No Plain Jane: How One L.A. Based Artist Draws Inspiration From Her Grandmother’s Jewels

If you had to look one kitchen appliance in the eye and consider it most human which would you pick?  Your coffee contraption that wakes you up each morning? Your mixer because it sings as the beaters whirl and whip? Or maybe it is your dependable dishwasher who is always so eager to clean a mountain of dirty pots and pans.

If I had to choose one such appliance, I would pick the fridge. It’s human height, it’s doors open like arms and even though you stock it yourself, there always seems to be something unexpected going on in there. Whether it’s restaurant leftovers you forgot about, a surprise treat added by a family member or a curious case of bacteria sprouting on last week’s loaf of bread, the fridge is the one appliance that consistently brings a little personality to each new day.

It’s also the one that gets the most use. Every day, you open the doors and close the doors so much so that you don’t even think about the physical action of that process anymore – the pulling and the pushing – but at the same time you are also careful with it. You reorganize it. Sometimes more than once a day. You jockey things around from shelf to shelf to make sure everything fits. You clean it and you care for it. You worry about it. If the power goes out, then what? You think about it in the middle of the night. Will the Thanksgiving turkey fit? Will the watermelon suck up too much cold air? Will the icebox pie set firmly?

If you are like my mom, you also outfit it. You buy lots of clear glass storage dishes and a label maker and you get to work making the inside of that fridge look like a beacon of efficiency and organization with this there and that here. Or you take the opposite approach and just stuff things in as they come with less rigidity and more relaxed effort.

And that’s just the inside.

The outside of a fridge is an equal blank canvas. It seems this school of thought has two camps – the people who decorate and the people who don’t. Do you prefer a plain, sleek front to your fridge or a personalized collection of life’s pieces in papers? Here in the Vintage Kitchen, we like the outside of our fridge decorated. Right now, ours contains a family photo, a calendar, three business cards, one Chinese takeout fortune cookie message (which proclaims that this is the year that ingenuity stands high on the list!), two stickers from a recent comedy show, two love notes, one watercolor painting, one recipe and one autograph. All these are held together by a collection of magnets that my niece, Olivia,  made for me when she was 11…

That was eight years ago. Now she is off at college, and these magnets were and will always be prized possessions.  A lovely gift and a pretty memory all wrapped up in one, they also were the start of my love affair with magnets. Thanks to Olivia’s gift, I re-discovered that magnets were an invaluable tool providing the ability to help hang on to the little bits of life that I didn’t want to forget about (like that fortune cookie message!). This leads to the topic of today’s post. Yesterday I promised to reveal the contents of this mystery box that one lucky winner in our giveaway will receive…

Are you ready to see what’s inside?

Ta-dah! It is a trio of floral fridge magnets handmade from vintage costume jewelry.  These beauties are the work of Heather Dean, the Los Angeles based artist behind Jane Dean Gems, an online jewelry and home decor shop that specializes in pieces made from vintage items and found objects.

As one of the original pioneering artists of Etsy, Heather has been around the handmade marketplace since 2005 but her designs and ultimate inspiration go way back to her grandmother Jane Dean, whose name Heather not only borrowed for her shop but whose collector’s spirit Heather tries to instill in all her pieces. What I love about Heather’s work is that she is a storyteller in sparkles and shimmer, offering a new way of looking at familiar objects from a finder’s point of view. A brooch becomes a magnet, a bauble becomes a bracelet, an arrow becomes a compass in the same way that your commonplace, everyday, utilitarian refrigerator suddenly becomes the canvas for a glamorous work of art.

In today’s post, we catch up with Heather, interview style to learn more about the muse behind the magnets, how her grandmother helped lead her down the handmade road and where to find the best places for artistic inspiration in all of L.A.

In the Vintage Kitchen: First of all, let’s talk about the name of your shop. I understand it is named after your grandmother, Jane. Please share a little bit about her with us.

Heather:  My grandmother’s name was Jane but I called her “Mimi.” When I was a little girl I was enchanted by her large collection of costume jewelry. She had drawers full of colorful brooches, sparkly rhinestone earrings and long beaded necklaces. I loved opening her jewelry boxes, examining the pieces and trying them on. My grandmother was a working woman who didn’t have a lot of money, but she knew how to put herself together on a budget. She shopped at the Garment District in downtown LA  (now known as the Fashion District) to find good deals on clothes, and she accessorized her outfits with jewelry and beautiful silk scarves. It just seemed fitting to name my business after her since I use vintage pieces in my own designs. I also love the simplicity and traditional character of the name, Jane. It goes well with vintage style.

Jane as a young girl with one of the necklaces she acquired later on.

Did Jane teach you a lot about jewelry or did you learn through your own natural fascination? What attracts you to it?

I was certainly inspired by my grandmother’s love of jewelry and flair for accessorizing, but I definitely had my own fascination with vintage items. I started collecting vintage jewelry as a teenager in the 1980s, when more was more. I would go to garage sales and second-hand shops looking for interesting pieces at great deals. I loved old rhinestone choker necklaces, sterling silver bracelets and rings (I wore one on every finger, including mid-knuckles). Back then, pre-internet, I would go to the library to learn about the vintage treasures I had found. Researching vintage is sooo much easier these days, thanks to the internet!

These fridge magnets are desert themed! Everybody needs a little cactus, don’t you think? Find this trio in her shop here.

How did you happen upon the idea of refurbishing vintage jewelry into fridge magnets? Such a cool idea!

I had been buying box lots of old jewelry so I could use the components in my own designs. I was mostly looking for pieces that could be used in necklaces and charm bracelets, but I ended up with a surplus of broken bits and bobs, orphan earrings, etc. that didn’t really work for my jewelry making. One day, I decided to glue magnets on the back of a few old pieces and they turned out really cool! They sold well and soon became my favorite things to make. My first magnet sets were fairly simple but over the years they have become much more complex, with several pieces stacked on top of each other and often embellished with paint, rhinestones and charms. I also love using rustic found objects like old bottle caps, rusty washers and miscellaneous thingamabobs. I’m always finding things on the ground and putting them in my pocket to be used later in a creative project. When I do my laundry I usually find some kind of nut, bolt or pebble in the lint trap, because I always forget about the little treasures in my pockets!

