Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Fabulous & Fun: A Pressing Conversation

A few weeks ago when I asked, LeAnn Stephenson, the fabulous Vintage Laundress in Austin, Texas, to sit down for an interview, she shot me a look (well...I imagine she shot me a look...the are-you-crazy gaze that she's known for) and snapped, "It'll be pretty boring because all I do is iron these days."

Having been a journalist for many years, I learned that if you want to get a hot story, you've got to go to it. So I recently joined LeAnn in her upstairs loft area where she
does her pressing and steaming. To lighten her mood, we set up a play list full of Edith Piaf, Adell, Dolly Parton, Pink Markini and Arnold Turboust. The mood started to relax after LeAnn drowned her fatigue in Diet Doctor Peppers and I munched on a slice of cold pizza. We started out with a friendly debate over whose follicles were more impressive -- my porn-stache or her chick stache while I'm propped up on a white slip-covered lounge rifling through an impressive collection of cocktail napkins and printed tablecloths.

But I 'm warning you right now: the conversation takes some side trips and is a little long, but that's what happens when two passionate thrifters get together and start gabbing. (Before we get going, get a load of LeAnn's lamp re-do table here. About the prettiest work area I've ever seen!)

Stan: "LeAnn, put that iron down, 'cause I've got some
questions for you!"

LeAnn: "I can't, I can't, I have to get these things ironed for the Antiques Week in Round Top coming up at the end of September!!!!, " she says with a spritz of her water bottle. " You know that; you're going with me, you goose!"
Stan: "Okay, fine! I'll just ask the questions and you can answer. Keep ironing. Spray me again and I'll shave your eyebrows while you're sleeping!"
I had to edit down my report of all of the commotion at the Stephenson household, which included LeAnn's husband threatening to separate us over our mustache argument, her son Noah's delightful serenade of "Stairway to Heaven" and her lovely daughter Olivia showing off her amazing photography on her Schmap website.

Back to the chitter chatter:

Stan: "Gosh, you're wielding that iron like a pro. Where did you learn to iron like that?"

LeAnn: "I watched my Grandmother (we called her Meme) very carefully, when she used to iron. I would sit and watch her press our clothes and drive
her nuts with a zillion questions. I'd also have her tell me stories about when she was a little girl. I used to iron everything, even T-shirts for working out. That used to infuriate my little sister, Paula.

"The ultimate example of this obsession of mine was when I had gone into labor when I was carrying my daughter. My contractions were a couple of minutes apart and getting more frequent, and there I stood, right in front of this very ironing board in my white cotton prego briefs from Montgomery Ward -- you know the kind that could double as a parachute or a car cover -- and ironed my little maternity jumper. I was a vision of loveliness with my waistband up under my armpits, looking like Carl Malden in his days as a Victoria Secret underwear model, just starching and pressing away. Most people view ironing as something that could almost be as rewarding as cleaning toilets, but I love to iron; its my therapy."
Stan: "And what is it that you're ironing?"

LeAnn: "At the moment I'm working my way through my stack of monogrammed Damask napkins. They're my best sellers."

Stan: "Just how did you become The Vintage Laundress?"

LeAnn: "When I first began my vintage business, I was heavy on furnishings. The cottage-shabby-chic thing was really popular, so, I painted everything I found white and distressed it. About a year into my venture, I discovered printed tablecloths from the '40s and '50s - and I was hooked! I began gathering and restoring printed
tablecloths, napkins and kitchen towels and branched out into the more formal textiles, like Damask cloths and napkins within 6 months. Oh, did you mean where did the name come from? . . . ., well, the Hubbs coined that title.

"All of my laundry was vintage, so, he just started calling me 'The Vintage Laundress,' since I was washing and soaking load after load of vintage linens and textiles. I've been through three washers and two dryers, and something like seven irons since 2004 or 2005."

Stan: "What's in the laundry right now?"

LeAnn: "Well . . . . let's see . . . a bin full of monograms, a bin full of pink linens, a bin of damask (sans the monograms), a bin full of printed blue, red, and pink napkins, a bin full of Vera Neumann scarves and table textiles and a bin with vintage Christening gowns."

Cleverly, she's hidden these bin from me as she knows of my own obsession with vintage

Stan: "When it comes to vintage linens, is there a quick way to assess the seriousness of an obvious stain or spot?"

