are very small: a front room with two windows; a middle room with a deep sink, a minuscule bathtub and a coal stove, with a window between the front room and kitchen to allow light to penetrate, and a small rear room.

The total square footage? Maybe 250 square feet, a space that held, at least, two adults and children, maybe more. (This is the size of my suburban New York living room, for context.)

No closets.

No telephone.

No privacy.

No silence.

No outdoor space beyond the steps — aka the stoop.

Thanks to simple, thin cotton curtains and other objects, the rooms feel as though their occupants have simply stepped out for a while — kitchen cupboards full, a checkers game on the kitchen table with its colored tablecloth, a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on one wall.

It’s also a so different from the exquisite, costly objects on display in most museums, remnants mostly of the wealthiest lives and their rarified tastes. This is a museum of real life, as everyday working New Yorkers lived it.

The flooring is weathered linoleum designed to look like woven textiles and beneath that you can see weathered wooden floorboards.

To stand in that space is to feel intimately and viscerally what it must have been to leave everything behind except your hopes.

33 things that make me happy

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Lunch with a friend that lasts until dinner

 

Any film starring Kristen Stewart or Michelle Williams

 

Big band music

 

Maja soap

 

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A pot of tea

 

Fresh flowers in every room

 

Diner rice pudding

 

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Anticipating the next journey, whether a weekend road-trip or somewhere distant

 

Speaking and hearing French

 

Reading design and interiors magazines, in print, especially English and French ones

 

Sitting in a movie theater, with popcorn, waiting for the film to start

 

A snooze on the sofa

 

Playing Banangrams and gin rummy (not simultaneously!)

 

Taking a canoe out for a solo ride

 

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Unscheduled time

 

Trimming jib

 

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Setting a pretty table for a party

 

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Lighting candles

 

The delicious sillage of someone’s very crisp cologne

 

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Paris

 

The “blue hour” of dusk when the sky is a deep indigo and everything else silhouetted against it

 

Sleeping beneath a puffy duvet on a frigid winter’s night

 

A crackling fire in a weathered fireplace

 

Saying hello to and patting passing dogs

 

Staring for a long time at a painting in a museum or gallery

 

Browsing for hours in an indie bookstore

 

A very cold, very dry gin martini, straight up, with olives

 

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I love patina! This is the doorknob to our friend’s home in Maine

 

Old, well-made and well cared for objects, the earlier the better, especially textiles, glass and porcelain

 

Reading and choosing recipes

 

Making someone’s day easier

 

The work of Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti

 

The stunning opening chords of  Tschaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C

 

Playing vinyl

 

What are some of yours?

It’s the holidays! Why not set a pretty table?

By Caitlin Kelly

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Five of these for $10 at our local thrift shop

 

I love to entertain!

And I’m a total sucker for a beautifully laid table, as the French call it, l’art de la table.

If you’ve ever been to France or Italy especially, you’ve probably enjoyed some gorgeous table settings, even in inexpensive restaurants, thanks to lovely colors in seating, table-tops, floor tile and thoughtful lighting.

The last thing you want is bright glaring overhead light.

The idea is to set a mood, to eat and drink slowly, to enjoy a leisurely meal.

Creating a pretty table isn’t as difficult, scary or expensive as you might assume but it takes a little planning, some digging around for lovely, affordable items and having the confidence to put them all together.

Details matter: iron textiles. Polish metals. Make sure your glassware is clean, not pitted or cracked.

(Those of you with very small children, especially boys, may snicker and leave at this point!)

I’ve been amassing tableware and linens for decades now, and have a good collection of antique china and porcelain, including brown transferware, a sort of poor man’s china popular in the 19th century, which also comes in pink, purple, red and black.

I use mismatched but heavy silver-plate cutlery, found at flea markets, and keep it well-polished.

New tablecloths aren’t always easy to find, and tend to be expensive, but flea markets and consignment shops have plenty of them.

I sometimes just buy a few yards of nice fabric and hem it myself by hand.

 

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Summer breakfast on our New York balcony

 

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Fresh flowers — a must!

 

For new things, I like: Mothology, Anthropologie, Pottery Barn, Wisteria, Horchow, Crate & Barrel, Ballard Designs.

But I mostly haunt flea markets in every city and have found some great/affordable/quality old things at antiques fairs, consignment shops and inside group antiques malls.

