Thursday, May 21, 2015

May--British Cottage in the News

May--British Cottage in the News
     I don't think the store has ever looked better.  Once we got over the whole show house debacle and set our sights again towards Red Bank we never looked back. Retooled and rebooted, we are all ready to rock into summer.
     It doesn't hurt that we've had some local media attention.  First, one of our trestle tables was featured in the cover story of this month's designNJ.  Then Dan Jacobson, owner and publisher of the triCityNews popped in for a chat the other day.  Either he really is curious about how things are going in our neck of the woods or he had a deadline looming and he just knew Keith and I, probably mostly I, would not be at a loss for words. 
     Although we don't often agree with Dan editorially, we appreciate his intent to focus on a part of Red Bank that is often ignored.  Without any boosting from Rivercenter or much attention from City Hall, Shrewsbury Avenue and the West Side of Red Bank is literally teeming with life.  There is a vibrant Latino population, a strong African American community, a long time older population of mainly Italian descent and a smattering of artists and twenty or thirty somethings attracted to the still-affordable housing and the relaxed nature of our neighborhood.
     And the commercial side is healthy too.  Nearly every storefront is occupied and businesses like Roger Mumford's Forefront Homes, arguably one of the premier builders in Monmouth county, and Karen Siciliano's Siciliano Landscaping Company are in the neighborhood.  Add to this mix architects Matt Cronin and Jerry Larsen, Bruce Blaisdell's Architectural Design Center and the fabulous B&C Stairs and you could design, build, landscape and then, if you came to British Cottage, furnish your home all in a ten block area five minutes from the Parkway.
     While we are looking forward to the completion of the West Side Lofts project, particularly the Triumph Brew Pub, we agree with Dan that there was and is more to this part of town than flashy new housing and splashy commercial enterprises.  Fortunately, there is room in town for all of us.  We say welcome to Red Bank and hope you enjoy walking on the West Side as much as we do.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

April is the Cruelest Month
     I hardly know where to start.  At first, when there was little promise of spring we were buoyed a bit by the thought of the latest Stately Home by the Sea 2015 Show House.  As all our British Cottage aficionados know, we love a show house.  However, over the years as the buy-ins became more expensive and our belts less expansive we have opted for more peripheral roles: loaning designers product and glamming up the admissions area.
     But this year when Norm Hungerford, Chair of the Landscape Division and Master Landscaper Extraordinaire called and asked if we would like to tackle an outlying area, a vine covered pergola on the periphery of a fabulous secret garden, he basically had us at hello.  Never mind that we had to traipse in through several feet of snow and chase away a herd of deer; the space was amazing...over fifty feet of vine covered pergola with a brick floor, all weathered and mossy--we thought we were in Sissinghurst.

  The burning question for us was, how would we design this outside space?  At British Cottage we are all about interiors.  However, we did have in the warehouse a fabulous 9' teak table and then along the way we'd bought some mostly indoor but still a bit outdoor rattan furniture that looked like the crazy expensive version sold at the chichi Treillage in Manhattan and next thing you know we were on a roll.  All we needed was to gather together a slew of oversized blue and white Chinese porcelain jardinieres a la Carolyne Roehm and another dozen or so  terracotta pots of holly and white azaleas. Our inspiration there came from Alan at Sciliano Landscaping who had successfully taken on the challenge of the Secret Garden, transforming it from a deer haven into dearest heaven with mass plantings of box, ferns and perennials.  It was all happening.

     Or so I thought...I still needed a dress for the gala...the hardest part of the challenge perhaps, so I was out on the hunt when I got the call from Keith asking if I had bought a dress. When I said "Yes" and he said, "Well take it back," I thought for a moment we'd hit an all time low--getting fired from a volunteer job.  But it was worse than that; the whole house was on fire.  On Monday, the day of the photo shoot, when months of preparation were finally over, all the rooms picture perfect, Blithewald, The Stately Home by the Sea 2015 caught fire. Incredible.
     If you have never done a show house then you have no idea of the work it takes.  At the aftermath meeting one of the officials said, and I think he thought he was being complimentary, that the homeowner, who had been planning to sell the house, thought after seeing all that had been accomplished, that he might like to stay.  No wonder... after thousands of hours of planning and months of sanding, staining, wallpapering, painting and furnishing in order to execute the dream rooms of not one but several dozen designers, of course, the house was transformed.  And not only the house, but the gardens...This house had it all: formal gardens, lily ponds, porticos, and lawns and they were all transformed, by hard labor, into visions of beauty.
    For me, I think, part of the attraction of a show house is that for a moment in time, a few months at best, you get to be part of a life style you, or at least I, will never enjoy.  Homes made for staff: elevators, sleeping porches, deep water pools, tennis courts, butler's pantries, silver closets, and maids' quarters.  It is like being in Downton Abbey live.  So after the fire, and the loss of this beautiful home and all that time, energy and money there was some speculation that this is the end of the show house. Somehow I think not.  There will always be designers who cannot resist the opportunity to decorate an extraordinary space on their own terms and demonstrate their vision and talents to an appreciative audience. 

