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...

Friday, March 20, 2015

March at Last

March at Last
     How did the pioneers make it through winter?  We have electricity, heat and tv and when I look out the window on this first day of spring and all I see is snow falling it just makes me want to cry.  Where is my fortitude? Fortunately my forebears were made of stronger stuff.  I will just have to look inward.
     Which honestly, thanks to three major shipments this month, looks pretty darn good.  First came the upholstered couches and chairs:     They are made by Hickory White, an American company with over 100 years experience in the furniture industry.  With over 700 fabrics to choose from and a number of seat, arm and skirting options we can basically offer a bespoke sofa for a big box store price...What we show here is the two seater couch in navy linen with white piping which pairs nicely with a striped club chair with a navy welt and a box pleat skirt.
     Then we did a three seater couch in a khaki blend with an English arm and no skirt and a smattering of nailheads.  Two side chairs with waterfall skirts and no welting for a slightly more contemporary vibe complete the ensemble. All in all I think we nailed it.  Crisp, clean, coastal, classic, and cool. What more can you ask for?
     The turn around time is about six weeks and the hardwood frames are guaranteed for 45 years.  Oh, I forgot to mention comfort.  The spring down cushions are crazy soft when you sit but then, when you get up they bounce back into more fluffing.  Come in and sit for yourself.  These are amazing.

The day after the chairs and couches arrived we unloaded a shipment of furniture from a supplier who imports a wide range of products.  We got in end tables, side tables, cupboards and coffee tables in every finish from dark walnut to greige.  Check this out:

    And then finally, on Friday March 13, our new shipment of antique and reproduction pine furniture from Hungary arrived and life was good.  Now if it would only stop snowing.

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.  

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

February 2015!
    February promises to be a busy month at British Cottage.  Our new shipment of antique and reproduction pine furniture--meant to arrive mid-January will land mid-February instead--actually we just heard it is going to ship mid-February!  It's taken a lot longer than expected because of the two week Christmas holiday Europe enjoys, the weather, the flu and whatever else you possibly imagine that could conspire to delay matters...just keep your fingers crossed at this point.
     A new shipment of blue and white Chinese ginger jars did come in:

     Also sometime around mid-February our new line of upholstered furniture should ship from North Carolina.  Made by Hickory White to our specifications we will have what amounts to an essentially custom made couches and chairs at a decidedly not custom price.  Turn around time is meant to be 5 or 6 weeks--that would be amazing--and the fabrics are simply beautiful.  And I think there is a 45 year warranty.  How can we go wrong?
     Meanwhile Sunday, February 1 we are off to the NY International Gift and Home Furnishings Show at the Javitz Center in NYC.  Hopefully the snow will hold off.  Although not as furniture oriented as other major shows, it will be fun to get out and see what's hot and what's not...We promise to give you a full report.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

    This could be the year you redo your bedroom.  Having a beautiful bedroom is one of the greatest pleasures in life.  To close your eyes in a wonderful surrounding and wake up to the same?  We are amazed how in totally gorgeous homes the master bedroom is often a pig sty.  All it takes is a little thought and admittedly a fair amount of time; but it's worth it.  Clean out the closets, put your wash away, maybe it is time to repaint?  Paint is the biggest bang for your buck in the decorating world and it is one of the few things the average bear can tackle--if a painter is not in the budget.  Maybe even a new bed?  It is a new year, after all. Get going!

Our newest British Cottage bed.

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."