Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Find: A Treasure of a Tree

One of my favorite diversions is thrift shopping with my dear friend Ruth Handel. We will hit the streets of Santa Monica at the crack of dawn, and cruise by driveways strewn with colored glass bottles, milk crates full of 1960s record albums, wooden chairs draped with skinny neckties and metal tables heaped with vintage cookbooks.

We will eagerly spend hours discovering potential treasures: a carpenters box loaded with outdated tools, a pile of grocery shopping bags from stores that no longer exist or maybe a canister loaded with old kitchen utensils. Ruth is my voice of reason: she will calm me down when I become over-excited about a book demonstrating pinecone crafts or develop an impractical affinity for a funky glass vase that might be too difficult to carry back on the plane. She never encourages extravagant purchases, and firmly believes in thrift karma: if you love it, buy it; but if it’s way out of your budget, leave it be.

But on an outing a few years back to The Santa Monica Outdoor Antique and Collectible Market, our discovery was too phenomenal to ignore. Hanging in a booth was this framed Christmas tree encrusted with 1960s costume jewelry. It had working, twinkling lights nestled among an intricate, bejeweled symmetry of brooches, earrings and pendants. It was beyond my budget, but Ruth, on the only occasion I can recall, said, “Buy it!” She fronted me the bills and my glittery evergreen was packaged up and sent to New York where she leans in all her shimmering glamour against my living room wall all year long shimmering glamour.

This year, I gave my jewel-box-of-a-tree a place of prominence in my dining room where she spreads her exotic splendor over the coming festivities. At night I plug her in and she lights up, and I’m reminded of the day that Ruth and I made this true holiday find.

In May 2009, Clarkson Potter will publish my book, The Find: The Housing Works Book of Decorating with Thrift Shop Treasures, Flea Market Objects, and Vintage Details.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Divine Inspiration: In Bed With The Empress

A home that’s decorated with love and attention is sure to endure the ages, even when the owners have long packed their bags and fourtunes shifted with the tides of time. I credit decorator Mark Ciolli, principal of the design firm Carl & Co. (, for introducing me to such a home – one where original details have been exquisitely restored, and the glamour and the glory of Napoléon Bonaparte and his beloved Joséphine continues to reign.

My friend Catherine and I recently took a train and a bus to arrive at the royal residence of Malmaison, located on the outskirts of Paris. At first, the name doesn’t sound so appealing, with the word mal taking prominent position in its name. But despite the label, Malmaison is a lasting testament to the adoration a couple shared for each other, even after Joséphine was forced to divorce the emperor in 1809 when she was unable to produce an heir.

While married, Napoléon and Joséphine acquired Malmaison in the late 1800s, and the husband left it to his wife the responsibilities of renovating and redecorating. As any royal would, she enlisted the top architects of the day, Percier and Fontaine, to provide luxurious details and sumptuous décor – all the efforts of which blew her budget. Upon his return, Napoléon clearly forgave his wife for her extravagant decorating venture that turned Malmaison into what is still considered today a pilgrimage for the most serious decorators.

The richest of Malmaison’s décor is found in The Empress’s tented bedroom. While traveling in Milan during the summer of 1812, Josephine decided to have her old bedroom freshened up a bit by architect Louis-Martin Berthault. Imagine the delight she must have experienced upon discovering her new bed created by acclaimed furniture maker Jacob-Desmalter – one watched over by golden imperial eagles and flanked on either side by romantic swans and abundant cornucopias.

A more modest space, yet fresh and upbeat by today’s standards, is The Emperor’s Bedroom. The regal bed originally came from the Tuileries palace and was used by Joséphine’s son from a previous marriage, Eugène de Beauharnais. Once again crafted by Jacob-Desmalter, the busts of a lovely ladies realized in bronze and decorated in gold, must have kept the emperor in feminine company each night.

