Gimme shelter…magazines!

IMG_4350(1)

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I need help!

Everyone has an obsession, right?

Mine seems to be shelter magazines, the industry word for magazines focused on interior design. Stacks of them fill baskets, bookshelves and bags around our apartment, and I part with them reluctantly, only because there’s no room.

I grew up, ages 8 to 16, in boarding school and summer camp, which I’m sure has something to do with this. Boarding school meant sharing a room with at least 3 or 4 others, sleeping in a twin metal  bed with an institutional chenille or cotton bedspread. Summer camp meant sharing with 3 or 4 others and sleeping in a wooden bunk-bed, its only “decoration” the graffiti of earlier residents on the raw wood.

So beauty, comfort, style and elegance matter a great deal to me.

I’m able to keep my wallet snapped shut and stay off of most on-line shopping sites, but…but…oooohh, I do love a gorgeous fabric and have splurged multiple times ordering fabric-by-the-yard and having it made into custom throw pillows or curtains.

 

IMG_4353(1)

I had our old Crate & Barrel sofa refreshed with new bold piping on the seat cushions and had these throw pillows custom-made. Adding piping or welting always makes it  look more finished.

 

Our most recent purchase, from an antiques show in town, are four 1960s pale gray Chinese Chippendale-esque outdoor chairs, fabric for their cushions and a new outdoor rug for the balcony.

Because Jose and I so enjoy entertaining, it’s nice to open the door and feel completely at ease that our guests will enjoy a pretty, comfortable environment.

I also studied interior design seriously in the mid-1990s at the New York School of Interior Design, planning to ditch journalism and change careers. But my husband bailed and I couldn’t afford to work for $10/hour to start at the bottom. I loved my classes and  now really appreciate what training and skill it takes to create a spectacular space.

My parents each had terrific taste, collecting art and antiques. My father had a gorgeous Knole sofa I still remember decades later. My mother brought home lovely mirrored textiles from India and pale mantas from Peru.

And my maternal grandmother inherited a pile of money and hired Toronto’s best interior designer to furnish her apartment and, later, carriage house. I still remember a spectacular orange wallpaper from her powder room.

 

thumbnail

Our living room curtains, lined, custom-made maybe a decade ago. Lots of colors to work from in here; that pale yellow-green (Farrow & Ball’s Gervase Yellow) is one of them.

 

So I happily spend hours paging through other people’s homes, whether a villa in Tuscany, a cottage in Muskoka, Ontario or a 17th. century pile in some bit of rural England. I’m not especially drawn to opulence, and much prefer simplicity, like 18th century Swedish designs or the work of Axel Vervoordt.

I love The English Home, as much for  its amazing early houses — some 400 or 500 years old — as the distinctly British sense of color and design. All those tall, tall windows, lined chintz curtains and dressing tables.

On my last visit to London, my pal Cadence, author of Small Dog Syndrome blog — who knows my love of textiles — took me to the Cloth Shop, a legendary London store that supplied fabrics and ribbons to the costume-makers of the Harry Potter films. I bought a lovely teal fabric that now covers our bed headboard.

 

IMG_1791

Two Farrow & Ball colors; French Gray and Peignoir (the lavender one). The drawers were custom-built into a former closet and this is the corner of our small dining room.

 

And, because I am a complete Farrow & Ball fangirl, I traveled 2.5. hours one-way by train and taxi in July 2017 to visit their paint and wallpaper factory in Dorset and meet one of their two heads of color, Charlie Cosby; here’s an interview with her and some explanations of their quirky paint color names, like Dead Salmon, Clunch and Elephant’s Breath.

Here are a few of my favorite go-to design retailers: Wisteria, Ballard Designs, Jayson Home, Anthropologie, Mothology, Dash & Albert, Serena & Lily.

 

Why buy art?

IMG_20170919_141048_625

Tools of the trade! An auction catalogue and bidding paddle

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Isn’t that something only rich people do? Billionaires in salerooms like Christie’s and Sotheby’s (pronounced Suth-uh-bees with a soft, slurred th) flicking an eyelid to denote their multi-zero bid?

Actually no.

But buying original art — even a numbered print, (lithograph, engraving, etching, silkscreen, monoprint, linocut) — can feel intimidating until you learn the lingo.

My father is a documentary film-maker but also a talented artist working in a range of media, including oils, lithograph, engraving and even silver. He’s collected art  — from a Picasso litho to a Renoir engraving, (both of which I’ve spotted in Swann catalogues), to Inuit soapstone sculpture to 19th century Japanese prints.

I was very lucky to grow up with such eclectic beauty on our walls, and it absolutely informed how I see and what I enjoy. It also showed me that owning art is a lovely decision. You can go through a few sofas in your lifetime, but art you love is something to keep for years.

In my 20s, thanks to an inheritance, I bought a large silkscreen print, photos by Jerry Uelsmann, Andre Kertesz and Steichen and three colored pencil sketches. I did, I admit, make a calculated decision about the photos, and sold the Kertesz later at Swann.

 

IMG_20170919_132147214_HDR

The saleroom at Swann Galleries in Manhattan. The works are all on display for preview and you can ask to examine them closely without covers before you bid to know what their condition is and how much it might cost to restore.

 

If you’re on Etsy or Instagram, you’ll find many artists selling their work, some of it very affordable. Generally, it’s wise to frame paper artwork carefully with acid-free matt and UV-protective glass  and photos, especially, need to displayed out of direct sunlight.

 

But why buy art?

 

Good heavens, why not?

If you can afford $500 or $1,200 for a new cellphone or computer you can acquire art at that price.

Hanging on our bedroom wall is a gorgeous litho I got at Swann for $600 by Maurice Vlaminck, from the 1920s. Over our bed now hangs an etching by Raoul Dufy, from the same auction, for which I paid a bit more.