Small treasures lying in wait for Heather’s unique designs.

Please explain a little bit about the process of making magnets – does one piece set the wheels in motion for a particular collection or does a set evolve as each magnet is made, or do you figure out a color palette and then go from there?

I create magnet sets based on one fabulous piece, or a color combination that I love, or using one of several themes that I work with over and over again. Some of my most popular themes are beachy seashell mixes, Southwestern, Day of the Dead, Victorian and robot (made out of junk and google eyes). I have also made many custom magnet sets to coordinate with people’s kitchen colors and for wedding message boards. I’ve even had customers send me their own vintage jewelry to turn into magnetic keepsakes.

It’s easy for me to pull sets together because I keep my huge collection of jewelry bits very organized. I have a large vintage letterpress cabinet, several craft drawers, boxes and glass jars full of stuff. Everything is sorted by type; hearts, flowers, animals, celestial, bead clusters, rhinestones… that way I can find what I need quickly!

Heather’s wonderfully organized cabinet!

Are there jewelry magnets on your own fridge?! And if so, what are they like?

I do have magnets on my own refrigerator. My favorite one is made out of a big rhinestone flower brooch that belonged to my grandmother… I was never going to wear it so I turned it into a functional object that I get to see every day in my kitchen!

Find this set of 8 Southwestern mini fridge magnets available in her shop here.

Is there a holy grail of costume jewelry that you are forever on the hunt for? Do you have a favorite vintage designer or type that you like to collect?

Because I sell vintage in my other shop, CuriosityCabinet, I’m always on the hunt for sterling silver. I love unique handmade jewelry….Southwestern, Native American, Mexican, and mid-century artisan pieces. But for my handmade work, I honestly look for junk! I love the challenge of turning something broken or damaged into something new and fabulous. A lot of my supplies are things many people would throw away. I don’t use anything collectible or valuable.

Who are your top three most favorite artists and why?

It’s difficult for me to pick favorites because I appreciate so many artists and creative mediums, but having recently returned from Mexico, I’m still thinking about the magnificent murals I saw painted by “Los Tres Grandes” the leaders of the Mexican muralism movement; Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. The enormous size of the works, with their bold colors and emotional subject matter really made an impression on me. It’s nothing like studying them in books and on slides! One piece by Sequeiros actually brought me to tears when I saw it.

From top left: Jose, David, Diego and the trio as pictured in the 1940s.

Because I’m an avid recycler of junk, one my favorite contemporary artists is El Anatsui, a Ghanaian sculptor who creates enormous, flexible tapestries made out of salvaged bottle caps and metal pieces from liquor bottles. They have the fluidity of fabric and can be bent and formed into different positions. They are truly magnificent and are created entirely out of recycled materials!

The art of El Anatsui

Back when you were studying art in college, did you always plan on opening your shops, Janedean Gems and Curiosity Cabinet, or did they just evolve naturally over time?

I never ever thought I would be able to do what I’m doing now! I definitely didn’t plan it. After working various retail jobs for many years, I went back to school in 2000 to study art history at UCLA, thinking I wanted to work in a museum or gallery. I bought my very first computer to use for school and discovered Ebay at the same time. For fun, I puta few pieces of my handmade jewelry up for auction to see if I could sell them. I was so excited when they sold, that I made more pieces and sold those too! Soon I’d created a nice little side business. That’s when I first starting selling my jewelry magnets.

In 2005, I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about a new selling site specifically for handmade products called Etsy.com. I signed up that same day and have been selling in my janedean shop ever since! In 2007, I opened a second Etsy store, CuriosityCabinet to sell some extra supplies but it soon turned into a vintage shop when I realized how much I love finding, researching and selling unique vintage and antique pieces. Now I balance 2 shops on etsy and 2 accounts on ebay.

Find Heather’s second shop Curiosity Cabinet here

So it is technology that allows me to do what I do. Computers and digital photography have changed my life, allowing me to offer my handmade items and curated vintage collections to people all over the world, from the comfort of my own home. Nothing could have suited my personality better! I’m an independent loner who likes to make my own schedule (and work in my pjs) and I’m now able to use my years of retail and life experience to benefit my own business.  I’m maker, buyer, merchandiser, photographer, advertiser, packer, shipper and I love it!

A fun sampling of items that you’ll find in the Curiosity Cabinet… from top left: Vintage Southwestern Brass Cuff, Portrait of Robert Browning, Vintage Carved Horn Bird Brooch, Antique Brass Hand Paperweight, Vintage Brass Elephant Figurine.

 

Name 5 things that inspire you.

1. Creativity- other people’s creative works inspire me constantly… from designers, crafters, artists, film makers… when I see what fellow human’s brains and hands are making, it inspires me to come up with new ideas of my own.

2. Walking- from beach walks to nature hikes to urban exploring, I always get inspired by things I see when I’m on a walk! When I’m out and about I like to take lots of pictures with my phone and gather small objects that intrigue me, which can end up being sources of inspiration later on.

Collecting in Heather’s hands looks like this!
3. Nature- I just love the natural world, in all its perfection and/or rustic beauty. From gardens to beaches to mountains, I love being surrounded by plants, flowers, trees, rocks, water and wildlife. I love the sights, smells and sounds of being out in nature.
4. Animals-  I love animals of all kinds, domestic and wild. They fill me with happiness and joy. I’m a cat lady for sure, but I love dogs, little critters, watching wild birds and I am continually inspired by the biodiversity on this earth.
5. Music- Finding just the right mix of music to suit my mood really helps inspire me when I work. I have eclectic taste so it may be anything from jazz to old country to punk music, depending upon how I feel that day.

What top five places would recommend to visitors in L.A. (based solely on what you think is great – not necessarily what is typical to tourists).

I’m not into hot spots or the latest trendy restaurants and if I’m going to brave the nightmare of LA traffic I want to see art, culture or nature!