The yellow silk fabric with a black trim was just as at home in a royal residence in the 1800s as it would be today in a Palm Beach sun room. It exudes a bright outlook with its light creamy hue and a contemporary twist of bold, optical black trims, which are echoed in the facing draperies.

From the tented ceiling in the Counsel Room to the velvet covered, gold leafed chairs flanked by painted swans whose image of power is reflected in a coordinating, round Aubusson, the riches continue to flow at this glorious home, and the story of a couple truly in love still warms the halls of Malmaison.

In May 2009, Clarkson Potter will publish my book, The Find: The Housing Works Book of Decorating with Thrift Shop Treasures, Flea Market Objects, and Vintage Details.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Reuse and Repurpose: What the Looking Glass Says

Mirrors are powerful, yet thankless objects. They are not judgmental, but nothing comes of their reflections when left to their own volition. They are demanding, though, requiring consistent nurturing to emit any emotions at all. When their qualities are properly tended to, their shiny properties are capable of capturing and projecting the soul of their surroundings or illusions of the people who chance to peer into them.

In his 1961 book, The Château, William Maxwell recounts the tour of a young American couple who visits France just after World War II. As I was reading this fantastic story that roams the romantic French countryside, the lines below, uttered by an aged deaf fellow lodger at the château who was impervious to an on-going conversation, jogged my thoughts:

“….cats are indifferent to their own reflection in a mirror. ‘Dogs often fail to recognize themselves,’ she said, as they all stared at her in surprise. ‘Children are pleased. The wicked see what other people see…. and the mirror sees nothing at all.’”

I was reminded of an inspiring mirror in my Croatian friend Marino Krstacic-Furic’s hallways. Always filled with enthusiasm and creative energy, Marino gets an idea in his head and attacks with gusto, sometimes resulting in a bull-in-a-china-shop situation like the one that resulted in the broken mirror just a few days before our arrival to his charming home in Rjieka.

For some people, a cracked mirror would signal doom and gloom. But for Marino, it offered a canvas of opportunity to display hope and joy. He drew attention away from the broken corner of the mirror by covering it with a duo of framed prints: one of peppy, colorful exclamation points and another of a dark forest. And when you study the reflection further, you take away a bit of Marino’s hopeful attitude. At the top of the picture of Marino's looking glass, you'll notice a tried and true symbol of luck leaning against the floor molding -- a rusty old horse shoe!

Sometimes we ignore what the mirror is capable of telling us and become distracted by what we view as ugly or hideous. Beyond that cracked image is there a patina of beauty? A twinkle of hope? Look closely. It might be right in front of you.

In May 2009, Clarkson Potter will publish my book, The Find: The Housing Works Book of Decorating with Thrift Shop Treasures, Flea Market Objects, and Vintage Details.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Divine Inspiration: Royal Reflections

When we gaze into the looking glass, it’s not so much the reflective surface that inspires us, but the image that it casts.

The most regal mirror of exquisitely beveled lead glass, even when framed in exotic wood and finished with in rarest of gold leaf, has disaster potential when the reflection it projects is unappealing.

In my book The Find: The Housing Works Book of Decorating with Thrift Shop Treasures, Flea Market Objects, and Vintage Details, I discuss ways to place mirrored surfaces so that they effectively cast an illusion of depth, add a sparkle of light-filled elegance or even repeat an attractive motif or pattern throughout a decorated space.

So when American artist Jeff Koons displayed his reflective objects of pop culture banality in the Palace of Versailles, we witness the living space of Louis XIV come to life in the shimmering surfaces of a pink overblown balloon dog in the Salon of Hercules, a giant red heart reigning over a royal staircase or a stainless steel moon rising within the confines of the glorious Hall of Mirrors.

At first glance, the pieces are humorous with their pop culture references and the odd juxtaposition within surroundings that was home to the French court. But then you focus on the ears of Bunny, a stainless steel sculpture in the Salon of Abundance, and notice the symmetrical reflections of windows, doors and paintings in it surface. Magically, this silly silver bunny has opened your eyes to a room from a whole new angle, one that architect Louis Le Brun may never have imagined.