                                                             What might have been...

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Google is our Friend, but...

    The last call of the day was from a salesman pitching SEO, which for those of us not in the know means "search engine optimization".  Evidently we are missing out on clicks and that is not good.  The gentleman on the phone promised he could turn our business around with his intimate knowledge of metrics and the mysteries of Google.
     Now don't get me wrong here.  Google is our friend.  At some point, if you live in the United Sates and are looking for fabulous pine furniture and you sit with your computer long enough, the name British Cottage will pop up.  And that's what I told the man on the phone.  "But not first, not by a long shot!" was his reply.
     I agree.  I think the farther away you are from New Jersey, the longer it takes to find us, but you will find us.  Certainly not first or second but if you are in Seattle looking for a pine kitchen table do you really want information about a store in New Jersey popping up on your screen first?  I don't think so.  But, eventually, if you persevere, British Cottage will come up.
    What we are finding is that there are plenty of people in states nowhere near New Jersey who are intelligently perusing the options presented on Google.  Unswayed by position they just scroll and scroll until they find the product they want. I told the man selling clicks that maybe the hunt(or search)is part of the fun--people like to look for things.  Of course he had no idea what I meant. 
    Back in the olden days, by that I mean the Pre-Computer Era, searching for furniture, particularly antiques, could be quite complicated and required a fairly advanced skill set.  First, somehow, whether by reading something actually printed on paper, a newspaper or magazine article or advertising, or by word of mouth, you would learn that a particular area was a good place to find fabulous items for your home.  It could be an entire state--Maine comes to mind--or a town, think Lambertville, or an area like the Amish Country in Pennsylvania.
     Then you had to figure out how to get there. City folk might have to rent their cars, and everyone would have to buy a map, plan a route, maybe even book a hotel or two.  And then, the really clever ones figured out that by asking questions and being the teeniest bit charming they could easily get antique dealers to talk, and talk, and at some point invariably spill the beans about their sources and thus another journey would be required and so on and on and on it would go.  
   Every year we sell more and more furniture over the the internet. Not because of Google metrics or click counts.  By the time a customer gets to our site they are not just browsing, they are actually searching for something.  They know what they are looking for: be it a Welsh dresser, a 40" pine bookcase, or an antique pine blanket chest. By the time they look through our perhaps not so styled, not terribly slick, but we hope thoroughly authentic web site they have learned quite a bit about British Cottage, our products and our design philosophy.  Then they call or email and we talk.  And often we talk some more.  It is in our DNA--we love to schmooze. 
   Although I guess we can no longer be called a Mom and Pop business--we still operate on a very, personal, maybe somewhat old-fashioned level.   We are pleased the internet has expanded our customer base and for that we love that there are search engines out there.  But we believe it is the customer, not the search engine, driving that train.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Happy Holidays, & The Fair Haven First Floors Tour

          Because it wouldn't be Christmas without a house tour...
     Here we are in Fair Haven this morning putting on the finishing touches at a home we helped decorate for the "Fair Haven First Floors Tour".  It takes place tomorrow, December 12, from 10:30 to 2:30 in this bucolic riverside community.  Don't miss the opportunity to view seven homes, see how they are decorated for the holidays and not only check out the kitchen designs but enjoy the food prepared there by chefs from a variety of local eateries...
     Our mission seemed simple, which is why we decided to accept it, help with the holiday decor of a house on the tour  in conjunction with the homeowner and a local florist--in our case--Sickles.  Piece of cake...until I woke up Keith with all my tossing and turning as I tried to think how could I possibly put a British Cottage spin on a decidedly lovely, impossibly elegant, European styled manse?
     Actually in the end it worked out better than just fine.  We toned down the elegance with a soupcon of burlap; threw in some antiques to soften the pristineness of the freshly built home and stayed with a fairly strict palate of green and white and gold with just a spark of red to keep the holiday in check and let the handsomely decorated rooms and the architectural beauty of this house be the star.
    That is my story and I am sticking to it.  Go on the tour and see for yourself.  Trust me this is better than all the Pinteresting in the world.  This is boots on the ground.  See if you like marble in the kitchen; does it look like it is holding up?  Do you really want a flat screen above the fireplace, or a dedicated dining room, or a mudroom with cubbies and a bench?
     This is your chance to see how it all works in the real world.  Go forth.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Been There Done That