From top left: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA); The Getty Villa; The Broad; The Fowler Museum at UCLA; the Bergamot Art Center; The Natural History Museum; La Brea Tar Pits

I love museums so that’s what I’d recommend the most! The major art museums, LACMA, MOCA, The Getty and The Broad are must-sees, of course. The Getty Villa on Pacific Coast Highway has a fascinating collection of ancient art, housed in a Roman villa overlooking the gorgeous Pacific Ocean. The Fowler Museum at UCLA has some fantastic exhibits of African, Asian, and arts of the Americas. One of my very favorite places to visit is Bergamot Arts Center (previously Bergamot Station) in Santa Monica. It is a collection of art galleries located in an old railroad station that showcases local and contemporary artists. I also love the Natural History Museum and La Brea Tar Pits because I love science and I’m fascinated with prehistoric animals.

The beach bike path weaving its way along the California coast. Photo via pinterest.

My favorite outdoor place is the beach. I love walking along the water, watching the shore birds and gathering seaside specimens. There is a beach bike path where I live that winds for about 25 miles from Pacific Palisades to Santa Monica to Venice, then Marina del Rey to Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo beaches. My favorite time to go is early in the morning, or in late afternoon/early evening during the long days of summer.

If you could have dinner and drinks with five famous people (living or dead) who would you choose and why?

I’d love to have dinner with David Attenborough, the naturalist and documentary film writer, producer and presenter. I would enjoy talking to him about animals great and small, evolution, and what we can do to protect our environment and the future of this planet.

Heather’s dinner guests(from top left)… David Attenborough, Mike Leigh, Paul Thomas Anderson, Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman.

I would also love to talk with a few of my favorite film directors about their processes; Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa, who have passed, Mike Leigh and Paul Thomas Anderson who are still working. These directors have made some of my favorite films of all time and I have lots of questions.

Having been a part of the Etsy community since 2005, you are a true pioneer. Share with us how your journey has changed over 13 years. Is it a continuous process of refinement in what you offer and what you design and what buyers want?  If Etsy did not exist, would you still have wound up in the same place you are today?

I can’t even believe I’ve been on Etsy for 13 years! Where did the time go? If Etsy never existed I might have just stayed on at Ebay full-time or started selling through my own website. Etsy is a very different site than it was in the early years but I try to roll with the changes the best I can, and make them work for my business. If it ever stops feeling like a good fit for me I’ll probably sell through my own website and maybe do more craft fairs (which I don’t do now… too much work!)

I actually still make many of the same things that I have since the early 2000’s, but for a while I got worried that magnets were becoming obsolete when stainless steel refrigerators starting taking over the market, but recently they have started making them magnetic again (yay). I guess some people were sad when they discovered they couldn’t stick their favorite magnets or kid’s pictures on the fridge.

Jandean has become more of a side business the past couple of years, since selling vintage has taken over my life! I don’t have the energy to run them both at full throttle so I tend to make jewelry and magnets when the creative bug strikes. It’s nice because I can just make what I want when I want to, and don’t feel that I have to turn out as many pieces as I did in the past, which can cause burn out.

I do plan to devote more energy to the handmade side of my business this year. I’ve been feeling very inspired lately and have started lots of new projects. I’m hoping to fill up my janedean shop with lots of new one of a kind, recycled goodies very soon!

We can’t wait to see what Heather has in store, for her stores, in the coming months.  Will there be more sparkly magnets in our future? I sure hope so! Keep up with Jane Dean Gems here and with Curiosity Cabinet here.

In the meantime thank you to everyone who popped in with guesses for the giveaway.  Possibilities ran the gamut from handmade candles to antique salt cellars to wooden kitchen utensils, showcasing what a creative bunch all you readers are. The winner of the giveaway will be announced on the blog tomorrow night from the random pool of guesses submitted yesterday here on the blog and via Instagram. 

Cheers to Heather for finding beauty in found objects,  for turning fridges into glamour girls and for providing all the gorgeous pictures throughout this post of her shop and workspace.

Around the World with Paola, By Heart

She was born in Columbia and raised in New Jersey before she moved to the Netherlands where she now writes about France. Meet Paola Westbeek, the international adventurer who followed her heart halfway around the globe to find a lifestyle that fit her perfectly from the inside out.

Meet Paola and her adorable pup, Pastis!

Diving into a European culture and lifestyle as an American isn’t easy but Paola makes it look like a piece of cake, two times over. She not only moved abroad but fell in love, went to school, had a baby, learned two new languages and started a journalism career steeped in the history of her foreign country. Living and working in the Netherlands and France, Paola’s journey through the past twenty years is an inspiring example of letting your instincts lead you to the people and places that will ultimately define you best. In today’s interview, we learn the courageous story of how Paola discovered life in the Netherlands and then discovered herself in France. She also offers some travel suggestions for anyone interested in exploring the cities beyond Paris and shares a recipe for one of her most favorite wintertime soups. It’s a bon vivant adventure of the most bright and beautiful sort as Paola lovingly discusses her “heart’s home,” how she got there, and how she plans to stay creatively wrapped up in her world of intuition.

In The Vintage Kitchen: So you live in the Netherlands but you write about France. How did all this come about?

Paola: Well, first of all, I married a Dutchman! In 1997, I left New Jersey as a nineteen-year-old girl and moved to the Netherlands to be with my then boyfriend. A year later, we were married and I knew I wanted to stay here. I fell in love with the European way of life. Everything just seemed more laid-back. And I became fascinated with the culture and history of the Netherlands. So much so, that I studied Dutch language and culture at the University of Leiden, one of the top universities in the country (very proud I got accepted!). In four years’ time, I had read almost every significant piece of Dutch literature (even 17th-century writers such as Vondel and P.C. Hooft), I was a regular at almost every major museum, and in 2007 I received my specialization in Dutch art history of the Golden Age. I had always imagined I would end up working at the Rijksmuseum, but instead, I followed my heart and started writing.

The lovely city of Leiden.

As a child, my biggest dream was to become a writer. I remember putting together little books and magazines, and making the covers out of cracker boxes. At the beginning of my writing career, I mostly wrote about food in Dutch art and culture, but also about travel, lifestyle and even wine. After a few years of writing for the magazine, DUTCH (published in Canada and the U.S.)…

I was offered the job of editor-in-chief a wonderful opportunity to use all the knowledge I had acquired during my studies in Leiden. And I even worked as a recipe writer and contributed more than 350 recipes for the top women’s Dutch weekly, Vriendin.