LeAnn: "I've gotten pretty cocky over the years. Not many stains scare me. If it's a rust stain, I use a product called Whink or I use a more natural approach and use cream of tarter in hot water. My throw-down mixture is OxyClean and Era liquid laundry detergent together in the hottest water I can get. Most times, I heat the water to a boil on the range and then put it in with the mixture and let the linens soak for about five or six hours in big coolers on my back deck. I really have the white trash vibe goin' on out there when I'm washing and soaking! And some times if you listen really closely, you can hear the theme from the movie 'Deliverance' playing in the background!"
Stan: "Does your husband, Scott, ever say, what in the world???"

LeAnn: "My husband, Scott, went selectively blind and deaf approximately 24 hours after we said our "I dos." He has never complained about the piles of linens and furniture that litter our home and, as a matter of fact, he helps me add to them.

"When I was pregnant with both Miss Olivia and Master Noah, I ' nested' like crazy - I painted anything that didn't move out of my way. I re-worked and reupholstered chairs
and dressers for their nurseries and gathered and gathered and gathered items to decorate with. Scott never said, 'Don't you think that's enough?' or anything. He's always been just like that - whatever I want, he wants. He's my best friend and biggest fan. I am very fortunate!"

Stan: "And your kids, Olivia and Noah, do they ever 'Aw Mom' you about your thrifty pursuits?"

LeAnn: "The Hubbs has brainwashed my babes into thinking that their mother is
'adorably eccentric', as he puts it. (And she is, I might add!) They are actually more adept at finding cast-offs than I am now. The piles of linens, painted furniture and vintage tchotchkes came into our lives about seven years into the marriage and after the kids were born. We had moved to Austin and I was home with the kids for the first time since they were born. I was a graphics designer and illustrator for a newspaper and other publications prior to that. Liv was five and beginning kindergarten and Noah was three and home with me. I discovered Goodwill and estate sales the year that my son started kindergarten and the rest is history, as they say. In between the really pressing things on my agenda, like building a couch cushion fort, making 40 gazillion bowls of macaroni & cheese and running around the house slapping myself a la Macaulay Culkin, trying to make my kids laugh - I'd iron a stack of damask napkins or paint a little side table and sell them at the City-Wide Garage Sale."

Stan: "Where's is the oddest place you've discovered a vintage treasure, and what was it?"

LeAnn: "I didn't find these pieces in an odd place, but they certainly seemed odd to me at the time. I discovered four bedroom sets of metal furniture at the Round Top Antiques Week several years ago. They were from a military base in Georgia, and there were several pieces like a bed frame, a desk, a chair for the desk, a side table and a dresser with a mirror attached. They were from the '40s I believe, and were covered with several coats of paint and lots of rust. So, I decided to rent a sandblaster and strip them and seal them with clear coat or
wax. This was my first exposure to the industrial look and I really loved it, and so did all of my customers. They sold almost immediately after I finished them."

Stan: "Have you ever sold something that you wished you'd never?"

LeAnn: "Yes, I sold these marvelous round Vera Neumann placemats that had these graphically printed flowers, like pink poppies and big floppy butterflies on them. Whenever I think about how rare they were, my jaw kinda tenses and I throw up in my mouth a little bit! But, they went to a loving home and a lovely lady here in Austin, so, I have visiting rights if I want."

Stan: "I know you have an Etsy shop, which by the way, is tempting. Where else do you sell your wares?"

LeAnn: " I have a website in addition to my Etsy store and I have been setting up at The City-Wide Garage Sale here in Austin for close to 10 years now. For the last 7 years, twice a year I have been participating in the Antiques Weekend at Round

Stan: How did you develop your utterly creative eye?

LeAnn: "I graduated college with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a major in Graphics Design and Illustration. All of the Art History, color theory and design courses really broadened my horizons, visually speaking. After school I designed and illustrated for various publications and newspapers. Those experiences were key in my forming the daily habit of gathering images and logging away color combinations and pairings that I use in creating my home's interior design. My philosophy on decorating is don't take yourself too seriously and have some fun. Most of the time, it's just paint and that can be changed really inexpensively."

Stan: "What are your creative inspirations?"

