Susanna Salk


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Christmas in almost-April
Monday, March 23rd, 2009

In the magazine world, you never live in the moment: rather you celebrate the season that is the opposite of the one you are currently supposed to be enjoying.
Today a magazine created a Christmas shoot in my home.
I had spent some time on the phone with the thoughtful editor and stylist discussing what our theme would be (we’d only use silvers, whites and natural greens) so I knew what to expect. The difference with this holiday was I didn’t have to do a thing.
After dropping my kids off at school, I arrived back to find boxwood wreaths, a blue spruce tree, paper whites, silver candles and dozens of other goodies perched on my doorstep like they were playing hooky from the real holiday.
As one stylist unpacked my ornaments and another wrapped empty boxes in fabulous green paper, cinched with Ikat green ribbon (got to remember that for the real holiday), I started feeling sort of queasy, like I had been put through some weird Gilligan’s Island time warp machine. It was starting to look and smell like Christmas but where were the in laws? The dreaded trips to Walmart? The toy receipts guiltily stacked in the corner?
By the time it was school pick up birch logs were artfully arranged in my fireplace while boxwood wreaths dolled up with silver grosgrain ribbons (curled just so at the bottom) hung from each curtain rod. Decorative snowflakes had been magically attached to my windows and the warm Spring light shown through, as if spotlighting our trickery. Little topiaries lined up on my mantle like toy soldiers and white tulips filled mint julep cups on every surface. Suddenly I felt like a kid on Christmas morning: how delicious the house looked! My kids jostled in from the bus and then stopped, their eyes lit up to take in the gorgeously set table waiting for no one.
After I put them to bed I went downstairs to admire the tree: with its all- white lights (just as we agreed upon) it glowed in the dark, a reminder of what time of year it was supposed to be.
And as stunning as it all was, I felt a little hollow. After all, I hadn’t done any of the work. No one was pulling up the driveway carrying good cheer nor was turkey roasting. I am rested and my husband is not wondering what to do with the four ties and two socks he received.
And tomorrow, after its moments are professionally documented, it’s all going to be packed away as if it never happened.
I’m sorry it won’t be savored and appreciated as it deserves and yet…
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Glorious
Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

I spent much of the morning with the amazingly inspirational Gloria Vanderbilt, in her jewel-box apartment on Beekman Place. (The full story on 1stdibs.com soon)
The inspiration ebbs back and forth as soon as you enter: Gloria has painted her walls a vivid pink and then bordered them in black, a combination which is echoed on the Madeline Weinrib carpet at your feet. (It was falling in love with the carpet that then inspired her to go for the whimsical wall color.) It is like a gift to see someone try color like this with such aplomb. And Gloria keeps giving with her imaginative touch that never feels too forced. Serious art (much of it Gloria-ously rendered by the hostess herself over the years) mixes with frou frou flea market finds she just couldn’t help but bring home. (The unexpected presence of two mannequin heads on her dresser table inspired Gloria’s publisher to promptly put them on the cover of her upcoming book of fiction “Obsession” out June).
She has recently started to line her bedroom walls in cork to post her personal letters, picutres and mementos of her life for daily inspiration. When I commented on someone’s particularly beautiful script on one card, it turned out I knew the person who wrote it. A black and white photo of Gloria in her 30s looking more regal than Nefertiti, made me want to march straight to Kenneth, dye my hair blue black and cut it shoulder length. When I gave an inscribed copy of my “Privileged Life” book, she gazed at the image I used of her and her young family (without knowing some day I’d get to meet her in person and see the real family portraits on her walls). She then inscribed a vintage copy of her book I had brought (which friend and antique dealer David Duncan kindly had loaned me) called “Woman to Woman.” Inside, she had written: “Looking forward…”
Now I know why this octogenarian still creates and writes with the vibrancy of a teenager: she always looks forward. As a result, she seamlessly makes connections between people, emotions and destinies. Gloria is absolutely unafraid to be inspired by whatever comes her way. Everything is seized, nothing has been left to chance yet the door is always open to greet one more surprise.
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UNDONE
Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