Though I briefly studied at the Journalism School in Utrecht (Hogeschool voor de Journakistiek), my writing career developed mostly through passion and motivation. In the last two years or so, I’ve started to really focus my writings on one of my other passions France!

Recently Paola launched her own website devoted entirely to her love of France. Visit her here.

What is it about France that makes you love it so much?

What do I love about France? Everything! I feel like more of myself when I’m there. Quieter. Centered. More relaxed. I also love French food and wine, of course. And the music (I am beyond madly in love with Charles Aznavour and will be seeing him in March excited!). 

Oh, and by the way, France has some pretty amazing beauty products. Walk into any random French pharmacy and you will find the best creams, lotions and potions to look beautiful without ever even having to think about Botox! 

On your website, you mention that you were born in Colombia and were raised in the U.S. How very cool! Where did you live in the States? Do you still feel connected to Colombia in any way?

My parents emigrated to New Jersey when I was a baby, and I only visited Colombia once when I was six years old. However, my parents were very much Colombians and never forgot their roots. I feel more American than Colombian though, even though I am now Dutch but my heart is French! Sorry to confuse you! Haha!

{Side note: In a very strange case of coincidence, through this interview, Paola and I discovered that we lived in the very same town (a small hamlet, really) in New Jersey. At the same time Paola was moving to the Netherlands to be with her love, I was moving to New Jersey to be with my love. New Jersey never gets recognized as a conduit of romance, but maybe it really is!}

Tell us a little bit about life in the Netherlands. In what ways does it make you feel different than when you are spending time in France?

I love the sense of freedom in the Netherlands and that the Dutch are so down-to-earth. Life is pretty good here, but the only thing I don’t like that much is that the country is small and crowded. As soon as I cross the border into France, I feel like I can breathe!

Paola’s gorgeous French vistas.

What keeps you in the Netherlands as opposed to living in France full-time?

My daughter is still in high school and a move isn’t really smart at this point. Plus, my husband has a great job and it would be foolish to leave that behind. For now, we’re just going with the flow and seeing where life takes us. Perhaps there will be a permanent move in the future or perhaps we will divide our time between the Netherlands and France. In the meantime, I’m there every chance I get whether with the family on vacation or for work.

For first-time travelers to France, what top 5 places (sites, cities, attractions, etc) would you recommend they experience first?

The Cote Chalonnaise region of France. Photo courtesy of mlc-vins.fr

As much as I love Paris, Paris isn’t all there is to France. If you really want to experience France, head to the countryside where life is good and lunch (complete with a glass of wine and dessert!) lasts two hours and costs very little! I would recommend you visit the Côte Chalonnaise’s vineyards (they produce pretty fantastic wines at a fraction of the price of the bigger Bourgogne wines from the Côte-d’Or)…

Read more about Paola’s excursions to Bergerac, France over on her website here. Photo courtesy of Paola Westbeek.

the beautiful city of Bergerac for a meal of magret de canard (duck breast) with a glass of Pécharmant,

The coastal town of Arachon, France

Arcachon for some oysters or…

Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, a gorgeous getaway town for Londoners and Parisians. Read about Paola’s favorite restaurants here.

Le Touquet-Paris-Plage (a ritzy coastal town in the north) and…

The medieval village of St. Marten located in the Ardeche region of Southwestern France.

the Ardèche’s picturesque villages.

If you could pick one city in which to live fulltime, which would you choose and why?

The gorgeous village of Duras – Paola’s ideal place.

Easy. Not a city, but the village of Duras in the Lot-et-Garonne. I was smitten by Duras when we first visited a decade ago, and we have spent our summers there every year since. It almost feels like I’ve lived there in a past life. It’s my heart’s home.

Does Pastis accompany you on all your travels?

Pastis!

Absolutely! He’s my second ‘child’ and I wouldn’t dream of leaving him anywhere. He gets a lot of attention in France because of his good looks, and because of his BIG mouth! Doxies are LOUD barkers!

Tell us a little bit about En Route magazine.

Paola writes a culinary column for En Route magazine . Her latest piece was this article about cheese from the Loire Valley.

En Route is one of the top magazines about France in the Netherlands. The magazine covers everything from French culture to travel and food and wine. I had been reading the magazine for quite a while and had even been interviewed by them before a meeting with editor Andy Arnts in 2015 resulted in getting my own culinary column.

I was over the moon! In my column Question de Goût, which I write in Dutch, I explore the history of French food and drink. I have written about the history of Bresse chicken, quiche, Agen prunes, salted caramel, kir, Brillat Savarin cheese and much more. Each column requires extensive research, which I love because I have always been a bit of a nerd. I learn so much! Recently, I also started writing travel articles for the magazine.

Last September, Paola focused her culinary column on Sainte-Maure de Touraine cheese.

What do you think are some common misconceptions about French food?

That it’s difficult to cook, too complicated and time-consuming, and too rich and heavy. Granted, it does take some skill to produce perfect sauces for example, and there’s nothing light about cassoulet or choucroute, but you have to remember that French cuisine is extremely varied. Whereas in the north they love their butter, cream and more substantial dishes, in the south (Provence, for example) they give preference to olive oil, sunny vegetables and seafood (the Mediterranean diet). If you want to cook like the French, it’s not so much about the traditional dishes, but about the style of cooking and eating. For the French, food is almost a religion. They are very picky about choosing the best products (they have amazing markets where you can find the freshest produce, beautiful meats and cheeses and fragrantly fresh herbs and spices), they prefer to eat according to the seasons and food is something which is fully enjoyed, meaning that you sit down at the table and savor every bite preferably with a glass of wine. I love that.

Paola’s French Onion Soup. Find the recipe on her site here.

Recently you posted a few photos on Instagram of your homemade French Onion soup. I know there are two versions – the brothy kind and the thicker, creamy kind that looks more like a potato soup. Tell us about your preference and why you make your soup the way you do.

Mine is somewhat in between. I have tasted my share of onion soups in France and I created this recipe based on my memories of the best ones. The key, as you can read in the recipe, is to cook the onions slowly so they release all their natural sweetness and infuse the broth with flavor. And my secret? A shot of Armagnac! I adore Armagnac and often drink it in France with an espresso after a dinner out.

If you could have a lengthy several course dinner in your beloved France with five famous people (living or dead) who would you choose and why?