 

To create a pretty table, for the holidays  — or ongoing — here are some things you might want to collect (or rent):

 

— linen or cotton napkins

— tall candles aka tapers, maybe mixed with unscented votives

— candlesticks or candle-holders, brass, glass, wood, crystal, silver

— a centerpiece of fruit or flowers or vegetation; (no fragrant flowers or arrangements too tall to see over)

— a couple of handsome serving platters and large serving bowls

— a large fabric tablecloth to soften and add color and texture or a long, wide fabric runner

— clean and well-polished cutlery, (what Americans call flatware)

— matching glassware (one for water, one for wine)

— salt and pepper and butter in their own servers/dishes

— a nice jug for serving cold water

 

No open containers!

 

Here are some of my own photos, for inspiration:

 

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Restaurant Alexandre, Montreal. Marble table-top ringed with polished brass and cheerful striped bistro chairs

 

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So sorry I couldn’t get these home safely from Venice!

 

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I found the tablecloth in Prince Edward County, Ontario. The cup and saucer are early 19th century, English

 

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A collection of candlesticks — three from Mexico (pewter) and one silver-plate found at a flea market

 

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A vintage tablecloth scored in Maine

 

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

 

 

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A table set for one of our dinner parties

Three October days in Montreal

by Caitlin Kelly

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I had so much fun in Montreal in September, we came up again — this time by car — to celebrate my husband’s birthday and to enjoy the city in warm, sunny weather. (We’ve been here in February, and it’s an adventure, but the wind and cold and snow can be really daunting.)

We stayed again at the Omni Mont-Royal, on Sherbrooke Street, whose central location is terrific, with lots of great shopping within a two or three block walk.

 

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There are nearby excellent restaurants, like the freshly made pizza we had at this place on Peel Street, sharing a delicious antipasto, an oven-fresh-made pizza and three glasses of red wine.

This visit I went down to Notre-Dame Ouest to check out its small section of antiques stores and loved the mix I found.

The selection at L’Ecuyer, at 1896 Notre Dame Ouest, is the best and most affordable, (the other shops are priced at $1,000 or much more for their material), and the owner has a great selection of china, glass, paintings and hand-made textiles. He specializes in vintage suitcases and they’re fantastic. I saw everything from a zebra skin rug ($1,200) to a spectacular 18th century walnut armoire ($7,000) but also many smaller items for much less.

Like many along this strip, he rents out his items to television and film crews — he’d just loaned out several paintings that morning to a movie starring Kathy Bates and Felicity Jones being filmed locally.

We treated ourselves to dinner at Lemeac, far from the tourist trail, in the elegant residential Francophone neighborhood of Outremont. Diners ranged from hipsters in their 20s and 30s to a woman in a gold turban in her 70s or beyond. As we left at 10:30, a line-up filled the doorway…

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I took a spin class at the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, whose drop-in rate is $30, (but $15 for some guests of local hotels, like ours.) The classroom was large and sunny, on the top floor, and — like everything in Montreal — offered in a mix of French and English.

The MAA is in a gorgeous pair of buildings from 1905, with two lovely period stained glass windows that glow at night; the lobby contains a fantastic, huge period photo mural from 1890 — celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Montreal Snowshoe Club.

The club has been open since 1881 and is well worth a visit. Much more fun than a tedious hotel gym!

One of the things I most enjoy about Montreal is how damn stylish its women are — especially those 50 and beyond. Oh la la! Great haircuts. Great hair color. Chic, minimalist clothing in gray, black, cream and beige. Lots of them wearing cool sneakers, studded with black crystals or a fur pom-pom.

I find it really inspiring.

We shopped at two Canadian retail legends, Browns shoe store (men and women) and Aritizia, a privately-owned Vancouver-based chain also sold online and in the U.S. that sells women’s clothing. Its colors are mostly limited to solid burgundy, olive, dark green, black, gray and a mid-pink, many in knits; prices are reasonable for the quality with many items below $100 to $150. I also appreciate their sizing, some of which easily and stylishly accommodates me (between a 12 and 14) without screaming this is a plus-size garment!

I’ve gone twice now to the salon La Coupe, at the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke, for cut and color; the color was fantastic and well-priced. The space is dead simple, even basic — black, gray and white — but offers a variety of services and has been in business since 1967.

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Walking the city offers lots of architectural surprises; be a tourist and look up to find some unusual sights, like this gray stone building now housing McGill’s alumni association that used to house a distiller’s headquarters. It looks like a Scottish castle!