Sometimes you walk into a place and it’s the very things that aren’t being done that impacts you far greater than those that are. Like the power of silence over conversation. Observing rather than doing.
Today I had the privilege of photographing celebrated artist and designer John Derian’s New York apartment for an upcoming 1st dibs profile. Walking into his four room apartment was more like strolling the endless rooms inside his imagination than his actual home. As soon as we crossed the threshold (of course the buzzer was broken) my photographer John Gruen and I looked at each other giddily: everywhere there was a still life quietly waiting to be captured. Whether it was how he placed a small round watermelon next to a collection of onions (made me think instantly of Caravaggio) stacked white sugar cubes in a silver bowl (made me immediately want to throw out my Splenda) tucked a modest bouquet of pink ranoculus in front of an unframed landscape (I never liked pink flowers and suddenly I had to buy some on the way home) or collected bars of colored putty in a dish front in the living room (I at first took them for fancy sculpture but no: John had simply been given them and decided to display them for what they were) it was all about the quiet power of shape, color and personal meaning. A giant sea sponge from his sister (she sent it from Florida as she knew he’d love its shape) shared space with family photographs on his bedroom dresser. Hanging in front of the window was a tangled spray of dried leaves and branches (when his friend in the floral business opened up a box to find its content unexpectedly dead, John simply asked if he could then have it). Under John’s deft display, everything came alive again. One suddenly sees that there is harmony in all things if, when placed alongside each other, they are loved individually.
Perfection lay only in the imperfection: wires we try so hard to tuck out of sight dangled as prominently as mirrors. Pillows didn’t match. Paint peeled. Some chairs, with their guts spilling out, were no longer meant to be sat upon, but to be regarded in a new way. Every single thing was there because John has a reason for it. And sometimes the reason was, because it simply was the way it was. You could write a whole book about John just by spending an hour in that apartment and never even have to meet him in person. Because in his absence, his space speaks volumes.
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Switch
Thursday, February 12th, 2009

I’m so used to shopping design for my home and work as a solo venture.
I have my vendors I love and my little internet haunts: point, click, done. I am my own client and decorator and therefore my own critic and pat-on-the-backer.
If my husband does not like the new orange pillows which suddenly find themselves on the living room sofa (“New? Those? Not really…”) I simply wait for his mind to change. Which it eventually does. And if it doesn’t, I invariably end up not really loving whatever it is too. (“Where did those pillows go? I’m not sure. Why: did you end up liking them?…)
So it was a welcome surprise- not to mention a rare treat- when I got to shop dozens of showrooms this week at the World Market Center Las Vegas show.
Actually, no wallets were pulled out.
Instead, uber designers (and new BFFs ) Barclay Butera, Amy Lau and Joe Nye strolled massive amounts of glorious square footage with me, oohing, aaahing, and “Stop! I love this! ” all the way. The four of us moved through showrooms with the energy of a tornado yet with eyes of seasoned investigators. Drawers were opened, finishes examined, backs of carpets examined, business cards exchanged. Not to mention some good-natured ribbing all along the way.
Many Poloroids-on-the-wall-later, we established a top 10 list that not only reflected trends, but pieces we were crazy about.
So even though it was faux shopping, it still radiated all the enthusiasm, passion, design dialogue – not to mention a little gossip- that puts shopping with real money late at night on the internet to shame.
And while Joe, Amy and Barclay each view design with a different style lens, there was always a united thrill when we saw the marriage of high design and accessible price.
(We were practically shaking with excitement in one mirror showroom we discovered, where mirrors that could have graced walls in Bel Air were less than $200. We wanted everything, times 3, and NOW please!)
That night we went to dinner at a restaurant where the decor promised to change regularly throughout dinner. As dramatic music swelled over our constant laughter, walls behind our table sprouted up, replacing ones before. After awhile we realized it was only going to be the same two tired set changes.(The third was simply no wall: just the casino behind us exposed.) The experience was all gimmick and empty promise. The complete opposite of the show.
The next day, we hosted a webcast to reveal what inspired us.
Share it with us below. And remember, if you’re not lucky enough to shop with Barclay, Amy or Joe, then grab a best friend or spouse and at least share a design experience. I assure you, you will come home and look at your own rooms, rejuvenated.

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Watch the Webcast!



