Saturday, May 14, 2016

Crafting: A Valentine Box

In third grade, I won the Valentine box decorating contest. 

When I was a kid at Hanthorn Elementary School in Independence, Missouri, every major holiday brought with it an elaborate celebration, complete with sugary confections, fun games and prizes galore. The teachers must have dreaded these party days since they took place in their individual classrooms and were collaborated by “room mothers” who volunteered to coordinate the frenzy of festivities.

For Valentine’s Day, each child was instructed to bring to school Valentine cards for every single person in his or her class. I remember sorting through the cards Mom bought at the Mini Mart dime store at the Gaslight Square shopping strip and making sure that the messages were appropriate for the assigned recipient: race cars or rocket ships for the cool boys, pretty flowers and animals for the girls and nothing too mushy or heart-filled for anyone.  

The other requirement for the Valentine’s Day party was that all children bring a decorated box in which to receive their cards. That year, we were told there would be a competition for the best box that would be presided over by the room mothers.

I honestly have no idea from where the idea came to create my fluffy white Valentine box, but it involved cutting squares of facial tissue, wrapping them around the tip of a pencil, dipping them in white glue and affixing them to a shoe box that had a slot cut in its lid in which the cards would be inserted. The result was a cloud-like creation that resembled a snowball more than it did a Valentine box.

Upon arrival into Mrs. Jackson’s class that Valentine’s Day, each child placed his or her creation on top of the cabinet that ran the length of a row of windows. That morning seemed like an eternity. Just before the lunch carts rolled down the halls to deliver our noontime meals, we delivered our Valentines to the appropriate boxes that would be judged during the after-lunch recess.

Recess was a blur with the anticipation of the Valentine box competition, so when the bell rang to go back inside, the lines formed without any stragglers. Upon heading back into the room, the scent of cupcakes wafted in the air and we were told to immediately take our seats so that the best Valentine’s box could be announced.

There was a third place and a runner up, but I don’t remember whom they were or what they had made – just that my name was announced as the winner! My tissue-covered shoebox had been chosen the best Valentine box in Mrs. Jackson’s third grade class.

And even though the story didn’t come to mind until after I transformed this former tissue box to collect admission for Michael Quinn’s “My Valentine” performance piece, it must have  been subconsciously inspired by a little craft project I took on more than 40 years ago.

With heart-felt wishes for the coming week,

The Elegant Thrifter

Friday, April 29, 2016

Home Tour: Hugh Duthie's Colorful DUMBO Condo

All photographs by Stan Williams
It was the magnificent eastern sunlight and the towering ceilings that attracted the creative eye of Hugh Duthie to his 1,200 square-foot condo in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood. The Toronto native, an advertising and marketing executive, considered three apartments when starting his hunt for a new home in the fall of 2007: one in Harlem, one in Long Island City and one in DUMBO. “All great neighborhoods,” he says, “but I bet on the right horse!”

Back then, DUMBO (an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Overpasses) was an up-and-coming community with an on-the-rise hipster factor and was somewhat void of business and services, but attractive because of its industrial feel, its proximity to Manhattan and its easy access to transportation. Today, DUMBO is a shopping destination, a real estate developer’s goldmine and a welcoming place for young families seeking to be near the expansive parks along the East River.

Hugh’s one bedroom, two-bath apartment includes a small study that doubles as a guest room and an outdoor living space on the building’s roof. Throughout the color-packed space, Hugh’s personality prevails: a clever design sense with a sense of humor, a knack for balance and proportion and an eye for beautiful, unusual objects that exude a sense of history and drama. He likes to say that his friendly was inspired by the production designs of a Pedro Almodovar film.

“I never thought I had any particular style,” he says. “ I just have stuff I like. And obviously, I love color. Everything for me has personal meaning and history. Somebody once described my style as Ralph Lauren on acid.”

Upon entering Hugh’s place, the visitor passes a chalked wall filled with scribbles and notes leading into a living room bathed in warm sunlight. (“I always loved the idea of a chalkboard wall,” he says. “Every kid that enters my apartment is armed with chalk…Needless to say, they love it.”) A purple wall on the north side of the living room is an appropriate setting for an exotic canvas.

“’Malevolent Flamingos,’” I call it. It was painted in the 1930s by a friend of my grandmother who, apparently, was a noted furniture painter,” he says. “I love it because they’re not kitschy 1950s flamingos; they’re angry as hell!”

The painting perches above a green sofa, which was the first purchase Hugh made for his new apartment. “ He purchased it at ABC Carpet & Home Outlet Store in the Bronx," he says. “I can’t even remember how I schlepped it back.”

A trail of midcentury faience plates found at the Sixth Avenue flea market in the 1990s leads to parade of tin foil elephants on a neighboring shelf. Created by artist and sculptor Dean Millien, Hugh found the metallic pachyderms at one of his favorite local DUMBO galleries, LAND, which supports artists with developmental disabilities.

