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.

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?