In 1980 Keith and I bought a bungalow.  Possibly the smallest house in Rumson at 520 square feet, even when we had two babies and two dogs living there with us it never, ever felt cramped.  We stripped and polished the old oak floors; painted the knotty pine paneling and popcorn ceiling a happy white and chose a slightly deeper shade for the doors and trim.  It was a lot like living on a boat, sunny and bright and shipshape.
However, it was only hours after I saw the realtor put a For Sale sign in front of the neighboring three story seashore colonial that we had a contract in.  The sellers could not believe their luck getting rid of the water-logged white elephant so easily and we marveled that we were able to own such a wonderful house.  Such is the blindness of youth. A basement full of water, numerous cracked radiators, no insulation to speak of, a kitchen that harkened back to the forties and wiring that was easily two decades earlier than that--it was and always will be--our dream home.
We stripped and polished the old fir floors, painted the plaster walls a linen white, and the ceiling, windows and doors a slightly brighter shade and boy did the old girl shine.  Over the years we enlarged the kitchen by removing the butler's pantry--sadly--but we were able to hang onto the backstairs, because we all love a house with backstairs. And we refaced the crumby brick fireplace with stone, and added an antique pine mantel we bought in England and then spent hundreds of evenings sitting in front of that fireplace around our wide planked farmhouse table eating and drinking and playing silly games long into the night.  
But we sold that house to buy a home on the river.  We traded in charm for a priceless view, a lot of square feet but no architecture to speak of but we were sure we could work our usual magic on the new house.  We stripped and polished the oak floors; we painted the walls this time a pale, pale blue-ish barely gray color and all the ceilings and trim a spiffy white.  But this house was all about the exterior; no matter how we decorated we could never come up with the cozy charm of the little house or the easy sprawl and comfort of the old girl.  We missed the 9 foot ceilings and rooms with large windows that welcomed the ocean breeze and our old dining room and that fabulous fireplace.  We did love the view and the open plan but frankly we were not as devastated as I thought we would be when we unexpectedly came up with a buyer.
     So now we have a new house that is a crazy combination of the first three.  It is an expanded cottage that started out on one level at 700 square feet but through sheer genius the previous owner was able to double the square footage and add two more levels without changing the footprint.  The property is on a lake in Maine and the building codes there are basically designed to prevent development in order to keep the lakefront as natural as possible. (The opposite of the post-Sandy Jersey shore!) So what was attic space is now a lovely room with nooks and crannies large enough to sleep a family of four.  The main floor is open with the living and dining areas facing a wall of windows and the lake, with the kitchen, a small bedroom and full bath on the other side.  And then down below all that there is a master bedroom and bath.
    Naturally the first thing we did was paint all the knotty pine paneling--this time we used BM China White and White Dove for the trim.  Whew!  What a difference all that paint made.  For all of you traditionalists out there who don't believe in painting wood trim or walls--just do it! The Scandinavians have been painting walls and furniture white for centuries for a reason:  it lets in the sunlight and sunlight makes you happy...
     Then we had the pine floors stripped and polished and even I couldn't believe how great our sweet little cottage looked.  Even though the ceilings top out at 89", with the open expanse of windows and three decks it never feels crowded. 
     Clearly as owners of a furniture store, furnishing should not have been a problem.  But it was unexpectedly challenging.  As in the little bungalow, we had to be very careful to use our limited space wisely.  At first I thought I made a huge mistake with the 8' farmhouse table; was it too big for the area and should I have gotten a smaller one with leaves?   Fortunately the answer turned out to be no.  The large table anchors the room, seats as few or as many was we could ever want and is a perfect place to fold wash, do a puzzle or play a game.  
    And I was worried because I'd opted for upholstered dining chairs.  Normally for a vacation home I would want chairs that I could spray and wipe and I did wince when my son sat down on one wearing a wet bathing suit.  But I really wanted chairs that were comfortable particularly if I needed extra seating at times when we were not dining.  And thank heavens for Scotch Guard is all I can say.
     My couch is overstuffed and slipcovered in a linen colored cotton rayon blend that wears like steel and is washable...I did get a few scowls when I said it was not to be used for baby changing or dining but you can't blame me for trying.  Years ago I inherited a slipcovered chair and ottoman in a blue and white toile from my mother and that sits opposite the couch with a black wicker armchair beside it. And that's it except for some side tables and an antique pine coffee table that won't be worse the wear for a few knicks or scratches.
     All in all it has been a lot of fun.  The new house is cozy and comfortable; it has great views and wonderful waterfront access.  You can play on the lake or sit inside and enjoy the view.  It was really important for us to have a great family friendly space that could be as attractive as it is functional and so far it has been a success.  This summer we filled the house with our children and grandchildren, aunts, uncles and cousins and all I can say is: "Let the memories begin." 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sears, Shopping 101--or Mother really did know best