Visiting Montreal is like a quick, easy trip to France, with many of the same charms and pleasures; this is Alexandre et fils, where I ate in the mid 1980s when I was a feature writer at the Montreal Gazette and lived nearby — three of my former colleagues still work there.

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Buying at auction. Just did it: some tips!

By Caitlin Kelly

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I’ve been going to auctions for decades, mostly small regional ones in Nova Scotia, England, New Hampshire and Ontario. I’ve scored some great/lucky deals, both in the room and bidding by phone, buying (gulp!) almost sight unseen, beyond a small thumbnail image on a website.

I’ve even bid in Swedish (!) on a visit to Stockholm and came home with a large antique tray.

On holiday this past summer in Berlin, I stumbled upon an auction house there, Grisebach, and now get their catalogue as well.

My best auction buy ever is a large teal-stained armoire,  possibly Quebec in origin and possibly 18th century — as evidenced by its form, its hardware and its construction, (all of which I’ve studied so I had some idea what I was buying!) I bought it over the phone from a New Hampshire auctioneer I know and trust; even with delivery charges to New York, it cost less than new junk made in China.

This week I went into Manhattan to Swann Galleries, a 66-year-old auction house on East 25th. St., hoping to acquire a print from 1925 by Raoul Dufy or a lithograph from the same year by Maurice Vlaminck.

We’ve sold photos at Swann, so I get their newsletter with upcoming sales and carefully examined everything on-line for this one. So many gorgeous things!

This sale was of 19th and 20th-century prints, including drawings, lithos, etchings, engraving, monoprints, by everyone from Picasso to Thomas Hart Benton to Diego Rivera, whose pencil portrait was something I so wished was in our budget. The estimate was $20,000 to $30,000 — and the price rose quickly from $14,000 to the hammer (final) price of $32,000.

(It’s called the hammer price because, like a courtroom judge, the auctioneer knocks with a small piece of wood on his podium to audibly finish the bidding and announce the piece is sold.)

If you’ve never attended or bid at auction, it can seem terrifying and mysterious, but is neither.

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My paddle and the catalogue; (the cover painting, a watercolor by Feininger, sold for $38,000)

 

You really do have to do some homework, though, to know what it is you hope to buy and whether it’s a limited edition, its rarity, in what condition, and who owned it before, known as  provenance. That can add a huge boost to the perceived value of an item, for example, a Cartier watch that belonged to Jackie Onassis, estimated at Christie’s for $129,000 sold for $379,500.

The auction preview — all of this free — allows everyone to carefully examine and note the condition of the item(s) you might want to bid on; if furniture, it’s quite normal to take a small flashlight or blacklight, (which can show evidence of repair), even a threaded needle to see if “wormholes” are fake.

If you’re looking at furniture, you also need to know that a  “marriage” means someone has added new material to an older piece, reducing its value, even if it looks great.

At Swann, I saw immediately that both prints I liked had some acidic damage to the surrounding paper, something I wouldn’t have known by bidding online and I learned that a conservator could clean it and what that might cost.

You have to set a budget, as there’s almost always a buyer’s premium, in Swann’s case an additional 25 percent, (plus New York City tax) so the final cost was just over 33 percent more than the hammer price.

Several others might be bidding against you, driving up the price very quickly. Decisiveness is key!

You register and are given a paddle, (a sign with a number), to signal your bid. Each time someone bids the price rises, by increments each time of $100, $1,000, $2,000 or more. (At smaller sales, those can be much smaller.)

Others might also be bidding against you on-line, by a left bid, in the room and by telephone, and the auctioneer has to stay on top of all of it; at Swann, there were four people handling phone bids, one handling on-line bids and one with orders, bids left on paper.

Every item also has a pre-sale estimate — i.e. what they think it might sell for, at the lowest price, but it can go for less, (usually not less than half of that) or for much, much more. It just depends how badly someone wants it.

As the final bids came in, the Swann auctioneer gently said: “Fair warning…Are we all through?” When someone won a piece who was in the room, he said: “Thank you. Congratulations.”

After I won both images (!), he smiled and said “You’re cleaning up today!”

The Swann saleroom was empty most of the time I was there except for a few dealers, with all the action happening on-line and by phone. There were several dogfights and one piece, (by Picasso), started at $60,000 and quickly soared to the hammer price of $100,000.

