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 little 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, with a kitchen that harkended 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 i do 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 evenings.  
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 maximized the ocean breezes and our old dining room and the fabulous fireplace.  We did love the open plan of our new space but frankly 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.  The property is on a lake in Maine and the building codes there are designed to prevent development in order to keep the lakefront as natural as possible. (The opposite of the post Sandy Jersey shore!) So working within the original footprint the attic space now is 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 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 for the trim white dove;  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 modest 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.  Like in the first house, 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 from my mother and that sits opposite the couch in a blue and white toile 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 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.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

January 2014


January 2014
Yesterday I got a call from someone looking for a Lazyboy recliner with an electric motor--I suggested he go to a Lazyboy store but evidently the closest one was in Newark and that was too far.  And no way was he ordering one online; he needed to test drive that bad boy. 
Ten years ago I wouldn't even dream of suggesting an internet furniture purchase; nowadays it seems to be the norm.  At least once a month we ship a significant piece of furniture to someone in another state who has discovered us online.  I always hold my breath a little when we do it because we are far more used to customers like Mr. Lazyboy who not only want to see, but also to feel exactly what they are getting. 
And that is why I put so many pictures of the furniture actually in our store on our website.  This isn't PB or RH with professional stylists airbrushing objects for mass-mailed catalogues, this is Tricia with her seven year old digital camera taking the shots, and no airbrushing.  I really want you to see the warts metaphorical or not;       I want what you see, to be what you get.
But. There is a but.  But what you get does to a certain degree depend on you.  In the good old days when we only sold antiques people would come in and say they loved everything but they lived in a contemporary home so antiques were out of the question.  Not true.  Take almost any antique, even Victorian, and give it a bare white wall of its own and it will look like a million dollars.  Try to put a large armoire or sideboard in an older home and it won't be so easy.  Radiators, fireplaces, windows, and multiple doorways limit wallspace in older homes making furniture placement a challenge. And making sure all that furniture blends harmoniously can be impossible. Is it eclectic or is it just a big mess?
Also, besides physically putting furniture in a room there has to be something else going on.  My son jokes with me saying that a house is decorated once the flatscreen and couch are in position.  Sadly, although that appears to be the case in many homes we visit these days, simply  putting an enormous television on a wall is not decorating.
A home needs decoration. The greatest outfit won't work if your shoes are wrong.  Accessories are clearly game changers.  So is color, pattern, texture and structure.  Decorating is about the whole package.  A great pair of lamps, a lovely piece of art or a decorative mirror can transform a just okay sideboard into a beautiful statement piece.
Whether you shop online or the old fashioned way, there still is work for you to do when your furniture comes home.  Try rearranging your room, toss or donate things you don't use any more, clear out the clutter.  If you haven't painted the walls in a while--go for it. Not sure how to accessorize, try putting things in groups.  By color, by size, by function.  Keith once bought a lovely collection of early 20th century polished brass blow torches--brilliant. The hardest thing maybe to rethink the positioning of family photos. But that proably merits another post...

Thursday, November 7, 2013

November 2013

     I am so glad it is finally, finally fall.  

     Because last year there wasn't any fall.  After Sandy there was only darkness.
No Halloween, no raking leaves, no treats, just tricks.
Last fall was like living an episode of Survivor.  Searching for gas, trying to 
find food in barely lit grocery stores only selling withered vegetables, rotting 
fruit and a few canned goods because there is no meat, no dairy, no frozen
food when the power goes out and stays out.

     We were living on the river then and we watched the water as it came within
inches of our doorstep.  Happily our elevation was several feet higher that we
thought.  Most of our neighbors were not as lucky and when the power finally
came back on only a handful of us were left.  So we stayed in the dark for the
rest of the year and were well into the next before many other lights joined ours.

     In a way it seems kind of foggy to me now.  In May we moved.  Not because
of the storm but in spite of it...The kids are big, the dogs are in heaven and if we
are ever going to explore this great big world, now is the time. Even though I
was always puzzled when people would come into the store and say they had
downsized.   Who would not want four or five bedrooms, a formal dining
room, a living room and a family room to decorate and a four season garden to
plant and replant year after year?

     But I get it now.  Living in Red Bank, in town, with only two bedrooms and no
yard to speak of means visits to the pubs, evenings at the theaters, a surprising
variety of dining options and walks everywhere--to the gym, the library, the dentist,
the shops, hair dressers and of course--for coffee.  It also means trips.  Since May
we've been to England, Maine, North Carolina, Washington State, and Houston,
twice.