     In the middle of the last century when I was growing up, shopping was not that exciting.  Clothes shopping barely happened; with six siblings we were always awash in hand-me-downs from well-clad cousins and for special occasions, at least for the girls, my Mom would get out the trusty Singer sewing machine and whip us up the best Simplicity had to offer.  
     Furniture was, if my father had his way, all Stickley cherry.  Which my mother could not stand so when we moved from a two bedroom cape to a four bedroom, three story seashore colonial she knew she had to act fast.  First stop, an antique store on a sleepy country lane.  I wish she was alive to tell me what she paid for the chunky Victorian oak claw foot table with two leaves for the new dining room (our old house was so small it barely had room for the kitchen table).  The fact that it did not even come close to matching the Stickley cherry hutch my clueless Dad surprised her with one disappointing anniversary was likely her intent.
    Our beds, mattresses and all the new appliances were one stop shopping--Sears.  That was 1964.  Fast forward to 2014 and Keith and I become the proud owners of a house on a pond--really it looks like a lake but because it is not five miles long it is called a pond--in Maine. We bought the place because it had three bedrooms and was 20 feet from the water; eagles and loons would be our new neighbors.
   But how do you furnish a home 400 miles away, a half mile down a rutted, winding, gravel challenged, pick your season, snowy, icy, muddy, dusty road?  Clearly, as the owners of British Cottage, furniture was not a problem, we would truck in our own antique tables.  But what about new mattresses and appliances?  The answer was surprisingly easy--Sears.  
     We popped into the Middletown, NJ store one Sunday afternoon; did the mattress flop test and three weeks later anxiously awaited delivery.  How would they handle a truck on the barely a road to our house?  It turned out to be with aplomb.  Our delivery man and woman muscled the  king size mattress and box spring into the bedroom and then managed to--get this--back the truck all the way back to the main road!  And delivery was free!
     I consider myself a really good shopper--I had to make up for all those years when we didn't--and I can Costco and big box store with the best of them.  But there is something so inherently satisfying about shopping at Sears.  The stores are clean; signage is clear, and the merchandise is nicely displayed. Even better, the departments are well-staffed by actual living, breathing people who are knowledgeable and helpful.  Our salesman for the bed even called us up to ask if all went well with the delivery arrangements!  
     Needless to say Sears is where the new refrigerator and stove are coming from when we get ready to tackle the kitchen.  Maybe they don't seem to have the bells and whistles other national stores do.  And I think they should hire me, or someone, to jazz up their facades.  I'm pretty sure the Middletown store is exactly the same as when we shopped there in 1964; but I have to say this, when it comes to service and reliability--my Mom really did know best--you can't beat Sears.

Friday, April 4, 2014

    Spring Thoughts
 So nice to see the sun shining and the bulbs popping and the grass turning green.  Springtime makes all things seem possible. And although the weather makes me want to go outside, it also makes me what to clean out what's inside.  Pare down, polish, scrub, put away the knickknacks, the tchotchkes, and count the days until I can throw the plants out for summer.  This is when decorating is not about more but about less.  Sometimes this is called minimalism which is just a big word for putting all your stuff away so you can actually see your furniture.  You don't need a lot of furniture but what you have should be not only functional but also design friendly...
     First on my list in any home is the dining room or kitchen table,
whichever is the one you live your life on.  Counters and islands can, but mostly don't, cut it.  You need a table to spread out and read the paper, check the homework, do projects, and of course, serve meals on.  This is where a family learns to be a family...
     It has to be all solid wood.  A proper table is never rickety and never, ever wobbles.  It has to have some character and you cannot be afraid to give it more.  Life has to happen.  The burn mark when the cat tipped over the candle, the shadow left from a melted pumpkin, the scrapes, the scuffs, the wear, the tear.  Your table should be able to stand the heat or get that baby out of your kitchen.  
     We were a family of eight growing up and our kitchen table was a hunk of pine with picnic table style legs that nestled  into a nook in front of our kitchen window.   It was a tight fit but we learned to keep our elbows in and chew with our mouths shut mostly because our mother was close enough to reach out and whack the miscreant.
     That table served us for years.  Besides all those countless meals, it is where I learned how to knead bread, make pie crust, write and rewrite reports.  Many  rainy days worth of cards and board games were played there, and eventually it became the late night gathering spot, the place to meet up with siblings and friends for some chat and probably a few more beers.  I don't know who started it but it became a tradition to carve our initials into the table's pliant wood.  We literally loved it to death.  Everyone  should have a kitchen table like that.
     If I still had that table today I would scrub it first with a little 000 steel wool and some turpentine.  Let it dry;  and then sand it very, very lightly with a fine sandpaper.  Using a tack cloth I'd pick up all the dust then I would apply a tinted paste wax, Briwax, or Keith is fond of Fiddes Wax, and then polish it with a soft cloth. All I would need to add would be some friends--and maybe a few beers. That would be Spring cleaning at its finest.