I read the catalogue carefully, decided which ones I wanted and decided what my budget was — the auction house always adds a “buyer’s premium” of 25 percent, sometimes less. I registered, got my paddle (which you raise to show you’re bidding on that item), and waited for hours til “my” pieces came up. There are hundreds of items in an auction, and its rhythm is carefully planned. There’s always an estimate given weeks in advance, which can go low or blast far above projections.

But you can also buy art at antique stores, galleries, graduating student shows at local art colleges, street fairs.

I love the explosive style, brilliant colors and Canadian landscapes of this artist, Julia Veenstra, who I found and follow on Instagram.

A splurge — $1,500 — was for an image I stumbled across at the Winter Antiques Show, a very fancy New York City affair I usually just attend to savor museum-quality material I could never afford. But…oh my…there was a photo exhibitor from California selling images by a man I had never heard of that stopped me in my tracks.

I now want all his work!

Here’s a link to the image I bought; the photographer is a man in his 60s, a Finn named Pentti Sammhallahti. Here’s the page of his work.  

I find it mysterious, quiet and deeply compelling.

I’ve been collecting photography since my 20s and Jose, of course, added some extraordinary images from his own collection — including a signed and numbered original print of The Loneliest Job in the World, the iconic black and white image of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy standing in his office, silhouetted against the window; Jose began his career at The New York Times working with the photographer George Tames, who signed and gave it to him.

Copies now sell for $50 from the Times’ archive — our print is very different, much darker and has a totally different feeling to it as a result.

So, where to start?

 

Go to a museum or contemporary art gallery — and take your time!

 

Notice which pieces move you.

 

Which make you stand still and stare, mesmerized?

 

What is it about them: color, period, artist, detail, scale, brushwork, subject matter?

 

It doesn’t have to be pretty or decorative.

 

Ignore everyone who snaps a cellphone image and doesn’t even look at the work.

Learning about materials and processes will make asking questions of gallerists and auctioneers easier.

I wish everyone could afford and would own some original art. Few things I’ve ever spent money on have offered me such consistent daily pleasure.

 

Do you own any?

Would you ever buy a piece if you could afford to?

Which categories appeal to you?

Kintsugi life

 

 

IMG_1180

 

 

By Caitlin Kelly

As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. — Wikipedia

 

The term is most often used to describe a specific way to repair broken pottery, often Japanese. I think it fits life as well.

By a certain point — for some, their teens, others their 50s or 70s — you’ve quite likely been dropped hard a few times against something unyielding. By this, I mean metaphorically and (I hope!) not the result of assault or physical abuse.

We’re not delicate porcelain or exquisite Ming pottery, but we are all fragile and all end up, inevitably, crazed; a word with two definitions, the second meaning spider-webby fine cracks.

 

In a culture increasingly devoted — paradoxically — to the rustic, artisanal and authentic and the social media offerings of glossy perfection, the notion of being broken and repaired, let alone stronger, more beautiful and more valuable for having been broken, perhaps repeatedly, seems radical and bizarre.

 

I’m into it.

Volumes have been written of late praising grit and resilience, as if — at the end of months or years or decades of being gritty and resilient — we aren’t exhausted and scarred. Maybe wiser. Maybe sadder.

I love early porcelain and china, and use several 18th. century pieces as butter dishes…stupidly undervalued. I want to enjoy them while I can. Unlike Japanese work, with its elegant crack-filling lines of gold, they’re stapled together (!), like recent brain surgery patients.

I don’t love these objects any the less for their war wounds, but am so grateful these little emissaries from the past are still with us….that having graced someone’s table in 1789 or 1832, they’re still here for us to use and share.

I feel this way about people.

The ones I most admire aren’t the shiny folk, all smooth and slippery, glittery, preening  and unscathed, but the ragged and weary survivors of physical, mental, professional, emotional and financial struggle — depending on their age and background, possibly all of these — who somehow remain graceful and fun, able to laugh and savor what’s left of their lives.

 

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!

 

IMG_20140919_170342451_HDR

 

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.

 

 

IMG_2343

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.

 

fullsizerender4

 

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

IMG_1388

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.

 

IMG_20151003_105310683
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.

 

Bathtub02
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.

 

20120707123625

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.)

 

IMG_20160706_152545621_HDR

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.

 

COMBO 02A

 

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?

 

IMG_0879

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.

 

IMG_20170919_141048_625

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.)

 

L1000708

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

IMG_1541

 

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.

 

IMG_1180

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.

 

IMG_1543

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.

 

IMG_1534

 

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.

 

IMG_1536

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.

 

IMG_1545

 

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

img_20160928_183329860

 

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

 

fullsizerender4

A pot of tea

 

Fresh flowers in every room

 

Diner rice pudding

 

L1000877 (1)

 

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

 

L1000469

 

Unscheduled time

 

Trimming jib

 

IMG_20160703_080411092

 

Setting a pretty table for a party

 

20131119182528

Lighting candles

 

The delicious sillage of someone’s very crisp cologne

 

IMG_20141225_142038922

 

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

 

IMG_20150716_155628691_HDR
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

IMG_20141207_095448861_HDR
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.

 

IMG_20160703_080411092

Summer breakfast on our New York balcony

 

IMG_20141207_094007517
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:

 

montreal 4

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

 

L1000880

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

 

fullsizerender4

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

 

IMG_20160706_151944596_HDR

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

 

IMG_20150829_115150791
A vintage tablecloth scored in Maine

 

IMG_20150525_204627866(1)
We love to have dinner on our balcony, a pleasure we eagerly await all year long

 

 

IMG_20150530_152345263_HDR
A table set for one of our dinner parties