     And in terms of decorating we've been forced to focus on quality rather than quantity.
When we first moved our daughter said we looked like hoarders but gradually--letting
go is not easy--we are winnowing away at our collections.  Owning British Cottage has
been fabulous because almost anything can come under the British Cottage umbrella:
white ironstone, brass candlesticks--actually brass anything--blue and white china, painted
furniture from anywhere, screens, prints, portraits, water colors, garden ornaments, garden
furniture, antique clocks, Staffordshire dogs, platters, figures and actually anything remotely
vintage in an animal shape. 

     Naturally, over the years,  a fair amount of this stuff found its way into our home.

     So how are we managing without five grandfather clocks?  We kept two and the other
three are for sale in the store.  They are out there for all of us to enjoy and they add quite a
bit of ambiance to the shop.  They just look the part.  There was a time when the first thing
a decorator would encourage a client to buy was one of our English or Scandinavian painted
clocks.  Those gals, long deceased, knew what they were doing.  A cool clock is decorative,
adds that little bit of architecture and charm that makes an ordinary room more special.

     Today people seem to panic when it comes to decorating when really it has never been
easier.  Comfy sofas with slipcovers that can be washed,  wood shutters in lieu of over-
the-top window treatments, seagrass area rugs instead of wall to wall carpets help make
decorating a breeze.  But you still need ambiance.  Add an antique credenza, a painted armoire,
a rustic coffee table or possibly a grandfather clock and then you';re cooking.

     So let's all enjoy this glorious weather, this bracing air, the fabulous sunsets, the autumn
moons.  Shop at British Cottage for the workhorses: the couches and chairs, the kitchen and dining
room tables and cupboards that will last through to the next generation.  And hopefully we'll also be
able to help you locate that signature piece, that special item that makes your home unique.





Wednesday, February 6, 2013

After Sandy, Rebuilding, One House at a Time

     In retail it is not uncommon to work seven days a week.  Although my son would argue that walking around schmoozing all day is hardly work and mostly I would agree with him; but it is hard to focus on paperwork or blogging if you are always stopping to help someone with something.  That is a long winded way of saying I am now staying home one day a week with the intention of actually finishing a blog and getting to work on less pleasant things like our taxes.  So I met with the accountant this morning and am now at the laptop voila; let's see how long this lasts.  
    The store has been very busy this last couple of weeks which is unusal for this time of year. The reason why is that possibly 25% of our customers were physically impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  Trees through roofs, sailboats through windows, and water and sand everywhere.  The rebuilding process has been torturous, insurance claims not paid, uncertainty over how or what to build, finding contractors...
     Horrible, horrible but we are finally, three months after the storm, seeing some real positive efforts and just yesterday Keith and I visited two completely different syle homes in our town of Rumson that are well on their way to looking fabulous.  The first is a coastal cottage/carriage house in our Westpark neighborhood that had several feet of water wash through it.  Open plan to begin with the owners opened it up even more, taking the opportunity when the walls were down to the studs to install a steel support beam so an annoying column separating the dining and cooking area would disappear.  Hopefully they'll let me take some photos because the house layout is so interesting, especially a beguiling banquette in the center of the house on a raised platform so whoever is sitting at the table has a bird's eye view of the whole downstairs.   Very cool and proof that you don't need to have a huge house to live large.
     The other house we went to see was also flooded by Sandy.  Much larger, prior to the storm it was a classic suburban faux mini mansion/colonial with an attached garage that was probably the cat's meow when it was built in the late sixties (I am inferring here) that definitely had seen better days.  With the renovations nearly done, the transformation post Sandy is amazing.  New and larger windows and a few widened walls have created a spacious family room and kitchen and eating area.  But no formal dining room space. Wide planked limed oak floors bounce with light and there is still plenty of room downstairs for a grown up living room and a kid's playroom.  (Children who grow up by the sea tend not to have basements to play in; nor do the grown ups so a winterized sunporch has been adapted as office space/media room for the adults.)
     The walls are white; most of the upholstered furniture is off white linen.  And the wood furniture is of the rustic, weathered antique pine variety (mostly items we sold the owner's mother over 20 years ago so clearly we are prejudiced) that looks totally au courant in such a sleek, almost modern interior.  One of the former owners was a local antique dealer and the one memory I have of the house is of a stilted, colonial aesthetic--this is anything but. 
   Hopefully we'll get pictures of this one too.  And the owner has a 4' carved wooden Buddha from a former life that isn't part of his decorating scheme so if you know anyone who is remodeling their yoga studio give me a call.  No Zen garden here, but still the house has a lovely, tranquil feeling.  Namaste.
    










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