LeAnn: "This is probably going to sound cheesy, but, my Mom and Aunts have always had beautifully decorated homes without spending a gazillion dollars. It almost makes my home seem even more special, because I managed the decorating on a shoestring budget. You know what I mean?
"Also, these days blogs are my instant gratification when it comes to inspiration. It seems all I can do most days is hop from one to the other. I just sit and gaze upon all the 'super-delicious' photos and discover all these companies, designers, crafters, thrifters and artists. Such is my crush on some of these people that all I want to do is pass them little origami notes that read, 'Can I feature you on my blog? When I grow up, can I be you? Circle Y or N.' I recall one of my first and strongest crushes being on some guy named 'The Elegant Thrifter!'"

(And I blush....)

Other than blogs, I'm always inspired by Philippe Starck, Trina Turk, Nanette Lepore, Jonathan Adler and any and all things French."

Stan: "Ah, mon dieu. Moi aussi.....If you could search for treasures anywhere and your budget was limitless, where would you go?"

LeAnn: "I would love to scrounge around in the flea markets of Paris. Belgium, Italy and Greece are other places on my wish list."

Stan: What do you tell people who want to decorate their homes but are afraid to give it a whirl? (And relish the pure gorgeousness in her own home, will you?)

LeAnn: "There was a time in my life when I did a lot of keeping up with the Joneses, if you know what I mean. I thought I needed to decorate my home like so and so's or dress like this person. Then I realized that really wasn't what it was all about. I began to think about my life and how I could live it like no one else - you know, authentically. My motto is don't be timid and squeamish: Experiment! The more experiments, the better. You have to live in your house, so make it something that you love."

Stan: I couldn't agree with you more! What would the ultimate Vintage Laundry be?

LeAnn: "I have a lot of goals and dreams for my business. Unfortunately, these goals are set by my brain. My brain and chaos are very close friends. I'm not sure if it's the artist in me or what, but linear thought is not my forte. My own personal chaos theory goes something like this: some random thought inspires some seemingly insignificant decision, which, in the end, throws my whole universe off it's axis.

THE THOUGHT: I want to start a textile design business.

THE IDEA: Research it to death and realize it takes a lot of cash.

THE DECISION: Find someone to partner with.

THE RESULT: A sprained cerebellum and an up-close-and-personal look at my other Forrest Gump-esque personality. My brain over-heats and smoke comes out of my ears in little spirals! Then I get frustrated and stop moving in that direction all together.

"But, if I were able to get through all that nonsense, the ultimate Vintage Laundry would be multi-faceted. I would love nothing more than to continue to gather vintage textiles, furniture, lighting and china, but along the way, I would like to develop my own designs inspired by vintage pieces. The pinnacle of the wish list would be to have Vintage Laundry store fronts all over the country. Having my own fabric line is long time dream of mine, as well. "

Stan: "Ok, now lets fold this stuff up and go have some Tex-Mex and margaritas!!"

LeAnn: "You read my mind! But on the way, I have this great little thrift store I'd like to show you!"

Here I am with the entire Stephenson cast of characters!

Thank you, LeAnn, for letting me barge into your chores with our gab-fest. You are inspiring to so many people, me included.

For more creative inspiration, pick up The Find: The Housing Works Book of Decorating with Thrift Shop Treasures, Flea Market Objects, and Vintage Details atBorders, Barnes & Noble, Amazon or Powell's.

A bientôt! Y'all...

The Elegant Thrifter

Always Frugal, Always Fabulous!


  1. Thank you for the opportunity to blab on and on in this interview Stan! I had such fun when you were here! You have quickly become one of my dearest friends, and for that I am so very grateful!

  2. I love her. Seriously love her.

    She WAS a bit all smug and gloating about hosting you during your book signing and so I got a bit all huffy:) But I so over that now, haha!

    She is so COOL, very very cool. Someone you would want to totally be around all the time until she made you leave, you know?

  3. Yes I will be at Round Top...I'm going to be hanging my shingle with The Vintage Laundress! Am so looking forward to it!


  4. What a wonderful read. If this is any indication of how much fun your book will be...sign me up!

  5. Ok, since you are coming to Texas - Welcome - and you should know it's DR. Pepper - just the D and the R and a period. We don't spell it out down here.
    Love your blog and looking forward to meeting you in Warrenton.



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