Paola’s dream dinner companions: (clockwise from top left: Edith Piaf, Thomas Jefferson, John Lennon, Charles Aznavour, and Rembrandt

Charles Aznavour, bien sûr! His music touches my heart deeply. I could be having the most terrible day, and if I put on one of his records (yes, I prefer records!), it’s like instant happiness. The man is 93 years old and just as vital and beautiful as ever. Then in no particular order, Thomas Jefferson because he was such a HUGE Francophile and food and wine lover (see my blog post!), Edith Piaf because her life fascinates me and I love her music, Rembrandt because his work always moves me to tears (not joking, it’s pretty embarrassing to stand in front of one of his masterpieces the tears just start to flow!) and John Lennon because he’s my favorite Beatle and I am a major Beatles fan.

What is your most favorite French wine? Which types do you prefer to use in cooking and what would you recommend for an everyday table wine?

Grapes on the vine in a Cotes de Duras vineyard

The wines from Côtes de Duras are my favorite. The appellation produces quality wines which are somewhat similar to Bordeaux wines but much more affordable. There are reds, whites, rosés and sweet wines made by more than 200 passionate wine growers. Of course, the wines are especially dear to me because they come from ‘my heart’s home’.

One of Paola’s favorites.

Every time I sip a wine from Duras, I feel as though I’m back there. I serve them with weekday meals but also fancier dinners. As far as cooking with wine use good wine, it doesn’t have to be expensive, but it has to be good enough to drink! And never use special ‘cooking wine’ that is not meant for drinking!

ITVK: If you could write one article for En Route and you could choose whichever topic you liked, what would write about and why?

For my food columns, I pretty much have free reign, which is fantastic. One of my career dreams is to interview Charles Aznavour, for any publication interested! Although I wonder how I would ever keep it together!

ITVK: How has living in multiple foreign countries changed your viewpoint about the definition of the word home?

I consider myself a cosmopolitan woman. I often say that France (Duras) is my ‘heart’s home’… but my real home is with my family.

Paola, at home in her favorite place – Duras.

A very big thank you to Paola for sharing her passions and her kitchen stories with us. You can keep up with her daily adventures on instagram here as well as her French lifestyle blog, here.

Inspired to begin your own culinary exploration of France? Pop over to the Vintage Kitchen shop where you’ll find French treasures like these ready for new adventures…

From top left: Vintage 1970’s French cookbook, Vintage European Linen Napkins, Haviland Family Dishware and Antique Paris Street Maps

{Old} House Stories: An Interview with Ken Staffey

The Ephraim Burr Beers House, circa 1810 – Clapboard Hill, Westport CT. Read more history about this house here. Photo by Ken Staffey.

Nora Roberts once wrote “it was a mistake to think of houses, old houses, as being empty. They were filled with memories, with the faded echoes of voices. Drops of tears, drops of blood, the ring of laughter, the edge of tempers that had ebbed and flowed between the walls, into the walls, over the years. Wasn’t it, after all, a kind of life? They carried in their wood and stone, their brick and mortar a kind of ego that was nearly, very nearly, human.”

Recalling those faded voices, those human experiences, those memories, the forgotten details and the covered over contributions of the places that Nora nuanced, in today’s post we are tackling a discussion about the very interesting life found in and around old houses of early America as discovered by a modern day history lover. If you are a fan of any old house photo feeds on Instagram, chances are you have come across Ken Staffey’s gorgeous account simply called House Stories.

Ken features primarily photographs of historic homes in the Northeastern United States and dives into the interesting family histories behind them with a mix of interesting facts, personal details, and quirky insights. Most often he features houses from the 18th and 19th century that tell the story of how New England grew up. The places where merchants, farmers, sea captains, doctors, writers, politicians, extraordinary people and everyday citizens raised their families and found their footing among the blooming new frontier called the United States.

Located in Marblehead MA, the Sandin House was built in 1714 for fisherman William Sandin and his wife Joanna. Marblehead was once deemed the greatest town for fishing in New England.

From the bones that make up the frames of these centuries-old places, Ken has pulled stories about past occupants, owners, and architects; about city plans gone awry and country enterprises gone right; about dreams found and opportunities lost, about big events and tiny details, all of which remind us how the past is still very much present in our modern daily lives. We’ve caught up with Ken interview-style to learn more about his passion and his process of bringing history home. Included are his top-picks of places to visit for any architecture enthusiast and his thoughts on where current trends are headed when it comes to living with old houses in a new world.

{Note: Ken’s house photos have been featured throughout this interview. Click on each image to read Ken’s Instagram enties.}

In The Vintage Kitchen: What ignited your idea of posting house stories on Instagram?

Ken Staffey: In the beginning, I posted random photos like everyone else. I found that the house photos seemed to get the best response.  Then I started to add a bit of history along with each home and eventually it evolved into what it is today, House Stories – history told one house at a time.

This house was part of a planned community built in the 1870’s as imagined by Alexander Turney Stewart, a dry goods entrepreneur who emigrated from Ireland to New York.  Read more about this house here.

ITVK:  How do you decide which houses to feature?

KS: I pretty much photograph whatever catches my eye.  Later the challenge of finding some history that goes with the home is a big part of the fun. Just about all the homes I have featured date from the colonial period to about 1920.

In Ken’s post about the 1871 Wells-Catlin House, in Brookline, MA  he talks about the history behind the name of the town. Read more about it here.

ITVK:  Explain a little bit about your process of researching these old houses. Do you find that their histories are pretty easy to obtain or do you find yourself knee-deep in archive vaults and old records?

KS: Thankfully, I am never knee deep in archive vaults and old records, but I am often in deep with virtual equivalents, which is much easier thankfully.  Many old directories and records have been scanned and are now online.  Usually, I will just start with the address and see what I come up with there. Often once I get past the online real estate listing for a home, I can find something interesting about the home or its early occupants.  And thank God for historical societies and preservation groups that have not only saved these wonderful old homes but also recorded a good deal of their history.

Yale graduate Nathan Hale taught school in this shingled house in New London, CT in 1774, a few years before he was accused of being a spy and hung by the British Army during the Revolutionary War. The schoolhouse has been moved several times around town but through the support of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution it is being well maintained and offers tours for visitors.