As you enter the celebrated Hall of Mirrors with its 357 linked mirrors that represents the glory of France during the reign of The Sun King, a gigantic stainless steel moon rises over the far end, adding to the magnificence of the royal setting. You experience the hustle and bustle of a room that has been doubled in size decoratively as passersby are reflected in its metallic surface and camera flashes emulate a glittering candlelit flicker.

Look closely at the photo I took below and you can pretty much see the entire hall with its number of crystal chandeliers increased by two-fold and its light amplified by this looming metal lunar structure.

Koons succeeds in presenting Versailles with a brand new vision, bringing new life into a structure that has been a destination of taste, power, passion and invention for decades. It’s so easy to imagine that his creations were specifically designed for their temporary surroundings to accentuate the luxury of royal living.

Louis XIV would be proud.

In May 2009, Clarkson Potter will publish my book, The Find: The Housing Works Book of Decorating with Thrift Shop Treasures, Flea Market Objects, and Vintage Details.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Gift of Thrift: A Bevy of Beauty

I believe in thrift-store karma. Sometimes you just know you’ve gotta’ have a specific object – a beaded bag, a nostalgic paper fan or a vintage greeting card, and you aren’t even sure why. So you proceed to take your goodies home, and then, mysteriously, the gods who reign over thrifty discoveries eventually make their intentions clear.

Back in October, I was creating a hooch bag for my friend Allison and went to Housing Works in Greenwich Village to look for the right kind of clutch in which to pack full of flight-sized booze and funny money. I found the perfect model for Alison, but at the same time I ran across a satin, beaded clutch from the 1960s in perfect condition that I ended up buying at the same time, even though I was unsure of its potential owner.

As I was making Allison’s hooch extravaganza, I remembered a treasure trove of vintage shopping bags I had saved from the recycling pile, and there amongst relics of shopping sprees spanning more than 30 years was a signature, violet covered Bonwit Teller tote hearkening back to the iconic New York retailer that finally shut its doors in 1990. The bag reminded my of the stories my best pal Bevy Smith told me about her parents purchasing school clothes for her and her siblings and the warm memories she holds for a department store that only lives in memory. That’s when the beaded bag’s ultimate purpose was revealed: it was to become an essential element of a gift I would offer Bevy on her birthday, a date only a few days away.

From there, everything started to fall magically in place. I took the beaded bag and filled it with miniature bottles of rum and vodka and nestled them among bills of faux dough. Bevy's own hooch bag suddenly materialized! Enough money in the world couldn’t buy Bevy the jewels she deserves, so I settled instead on the gloriously photographed book, Alchemy: A Passion for Jewels by Temple St. Clair, the inimitable jewelry designer, and wrapped it up in lavender tissue. The crowning moment came when I propped a fan from the 1960s honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. and Bobby Kennedy inside a bed of silk violets that I bought in Manhattan’s floral district, all peering out of the top of the shopping bag. At the same place I acquired the fan, Vintiques on Kansas City, Missouri’s River Market, I turned up a sweet vintage birthday card of two fancy ladies see-sawing against a background of girly pink.

For a gift label, I found a photo of the Bonwit Teller charge plate and super-imposed Bevy’s name on its surface, along with a credit card number comprised of numbers gleaned from the recipients date of birth. Bevy, hope you enjoy my gift to you as much as I delighted in creating it. And, remember. Your credit limit with me is unlimited!

In May 2009, Clarkson Potter will publish my book, The Find: The Housing Works Book of Decorating with Thrift Shop Treasures, Flea Market Objects, and Vintage Details.