In front of the window is a Knoll sofa in its original fabric. “It’s the world’s most uncomfortable love seat, but it looks fabulous!”  Wedged in its corner are two pillows with sentimental value. The needlepoint elephant was made by his mother and was Hugh’s last gift from her before she died, and the Canadian maple leaf reminds him of his hometown of Toronto. On the floor is an antique turtle spittoon that if you step on its head, its shell pops up. “It was in my parents’ summer cottage when I was growing up, and I think at my grandparents’ before.”

In a nearby corner is another example of Hugh’s gift for thrift:  an acrylic, mid-century lamp that he picked up at the Brooklyn Flea sitting. It’s sitting atop a glass table salvaged from a previous employer that went belly up. Next to the lamp is a tin emblazoned with Queen Elizabeth II early in her reign.

In front of the table and lamp is a pair of rocking chairs from West Elm that frame a Paul Smith ottoman he bought in Paris and hauled on the Eurostar back to London, where he was living at the time.

Across the way is a dining area centered on a table he had made in Vietnam. The seating is a combination of chairs plundered from the same previous employer and Victorian Gothic pieces that his mother found at a garage sale and he upholstered with laundry bags from the Majestic Hotel in Saigon.

Hanging above the table is a trio of glass orbs that reminded Hugh of the Victorians’ obsession with terrariums that they filled them with plants they discovered all over the world. “I, it turns out, cannot keep a cactus alive, so my plants have been replaced with inanimate objects: a miniature Concorde and crystal heart, a Canadian Mountie and a bird. “They sit on pink aquarium gravel because I think of it as a glamorous trip to the moon via  ‘The Valley of the Dolls.’”

The Pepto pink kitchen showcases an array of found objects that sit happily with eye-catching notables. A pair of Jonathan Adler busts hangs out with a metal picnic basket and a Budweiser ice bucket that doubles as a utensil holder.

Should you request a cup of tea, Hugh, who admits to being infatuated with the British Royal, might ask you to pick your favorite queen, prince or princess emblazoned on one of the mugs he has collected over the years.  

In the bedroom is where a guest will witness Hugh’s most proud DIY moment: a wall filled with paintings, prints, photographs and more, all hung by Hugh himself. (“That’s a helluva lot of picture hooks!”} The rich, masculine Benjamin Moore blue walls serve as a dramatic backdrop for framed pieces in a variety of sizes. The framed late-19th Century painting on the right is called “Vestal Virgins,” by Edouard Richter.

It was a wedding gift from his grandparents to his parents, but his father despised it. “My mom thought it was grand.” Hugh says. ”It was in our house the entire time I was growing up. You can see a small nick in the bottom where I threw a temper tantrum at the age of six or something and whacked it with a Hot Wheels car."

Hugh found the chaise longue in a London junk shop and recovered it in upholstery he had already purchased because he loved it so much. The Coca-Cola cooler serves as a side table that holds a West Elm fish lamp. “I have a semi-phobia of fish,” Hugh says. “I thought it would help, but it did not!”

 The scenario on this wall is reflected in the mirror that hangs above the bed. A wooden mannequin arm that Hugh picked up at the Sixth Avenue flea market holds the bedside lamp. “I liked the arm, and it needed to hold something, so I put a reading lamp in it.”

While his home is his haven from the outside world, the one thing that makes him happiest when he returns is Masie, his Wheaten Terrier. “She’s a rescue dog, much like my furniture finds.”

The Elegant Thrifter

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Find: Reminded of John Derian's Vintage Walls

John Derian's home photographed exclusively for "The Find" by Jim Franco

It's been almost seven years since Clarkson Potter published my book, "The Find: The Housing Works Book of Decorating," and the event that helped launch it, Housing Works' Design on a Dime fundraiser, is in full swing this weekend.

Recently over brunch at L&W Oyster, I was reminded of a specific page from "The Find" when I noticed a hallway decorated with pages from Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who!" and a bathroom covered with tears from '70s men's magazines. The page from "The Find" that came to mind was one that features the entry of  designer John Derian's Lower East Side walk-up apartment.

The whimsical wall coverings created out of book and magazine pages at L&W Oyster

People continue to marvel over the way John achieved this textural, one-of-a-kind effect on a wall out of a dilapidated book. When I asked him how he did it, he responded that he just took the loose pages and affixed them to the wall with nothing more than watered-down white glue.

Simply Imaginative!

The Elegant Thrifter

Monday, April 11, 2016

A Living Estate Sale: Q & A With Kuzak Closet's Amanda Kuzak

All photographs courtesy of Kuzak's Closet
Visiting an estate sale is like discovering a time capsule that when opened, explodes with all the objects collected over a lifetime.

As Americans live longer and healthier lives, their aspirations often go beyond the idea of retiring, sometimes being called to new adventures that might mean starting anew in an exotic locale or moving to a smaller home. Many of retirement age, and even younger, are turning to what Amanda Kuzak of Kuzak’s ClosetSilicon Valley’s premier organization firm known for producing top-tier estate sales, likes to call a living estate sale.

I recently caught up with Amanda, who told me how she and her team help clients to quickly move years of merchandise out the door and secure top dollar to finance their bright futures.

ET: Why would someone want to have a living estate sale?

AK: In most cases clients choose to have a living estate sale when they are downsizing or moving out of the area. In a handful of occasions we also have organized them in the case of remodeling or divorce. In Silicon Valley people are either moving up or moving out, so there is always a need for a sale.