ITVK: Do you ever speak with the property owners to learn more about each house? If not, do you think that most homeowners are aware of the interesting histories their homes have?

KS: Typically I do not speak with the property owners, but I have had a good handful of requests from owners to feature their homes.  They often know a bit of the history about their homes, but that sometimes can be inaccurate. One family had been retelling stories from their home’s history.  Once I dug a bit, I found that the history had been twisted in the retelling over the years, so it was fun to set the record straight for the owners.

City streets and neighborhoods, in particular, are home to a slew of fascinating stories with so many people moving in and out and coming and going. Ken writes about the history of this street in NYC’s West Village here.

ITVK: Do you live in a historic house yourself? If so, does your house have a fascinating story too?!

KS: I grew up in a house that was built in 1940 and since college, I have always been drawn to apartments in older buildings, most of them over a century old.  The home I now own is 89 years old and was built as part of a wave of new housing to accommodate the thousands of factory workers who found work in the once-thriving factories here in Bridgeport, Connecticut. My home is not historic and the funny thing is that I have never even tried to find any history. I do know that the same family owned the home for decades and people have told me a bit about them here and there.

ITVK:  What are three things that modern architecture lacks that all these great old houses contain?

KS: I am a big fan of all types of architecture, but I am partial to the homes of the past.  I think modern architecture has a style all its own, but what modern homes lack is a history and stories about the people that lived there and the surroundings.  Over time even the most modern of homes will have a story to tell.

One great example of a modern house having a fabulous “new” story to tell was Ken’s post on the First Year Building Project designed by students at the Yale School of Architecture. One hundred years from now (fingers crossed that it survives that long) this house will have made a  marvelous contribution to its neighborhood. Read more about the project here.

ITVK: If you could live in (or own) any one of the houses you have featured to date, which would you choose and why?

KS: I am not sure about a particular house, but I was enamored by the recreated New England village circa 1820-1830 at Sturbridge Village. It is a living museum with interpreters who go about their business as New Englanders did two centuries ago.  The buildings were moved there from around New England, so you can see a village that is free of modern structures and vehicles, which gives you a good idea of life in that era.  Also, you can watch the interpreters engage in activities like farming and weaving as they would in Early America.

Old Sturbridge Village – an 1830’s living history museum.

ITVK:  If you could have cocktails with any famous person, living or dead, in any house in the world, who and where would you choose and why?

KS: It would be interesting to have drinks with someone from the colonial era.  Many of the colonists brought the tradition from England of having beer as a drink instead of whatever and a review of their habits show that it was not unusual for them to have a beer with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The White Horse Tavern in Newport RI was founded in 1673 making it the oldest operating bar in the US. See more historic libation stations on the oldies list here.

ITVK: One of my most favorite houses you’ve featured so far is the Jonathan and Abigail Starr house in Guilford, CT that was built in 1732…

The Jonathan and Abigail Starr House, Guilford CT built in 1732.

You shared this information about the house:

“This Church Street home was built for Jonathan and Abigail Starr in 1732 on land obtained from Jonathan’s father, Comfort Starr. Jonathan was a fourth generation New Englander. His great- great-grandfather was a surgeon, also named Comfort Starr, from Ashford, England, who sailed to America aboard the ‘Hercules’ in 1634. Joining him were his wife, Elizabeth, their three children and three servants. Dr. Starr’s parents clearly had a preference for unique names. His sisters were Suretrust and Constant and his brothers were Joyfull and Jehosaphat. The Starrs of Ashford lived a comfortable life with an estate about 60 miles southeast of London, but their move may have been motivated in part by grief as the grave of their son was said to be “not yet grass-grown” when they set out from the port of Sandwich for the “Plantation called New England in America.”

Do you have any other fun details about this house in particular?

KS: I do not, but I did love the names of the Starr children.  I featured the Comfort Starr house (below) a few days after the Jonathan and Abigail Starr post.

Portrait of Comfort Starr and one of his daughters alongside Ken’s photo portrait of Comfort’s house built in the mid 1650’s and a detailed side view sketch of it’s traditional saltbox style.

While known as the Comfort Starr House, this Guilford home was actually built for Henry Kingsworth around 1646. Mr. Starr, a tailor, purchased the home from Kingsworth’s heirs in 1694. He and his wife Elizabeth raised eight children here: Abigail, Elizabeth, Hannah, Comfort, Submit, Jonathan, Jehoshaphat, and Amy. The home was in the family for almost 200 years. Among the last to live here were seven Starr sisters, who were nicknamed ‘Pleiades’ for the seven sisters constellation. When the last sister, Grace, died at 83 in 1874, the home was sold outside the family. Today it is one of the oldest homes in Connecticut that is still a private residence.

ITVK: Is there one New England town, in particular, that should be on every house enthusiasts must-see list?

KS: I think that depends on what type of architecture you like. If you are a fan of first-period homes (1625-1725), Ipswich, Massachusetts has the highest concentration of those homes in the country.  There are enough clustered together that it is not too hard to imagine what the area looked like centuries ago.

Ipswich, MA. Photos courtesy of the Ipswich Visitor Center.

If Victorian architecture is your thing, you could head to Willimantic, Connecticut.  The town saw rapid growth as the textile mills expanded there.  Because Victorian architecture was in style at the time, there are many Queen Anne homes along with other Victorian treasures.  In both cases, the prevalent style reflects a period of growth followed by an economic downturn, which is why the homes were not updated or replaced with more recent styles.  But those are just two examples, you can find architectural gems just about anywhere.  Once you start looking, you’ll be surprised how much you’ll find.

A collection of Victorian, Greek Revival and Queen Anne styles houses that can be found in Willimantic, Connecticut

ITVK: What is your most favorite style of architecture, and why does it appeal to you?

My tastes have definitely changed to favor the simple early American homes.  If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said Victorian homes, but I have grown to appreciate plain design with few distractions from the colonial period. Also, the history from that period is fascinating.  Life was harder in so many ways in terms of having to work hard to get things done, but there was also simplicity to life without all the distractions of today. That being said, I enjoy modern conveniences as much as anyone else, but I can appreciate a simpler existence.