Matisse works went for $8,000, $13,000 and $12,000 — but one also went for only $550. A work by Paul Klee began at $19,000 and sold for $24,000.

Not every auction is this pricey! At smaller regional auctions, I’ve carried home armloads of loot for $20 to $50.

Who attends, and bids at auction? Collectors, dealers, interior designers shopping for clients.

Sometimes ordinary people like me.

Have you attended or bid at auction?

Did you enjoy it or buy anything?

 

It’s spring! Time for a room refresh?

By Caitlin Kelly

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One of our many mirrors…

We’ve just endured the least-sunny, most-gloomy winter in my 25+ years living in downstate New York — day after day after day after day of gray clouds, rain, mist and/or fog.

Soooooo depressing!

If I wanted that climate, I’d move to the Pacific Northwest.

So, after a few years of loving the soft dove gray walls in our small sitting room, I’d had enough.

I couldn’t take one more glimpse of gray.

Back to my favorite paint store, Farrow & Ball, an English company whose paint has, to my formally-trained design eye, the loveliest colors on offer, now 132.

You can test their colors out with $8 sample pots, (a must, painted on a large white card, carefully considered in all kinds of light, from daylight to candlelight, with every adjacent fabric on it.)

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Here’s our new sitting room choice — number 286, name Peignoir. Love it!

It’s the palest warm lavender, like clouds at sunset, its tones ever-changing with the light. That exact tone is in our curtain fabric and also had to relate comfortably to two adjacent wall colors, difficult in an open-plan 1960s-era apartment. (It didn’t hurt that all three colors are Farrow & Ball. Their colors can work beautifully with one another.)

We already had a color scheme, thanks to a rug and curtains.

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I’ll later add some of my own floral images, framed.

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A few quick ways to refresh a room; (you can find low-cost options in thrift stores, flea markets, Ebay and Craigslist):

Paint!

Usually by far the cheapest answer, especially, (if as we do), you do the prep/sanding/spackling/painting yourself. A gallon of paint can cover a lot of wall, (especially over a light color), and a fresh creamy white can punch up dinged/dingy baseboards, (skirting boards to Britons.)

Adding color(s) terrifies many people, and getting it wrong can mean visual misery. No matter what you think you like, when choosing a color, consider:

1) the color of your floor;

2) the color of your current furniture and fabrics;

3) which way the room faces, (e.g. north light is cooler);

4) the mood you want to create.

Read a few smart websites on color and color schemes — then buy a big piece of foam-core and paint a 3 foot square sample, maybe of several colors, or different hues/intensities of the same color.

Then choose.

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The floral is our sitting room curtains

Fabrics

The world is full of amazing fabric, from spendy designer stuff to Ikea to Spoonflower, where you can design and print your own. I love vintage textiles and search them out at antique shows, flea markets and auctions, making them into throw pillows and tablecloths.

Even the simplest sofa can benefit happily from a few fresh pillows in complementary colors; Pier One, in the U.S., is a great/affordable resource as are pricier Horchow, Serena & Lily and Anthropologie.

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Fresh flowers — a must!

Flowers and plants

Our home is never without multiple arrangements of fresh flowers, whether a single lily — brilliant orange, pure white, soft pink — or a bunch of purple or white or red tulips.

I keep Oasis on hand, (the green foam used by florists you can cut and shape to any size), allowing you to make anything non-leaky into a floral container. Floral frogs, of metal and glass, with holes and spikes to hold stems in place, (easiest to find at flea markets) are also helpful.

Rugs

They don’t have to be dark nor boldly patterned nor made of wool!

Too many people just throw down a big pile of red or blue or dark green and get stuck with an ugly color scheme as a result.

I prefer lighter colors and cotton and wool flat-weaves, like kilims. A favorite site of mine is Dash & Albert, with a wide range of colors and sizes.

Here’s our rug…

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Mirrors

A must, especially when they reflect sunlight into and around a room.

Don’t hang them too high.

Our bedroom mirror, from Anthropologie, is this one, $128.00.

Total cost of our sitting room refresh:

1 gallon Farrow & Ball paint        $99

1 quart white semi-gloss paint for baseboards     $12

two vintage (bought in 2010, originally) chairs     $450

new tray                     $56

3 pots Farrow & Ball (color: Churlish Green) to repaint bamboo boxes we owned        $24

$641.00

A former student, now instructor, at The New York School of Interior Design, I can help!

Email me for a consultation, $100 U.S./hour: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.