Old Loves

At the birthday party of a friend last weekend, taxed from added project hours and feeling not as sociable as one wants to at a gathering, I took refuge in the house, where I was able to capture photos of my friend’s collections.  He is an antique dealer with an eye for handsome accessories. While the party guests talked and laughed out on the lawn, I tried to get the camera on my phone to capture light in these dim, romantic rooms.  Looking back over the pictures kindles that pleasure I feel in old homes with good bones and interesting appointments.

carl's black and white porch

The welcoming side porch of our friend’s house, fresh and crisp with black and white paint.

My first memory of an old house with fine collections takes me back to childhood, up along a winding path where shaggy lilacs and intrepid honeysuckle wrestled together in the heat of a summer twilight.  A small, clapboard cottage with deep porches and long casement windows, it was elegantly proportioned if not grand.  Even then, though the eaves were swept clean of spider webs and the beds jealously guarded against weeds, it was a house in genteel decline.  The paint on the siding was crackled and dry; the tin roof sagged ever so slightly, a sway-backed horse too long in the fields.

It was Mrs. Hansberger’s house.  There was a Mr. Hansberger, too, but somehow it was the wife to whom everyone attributed the ownership of the place.  It may not have been an ownership of deed and dollars, but rather the heart-felt possessiveness of steward to keep.  I only went there once, standing in the dimness of the living room with a handful of other children from the church, come to check in on the elderly couple.

Mrs. Hansberger showed us things from their travels in India and Africa: a pierced fan that smelled of spices; a bentwood screen that cast curly shadows on the wall; the doors of a walnut armoire groaned as she opened them.  Within the case, her mix of fine china gleamed brightly.  It had been a long time since they had a dinner party, she said, taking out a saucer and tracing a finger over the design.  As I recall it, she seemed wistful.  But perhaps her memories warmed her.  A night under a tent in Africa, laughing into a tilted glass of wine while a hand-cranked phonograph played a drowsy waltz.   Beyond the wash of lamplight, there came a rustling from the grass.  Birds called from the tops of trees that melted against the sunset.

The devilish keeper of the flame, rendered in brass, looms from the shadows of the dining room.

The devilish keeper of the flame, rendered in brass, looms from the shadows of the dining room.

I’ve grown poetic, slightly cinematic, in attributing to plump little Mrs. Hansberger memories that more justifiably belong to the life of Karen Blixen.  But that is the romance of old homes, fine old things.  They can transport us to times when there was elegance in the smallest domestic rituals.  It is marvelous to live in an era of medical advancements, social progress, and ever-evolving communications.  Yet the keepers of antiques carry our past into the rooms of our futures, reminding us that even as we download the latest app onto our phone, we might choose to light candles tonight as if it were our only light, to take out our best china, setting the table as if a baroness were coming to dinner.



Bespoke Design

The look of design today is driven by a turn toward modest, meaningful living.  We see the shift mostly in the emerging nester generation, although mature homeowners, in downsizing, are also drawn to simple, customized designs.  In smaller homes it is often easier to focus on multiple details, and to get big impact from less complicated changes.

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Most importantly, in considering smaller home living, many of our clients are discovering what we have detected in nesters of all house sizes: that people are naturally happiest in the nest within the nest, those crucial communal spaces such as kitchen and family room, or in restful places like bedrooms and studies.  The endless caverns of lower levels, master bedroom sitting areas and of second family rooms are often neglected in favor of primary rooms close to the hub of the house.

In recent years, many of our clients have purchased and redesigned mid-century homes, where low-slung rooms and sincere use of space is often more satisfying than size for size’s sake.  In newly-built smaller homes, the details speak to function and modesty. Great rooms joined with kitchens are still prized; single level floor plans are more attractive than multi; and storage is compact and organized.

The word often used today in design is ‘bespoke’.  It means to have something made to order, tailored to need. It requires thought to be conceptualized and craftsmanship to be rendered.   Realtors and builders often said to clients in the early 2000s: “With all this countertop, how could you ever run out of workspace?”

Today, we’re better served to approach design another way: “How do we live? Let’s suit that.”


Silver Beauty

Today there is snow in the woods outside our cottage.  The white pines are lilting on the white sugar hill, as honest and elegant as haiku.  The beauty of it reminds me of a scene from the David Lean film ‘Dr. Zhivago’, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak.  In the twenty years since I watched it, the particulars of the love story have faded, but my fascination with the ice palace has not.


In order to create the look of an abandoned summer estate, reclaimed in the midst of a Russian winter, the design department formed much of the set from beeswax, which registered as ice and snow on camera. Knowing the trick of their creation makes it no less romantic and intriguing to me.

Studying the still above for details, I now marvel at design elements that did not stand out to me when I was a callow teen, watching the soap operatic tale unfold over the top of a cereal bowl.  The byzantine carving of the cornice in the grand entry, to include the stags emerging from the pillars, underscores the opulence of the home.  While the bass relief is refined, the use of leaves and animals speaks of Russian folklore, recalling grim and magical stories of wolves attacking wedding parties deep within frozen forests.  The decision to leave the crystal chandelier clear and sparkling enlivens the shot and harkens the glamor of balmy days passed, when the house overflowed with guests.  The fragrance of orchids and caravan teas would have filled the halls; piano music would have rumbled lustily from a distant salon.

In the story of Dr. Zhivago, our lovers find and take possession of the abandoned home, living for a while in happiness in its remote splendor.  The milky dream scape captured above is chased away by hearth fires, but the house that emerges is lost to my memory.  Only the bitter frost version stuck with me, much like the home of Mrs. Haversham in Dickens’ classic ‘Great Expectations’.  That is another of my fascinations. Though I enjoy the craft of making homes warm and friendly, I have a never ending love for scenes of lost places, windows crusted with frost, corners strewn with webs and everything silvered by chill and dust.  The absence of cheer and order is somehow more intriguing to me than the presence of it.


The Irish House

Here is a book of photographs that inspired me early on in my design career.  The photographer, Ianthe Ruthven, visited homes across Ireland that ranged from palatial estates to wonky little cottages.  Although I loved the mansions in the way so many of us love the sets of Downton Abbey, the character of the humblest homes impressed me the most.  Close inspection revealed all the things we’re schooled to think of as inferior [crude finishes and dilapidation], but the confidence of the interiors was an education.


Rather like the old woman we all love because she still slaps on lipstick and wears outrageous clothes, these little Irish homes wore their colors like a banner.  The homeowners were less concerned about hiding lamp wires and more concerned about surrounding themselves in color and comforts.  It helped me befriend our home, which we called Hodge Podge Cottage with good reason.

These rustic environments seem more relevant now than they did when I first fell in love with them. In the aftermath of the economic melt down, the emerging generation of home buyers are turned off by opulence and formality and more intrigued by simplicity of layout and innate character of materials.  The McMansion seems a relic to young buyers today; certainly it will be a symbol of an era, good, bad or indifferent.

It has been twelve years since I stumbled upon this volume in a Shepherdstown bookstore, but it still teaches me lessons.  Hopefully you’ll check it out and other works by Ianthe Ruthven, like her book The Scottish House.