In addition to telling house histories, Ken also incorporates fun facts and other interesting tidbits relating to holidays or customs or historical pop culture which keeps each post from being formulaic.  Read more about this 1720 Brookfield, CT house here.

ITVK:  Have you had the opportunity to look inside any of the houses you’ve featured? And if so, do you have any memorable kitchen stories from them?

A visit to Louisa May Alcott’s family home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts is a treat. Because 80% of the furnishings are original to the home when the Alcotts lived there, you can see how the author and her family lived.

Orchard House – home to Louisa May Alcott. Read more about her and her house here.

They often endured lean times, but Louisa and her sisters enjoyed putting on shows for guests right there in the parlor. Upstairs, you can see the small desk where Louisa wrote her best selling books. It’s really nothing more than a shelf along the window, but it was there that she produced works that touched readers the world over.

The kitchen at Orchard House where the entire family spent time together. Photo courtesy of louisamayalcott.org

The kitchen is another wonderful window on the past. It was here that the Alcott women cooked, cleaned and drew water from the pump beneath the trap door in the kitchen floor.  The author herself says, “All of the philosophy in our house is not in the study, a good deal is in the kitchen, where a fine old lady thinks high thoughts and does good deeds while she cooks and cleans.” I highly recommend a visit to this house museum.

ITVK: So many old houses revolve around the idea of family, whether they were built to accommodate them, or given as wedding gifts or passed down through generations. Because we are such a transient society these days, and on average only stay 7-10 years in a house before moving on, do you think we are slowly losing a sense of place in our modern day world that connects us to the history of our land? Do you think this is why, fundamentally, old houses still hold so much appeal and nostalgia for us?

KS: Overall we have definitely shifted to a more disposable society, but if you look more closely, there is a quieter celebration of the past. People are still restoring our treasured antique homes and many others will furnish their homes in a throwback style such as farmhouse, colonial or even midcentury modern.

This house was built in Fairfield, CT in the 1990’s but the exterior contains elements of classic French chateau, colonial and federal styles that could give the impression that it is older than it actually is. Read more about it here.

 

This house in Westport, CT was also built in the last 20 years. New to look old, it was modeled after early colonial designs. Read more about it here.

Also, there are more people drawn to be what we now call “makers.”  They may be crafters, foodies, or designers and together they have recreated an echo of the cottage industries of our ancestors.  Two centuries ago, artisans worked and sold their goods out of their homes and today there are plenty of people working, living and creating from their homes.  So, I think we are more connected to our homes than we realize today.

The Roe House, built in the 1680’s, now serves as the Port Jefferson, New York Chamber of Commerce. Read more about it here.

 

In New York City’s Soho neighborhood this building originally hosted a tobacco shop in the early 1800’s. Now it’s a clothing store with a 19th-century murder story to tell. Read more about it here.

 

This house built in 1781 in Litchfield, CT has been home to a number of cottage industries throughout its life including an apothecary shop, a grocery store and now a doctor’s office. Read more about it here.

Does place dictate who we are or who we have the potential of becoming? Not always.  But it certainly does have the opportunity to indulge us and to nurture our life’s pursuits just like Orchard House had done with Louisa May Alcott who drew so much of her own environment into her works of fiction. Had Louisa never grown up in that brown clapboard house would Little Women have been the same book we know today?

Orchard House photographed sometime between 1860-1920. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Images.

Like dipping your toe into the pool of history and watching the ripple effect the entire body of water, Ken’s House Stories are mini in content but mighty in impact. He shows us that behind every person stands a physical structure that was impacted by them or for them. He reminds us that a person’s individual history, although singular at the time eventually becomes our collective history as a nation. One country formed by billions of individual contributions. Big, small, humble, grand.. the old houses stand as truth showing us where we have been and where we have the potential to go.

A sampling of houses Ken has featured on House Stories that range in age from the 1670’s to the 1860’s.

A very big cheers to Ken for spotlighting the stories of our country’s founding families. Find him on Instagram here. And cheers to all the people who loved, saved and protected our early American architecture from re-development and decline and continue to do so every day.

Other historic architecture-related posts from the Vintage Kitchen can be found here…

Other interviews by artisians, craftspeople, collectors and interesting characters from around the world can be found here.

Discussing Rustic Home Decor, Beer & Movies with Designer Frick and Frack Scraps!

If you have read her blog bio, you will know one of the things that Ms. Jeannie loves most in life is havin’ a laugh.

She loves stumbling upon things that are unexpectedly funny, which is exactly what occurred, when she set out  to interview one of her favorite fellow Etsy shop owners, Frick and Frack Scraps.

Frick and Frack Scraps builds some of the most wonderfully whimsical yet fully functional home decor items.  They are rustic, provincial, aged, weathered, repurposed, re-salvaged and entirely original in all aspects.  Here is a sampling of items from their shop…

Sampling of Items from Frick & Frack Scraps

Naturally she was thrilled to discover the funny designer behind the fun shop…

Ms Jeannie:  I love the rustically provincial/whimsically repurposed theme of your shop! Please explain a little about your design inspirations.
Frick & Frack Scraps: Well, thank you, firstly, for the compliment and the interview. Your blog is so unique. I get inspiration for my projects from leftover scrap laying around. My father was an architect and an armchair engineer. He used things differently and saw potential in lots of things that most people would not see. I think I got a little of that from him. And also from beer.
MJ: Do you think a lot of people are inspired by beer?
FFS: Two words, Ms. Jeannie.  Benjamin Franklin. Enough said.
 MJ: You have sold a lot of one of a kind items in your shop. Currently there are 11 items for sale.  Are you concepting new ideas now?
FFS: Well, don’t you do your homework?! I have been busy, in the non-Etsy world, with other work, so right now I am on sort of a break, but I always look for things to use for when I am back in the saddle on my saw horse.
MJ:  What designers inspire your work?
FFS: Well, I think of things in very straight terms. Not a big fan of curves, so I think that makes Mission and Prairie designers my gut inspiration. O.K. I will admit it. I have posters of Stickley and Wright on my bedroom walls.
An example of Mission style furniture. Photo courtesy of 4interior-design.com
An example of Usonian style furniture. Photo courtesy of inhabitat.com
Prairie Style Table Centerpiece from Frick & Frack Scraps
MJ:  What is your most favorite type of material to work with?
FFS: Wood and steel and beer cans.
MJ: Do you ever worry about running out of scraps to work with?
FFS: Not while I live in the United States. It is funny how some people see things as useless and others see a winerack. There is more than enough.
MJ: Explain a little about your design process. How do you get started on each piece?
FFS: Since it is all scraps to start with there is a bit of a limitation at the beginning. I can not go into something thinking “table” when I only have enough scrap for a box. Once I have stuff in front of me, it is a very simple, no holds barred process. The real upshot is if I make a “mistake” it just goes into a bin until it can be used on something else.
MJ: While you are working on each creation, do you ever think about where  they might end up?  What style of house it will go to? Or what sort of person would buy it?
FFS: Absolutley! There is a lady on Etsy, Jacksonofalltrades, that wanted some Frick & Frack for a birthday party at a dude ranch. I never thought of my pieces that way but I think it will look good. So I have that going for me,  which is nice.
MJ: At what point in life did you realize you were destined to build things?
FFS: I have always built things as far back as I can remember. “Destined” is such a big word. I think it should only be used when referring to superheros.
MJ: Speaking of superheros…who is yours?
FFS: My pal, Thom Zelenka. If he were a real superhero he would be Always OK Man. He never seems to get rattled, always has a nice or kind word and has always been the same guy – from the day I met him to decades later. Pretty damn cool.
 