Reuse and Repurpose: The Mosaic Man

When I moved into an apartment in the heart of the East Village in the late 1980s, it was an artsy, rough-and-tumble neighborhood -- one that co-workers couldn’t believe I had decided to call home. “Don’t live any where east of Second Avenue,” one said, adding that it would also be prudent to stay out of Alphabet City, where then avenues take on A, B, C and D names. I had already chosen to live on Fourth Street between First and Second Avenues, so being a fresh-faced Midwesterner, those warnings only prompted my curious exploration.

In those days, Upper East and West Siders called it slumming when they risked going down to the East Village. Many of them -- investment bankers, advertising professionals and retail executives -- decided they liked it so much that they would just move in. They certainly were getting a bargain price for housing compared to their previous neighborhoods. Soon the phrase, “Die Yuppie Scum,” started appearing painted on sidewalks and smeared on building facades.

There was a mini-demonstration in front of a Gap store when it opened on the corner of Saint Marks Place and Second Avenue. You would avoid being noticed just looking in the window for fear you would be confused with one of the hated, capitalist traitors new to the neighborhood. In those days, I worked in the Wall Street area, where a woven shirt and tie in the office was required. So before leaving my apartment every morning, I would tuck my tie into my black and red French messenger bag so I wouldn’t be mistaken with the offensive invaders.

The summer of 1988 was the time of the Thompkins Square Park riots, where police on horseback and in riot gear tried to force skinheads, punks and homeless people out of the park, which was the centerpiece of gentrification in the neighborhood. I remember phoning my poor dad on that early August afternoon, with police helicopters hovering over my building, keeping watch for any breakouts of violence in the streets. That September, I discovered Wigstock, the fabulous drag extravaganza made famous by the iconic The Lady Bunny, and a stimulating music and arts scene that I had never experienced back in Kansas City.

It was also the summer I noticed beautiful mosaics popping up on light poles around the neighborhood. Made of broken pieces of glass, china and pottery, these fanciful mosaics brought a cheery softness to the street, and a sense of surprise when discovered practically out of nowhere.

For some 20 years, Jim Power, a homeless Vietnam Vet who lives in a tent in the street, has personally decorated and maintained the East Village Mosaic Trail. But its time may have come to an end. According to Power on his blog,, he can no longer afford it. “Too much for one guy and a dog Jessie Jane to handle,” he says in a blog he posted at the end of October, noting that he spent $2,000 a year maintaining his art, only to make $200 in return. “What a joke,” he adds, but “just remember, I was willing.”

My hope is that someone will step forward to save Power's art. Every time I see one of his other-worldly creations, I feel comforted knowing that he preserved the beauty of what might have been a delicate tea set that accidentally got knocked off the table or a funny face salvaged from the demise of a vase that tumbled off a mantle. One man’s destruction becomes another’s selfless form of self-expression – one that nurtures new life and that for yet another moment, is viewed as whole.

In May 2009, Clarkson Potter will publish my book, The Find: The Housing Works Book of Decorating with Thrift Shop Treasures, Flea Market Objects, and Vintage Details.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Living Memories: Sound Check

For the last time this morning, I pulled the lever on one of New York’s old-fashioned voting machines. When Election Day rolls around next year, New York State will have replaced the bulky, metal hulks, whose origins date back to the 1890s but went out of production in 1982, with optical scanning devices.

Where I grow up in Independence, Mo., the state shifted in the 1970s to a punch ballot system – the same one that left the miserable hanging chads in Florida. But I still remember as a kid entering one of those time-honored booths with Dad, parting the mysterious dark curtain and watching him flip levers in columns that ran the width of the machine.

The grand finale came when he registered his vote with an authoritative chug-a-chug that echoed as he heaved the red metal bar to the left. It’s a sound that makes you feel like your vote really means something, like it might be etched in stone or stamped solidly into history.

I imagine that the metal-on-metal assurance that my voice was heard will be replaced by a click and a whoosh. Let’s just hope our votes will always be counted.

In May 2009, Clarkson Potter will publish my book, The Find: The Housing Works Book of Decorating with Thrift Shop Treasures, Flea Market Objects, and Vintage Details.