ET: How do you begin when considering a living estate sale?

AK: Clients always begin by figuring out what to get rid of, but this is actually the OPPOSITE of what they should be doing. They should only focus on what they want to keep and take with them. Once they figure that out, they should ask their friends and family if they want anything. And then, they should leave everything else up to the estate sale company.

ET: How do you decide what to keep and what to sell?

AK: I recommend starting with a space plan based on where they are going
and to factor in the cost of moving. There is no sense paying $350 to move a sofa that you no longer love and that won't fit, right? Start with the practical and then move into the sentimental. I say it in that order because being clear about what is practical will give you a clue on how much room you have for sentimental items.

ET: When items are sentimental, but you’ve just got to get rid of things, how do you pare down?

AK: Determine what is irreplaceable and be creative on how you can "keep the memory" of things instead of keeping the physical object. Kuzak's Closet recently worked with a client to downsize five storage units of sentimental items. In the end, our client kept 10 percent of the items. We coached him through keeping what he actually had room for in his life/home, and then we took photos of bulky things so he could keep a much smaller memory.

ET: Are there items that you might think you shouldn’t sell, but might want to reconsider?

AK: Furniture!  Furniture is bulky, hard to move and loses its value quickly unless it is classic mid-century modern and extremely unique. The smaller the item, the more likely it is to resell, the exact opposite of what 90 percent of clients think.

Vintage family photos always seem like an odd thing to sell but our shoppers cherish them. They tell a story, and it's fun to see that story go home with someone at a sale.

ET: How do you price items?

AK: I look at the estate as a whole and develop a benchmark of value. If the home is in nice condition and I think the average priced item will be $95, then I will price with that middle ground being the barometer. For a vintage estate totally packed to the gills I might think the average item is only valued at $15, so that will change things. I also price things based on how difficult it is to move out of the house, how much time it would take to disassemble, the risk for the item to cause damage on the way out, the volume of like items we have and the need for the item to help with the success of the sale.

For example, if the estate is dark, I am going to price the lamps much higher than I would normally because I need them for the sale. They will also be more noticeable to shoppers and therefore be more desirable, which means they have more value in that situation.  Bottom line, there is more psychology behind pricing that most people think, it's something

I've figured out over the years, which is part of the reason Kuzak's Closet estate sales are so popular.

ET: Are there items that are typically overpriced?

AK: For our sales we try not to overprice anything, we know we only have two to three days to sell the item, and we want shoppers to see the price tags and get excited to buy things.

ET: Are there items that are typically underpriced?

AK: Furniture would probably be No. 1 and then household items. You can

really get good deals on stuff like tin-foil and cleaning products at estate sales. Last week my husband put a $10 roll of tin foil in his cart at the grocery store and I was like, "Put that back; I can get that for 25 cents this week at our estate sale!"

ET: Should people participate in their own “living” estate sale?

AK: The only way they should participate is by choosing the items they want to keep. It is not a good idea to have the family at the estate sale in any circumstance. Shoppers want to have an imagination about who lived at the house and they also want to buy things without feeling guilty. My biggest "flop" projects were those that the family or client was present.

ET: How important is merchandising?

AL: Merchandising plays a HUGE part in the estate sale success. We spend time figuring out lighting, creating vignettes and moving around merchandise so it always feels fresh. We also clean up at multiple times during the day, sometimes even vacuuming during the sale. I always want shoppers to feel like they are the first shopper in the door. Pricing is also huge. No one wants to ask for prices, so if you have tags on at least 80 percent of the items available, it gives shoppers an idea of what you are looking to get for an item that might not be priced.

ET: And maybe a word on cleanliness?

AK: All odors can be a problem, especially smoke and pet odors. It really impacts the resale value of furniture, rugs, and clothing. For our estate sales, we are strict about requiring that the house is free of odors or grime. But for our estate liquidations, the grosser the better. That service is a bit of a pickers paradise, so shoppers love the thrill of the hunt and the mystery. We recently liquidated a house in Los Altos where the 95-year-old owner was so lonely that he started feeding rats in his home. You can only imagine the odors in that place!

ET: How should you manage expectations for a living estate sale?

AK: Always think about it as a service. Shoppers are coming into your home, paying you for items you no longer want and hauling it away so you don't have to. It's a win-win for everyone and the fastest way to sail into the sunset, in my opinion.

ET: Do you have an anecdote about someone who was hesitant to have a living estate sale, but then realized it to be a positive experience?

AK: Hmm, it's always tough when the client is living because the attachment to the items is more real. For the Palo Alto clients that we recently helped, they were worried they would need to throw everything away or coordinate weeks of donation pick ups. We coached them into just focusing on what they wanted to keep and putting their energy into packing it up and moving out. We would handle the rest. We spent one day merchandising, researching, marketing and pricing, and then had the estate sale a few days later. The sale was from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and was totally sold out by the end of the day. The clients walked away with $15,000…pretty amazing!

I would agree. Now click on over to Kuzak’s Closet and be inspired by the gorgeous estates Amanda and her team create. I know I am.

The Elegant Thrifter


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