 MJ:  What is it that lures people towards your items?
FFS: I am not sure. I made the four pack out of parts that were left over, after a six pack I had made that sold pretty quickly. I am sooo glad I am able to find similar materials for the four pack ’cause WOW have I had to make alot of them. But I digress, I think people like the price, the FUNctional part, and also I make alot of things that hold or incorporate alcoholic beverages so it could be that these buyers are all fun drunks. 
The Four Pack & The Six Pack from Frick & Frack Scraps
MJ: What is your most favorite item in your shop right now and why?
FFS: By far, the Fire Box Humidor. My pal, Tommy and I, made that and I am so proud of the re-use of that fire box. It is so outside the box. See what I did there?
1950’s Fire Box Humidor from Frick & Frack Scraps
MJ:  Is there one item that you are constantly striving towards building for your own personal collection?
FFS: I use my wife’s style as a guide to things I build for our house,  so  that there is no conflict. I once bought a table at an auction for like 200 bucks and she called it the “UGLIEST TABLE IN THE WORLD” two years later I sold the original Gustav Stickley drum top table for 1500 bucks. I still smile about that.  But I still do not get to pick out what I like. Ah love!
MJ: If you could build props for any tv or movie set, past or present, which would you choose?
FFS: Gangs of New York, There Will be Blood and A Good Year in the movie department for sure. I think there would be no challenge for me to get it right the first time.
Gangs of New York set
There Will Be Blood movie set
A Good Year film set
MJ: Two of the three movies you mentioned, star Daniel Day Lewis. Do you think he would be a fan of Frick & Frack?
FFS: I think so. He is very unique himself and he lives in a castle pretty much so he’s certainly got the money to “drink my milkshake”.
Side note: If this reference confuses you, check out the “milkshake” scene from There Will Be Blood
MJ: Also, two of the three movies you mentioned are period dramas and the third is a contemporary drama set in provincial France. It is easy to picture Frick & Frack in both these worlds. What inspires you about the look of these films?
FFS: There is a utilitarian feel to everything old to me. Not much design just use in mind when they were made in the old days. That has beauty to me. I like that.
MJ:  What one type of item is a consistent seller in your shop? What seems to be the slowest to sell?
FFS: The Four Pack is a runaway success. The Fire Box Humidor and the Coat racks are the slugs but I looked at other Etsy shops that have coat racks and mine should be sold as firewood compared to others! There is such cool stuff on Etsy.
Large Coat Rack & Small Coat Rack from Frick & Frack Scraps

MJ:  What type of environment (besides the fireplace!) would your coat racks look best?

 FFS: I dont know. The ones with the wooden “sleigh” shaped hooks would be great in a rustic cabin in Montana. Like a River Runs Through It house that Ikea just re-decorated.
MJ: What are some of the challenges of being a handmade seller?
FFS: I think people’s expectations. I make things rustic. I am not a finish carpenter. I send items out that might give you splinters. Really. I have not had any problems but that is the part that makes it hard.You just never know how someone will react when they get an item in hand having based their purchase on three or four pictures and a description.
MJ: Do you think if you heard more feedback from buyers that you would build different items?
FFS: I am not sure. I listen to my head when I build. There is not much more room in there for other people.
MJ:  What’s your shop’s greatest success story?
FFS: Well, all of the coverage I have gotten for sure! I think when Urban Outfitters emailed me to be a vendor for their outdoor center in PA, that was pretty cool. Nothing ever came of it, in the end, but just think about how that one email could have really changed things. And the ONLY reason is due to Etsy and all of their hard work.
MJ: If you could spend one day, building Frick & Frack alongside anybody famous, living or dead, who would you choose?
FFS: Frankie Wright. (that’s what his friends call him)
Architect and designer, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), father of organic architecture and leader of the Prairie School Movement.

MJ:  What does your studio space look like? What would your ideal space look like?

FFS: I build most everything thus far at my pal, Tommy’s, old mill building. It is old, dusty, and full of great equipment. My ideal space would be a 1/2 indoor 1/2 outdoor space, maybe an old barn.
MJ:  What’s next on the Frick & Frack horizon?
FFS: I have no clue. Some days I think if I could just do this full time, life would be alot more simple and rewarding. I think I will try to get some wholesale clients that want lots of four packs. Maybe a cool brewery like Dog Fish Head or Victory Brewing Company could find my work and fall madly in love with it.  And then I will be the hero that made their beer sales skyrocket and there would be a movie made about my life and how I changed the corporate culture of beer packaging.  I would become a household name and then retire in Ireland to golf until I die. Who knows? It is amazing what a minute can do.
MJ: What would the title be to that movie be?
FFS: I think it would be: Luck. I have had alot of it in my life.
POST UPDATE (10/10/2012):  Frick and Frack Scraps has just entered the blogging world! If you are in need of a laugh (or 20!) stop by and visit their aptly named blog, Out of Hand.