Recovered
Monday, December 29th, 2008

A cat may have nine lives but a chair?…
Well…the incarnations are endless.
Take Eric’s Aunt Muriel’s reproduction pair of French chair. It lived with her on East 79th street for dozens of years, before moving in with (along with an elderly Aunt Muriel) a young Eric, his sister Pia and Eric’s father (newly-divorced) on Park Avenue. At the time, it was upholstered in a dark brown velvet with needlepointed triangle shapes. Very Sixties New York decor.
I wish I had a picture but I think you can envision its original state: it didn’t lack for life but it sure was short on luster.
Like so much of the old Manhattan’s landscape it was dependable. Like your favorite diner on the corner or grumpy doorman you always passed on your way to work, you knew it would look the same day after day, year after year.
That is until I came along.
When we married, Eric and I were- like most newlyweds- rich with useless wedding ( three duck wastebaskets) and poor on furniture.
Since Muriel had long passed away and Eric’s father was renovating (thank you New Girlfriend), we got the chair.
It was the first grown-up looking piece I had ever owned and I immediately accepted it with reverence.
When Eric graduated from medical school we took it to Los Angeles with us. And that’s when I started to look at not what it was, but what it could be.
As soon as we tried arranging it in our spacious, modern apartment, it looked about at home as an old winter coat.
Filled with skylights, sunlight bounced against our massive white walls to the point of where you had to reach for your sunglasses after hitting your alarm clock in the morning.
Passing a fabric store one day on Santa Monica Boulevard, I pulled over. It was the 1989, so of course I picked a chintz. Blue and white. Lots of apples. (See picture below)
I should have then picked up the phone and checked with Eric but I knew he’d say no. So I lugged it into the back of our Honda and dropped it off.
Eric, who was so exhausted from his medical residency, didn’t even really notice it was missing until it came back, transformed.
He came home from a shift one night, sat his weary load down and then sprang up, as though he had suddenly sat on the lap of a stripper.
After his eyes adjusted, he grew to accept the chair’s tonier character and it wasn’t long before, it blended into the living room’s landscape just like our other well-worn business.
We had a baby and its fabric was prone to throw up and spaghetti sauce and took its punches with charm.
When we moved back East to Connecticut in 1995, the chair looked right at home in our 1800 Colonial.
Until last month. Suddenly country and Colonial looked not right any more. Even in a Colonial in the country.
It’s not that I wanted a modern chair. I loved this chair and all the years- and people- its carried. But I wanted something with more wow. And a little bit of edge.
One day while helping my mother choose fabric for her chair, I spotted a fabulous pattern swatch I couldn’t stop looking at. It was in a yummy rich orange and swirled all over with an ivory bird pattern. It was chic and classic and unique all at once. And I happened to know its creator designer Barclay Butera, who generously sent me 12 yards straight from the showroom.
What excuse did I have anymore?
Still, the luscious roll of fabric stayed in the corner of my closet for a good 3 weeks. I knew Eric would not support this kind of change. (What husband has ever said: “Recover a perfectly good chair with orange fabric for what it costs to go on vacation for a week? Super idea, darling. And get matching pillows while you’re at it.”)
Finally, one day I got the courage and called The Recovery Room and the chair was whisked off for its third face lift while Eric was at work.
As my son watched as a man lifted it gingerly down our steep black stairs, he asked “Where’s the chair going?”
The guy stopped and looked at me.
“Uh, it’s just getting…fixed,” I said, waving for the man to keep going.
“But there wasn’t anything wrong with it.”
The man from The Recovery Room stopped, mid flight.
I gave my son a look that sent him running to his room to build Legos and the man scurrying out the door like a frightened crab.
Now that Eric was a full fledge doctor he isn’t as tired anymore so he noticed the chair’s absence in about 3 minutes.
He went to drop his boxers on it one night and watched perplexed as they traveled that much farther to land on the floor.
He looked up at me. “How much?” was all he could muster.
The chair was gone weeks, as though I had flown it along with Ivana Trump to Gstaad to be operated on by some top secret surgeon.
Finally, I got the call that it was ready. “How does it look?” I asked the owner.
“Oh, everyone comes in and talks about it,” he said before hanging up.
The chair arrived. I had my older son help me carry it back up the stairs.
He placed it down with a thump and I assessed its new sassy shape and color.
“Oh it looks so good, doesn’t it?!” I beamed. He looked at me and then went to his room.
The chair was like inviting a wonderful new friend to your home who you just met but who you already felt you’ve know forever.
I immediately sat down.
Let the conversation begin.



Pictured Domesticity
Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

On our mantle is a framed water color Eric drew of the exterior of our first home: a brownstone in Brooklyn.
We were both fresh out of college and Eric was just starting medical school and I refused to live in the homogenous world of school housing on the Upper East side.
I was done being a student and I knew Eric would study better in a space that had sun, space and vibrancy.
So we rented out the ground floor in a lovely building in Cobble HIll with views of a garden out our living room window on one side and the quiet neighborhood street outside our bedroom window on the other.
I loved how instantaneously we were part of a little corner of a grown up world: the sound of real mail being slipped through our door slot, walking home from the subway with a bag of groceries for dinner, watching the dinner time life unfold through the glowing windows of other brownstones as the night set down onto our community.
Back then there was no West Elm or Crate and Barrel: you couldnt find groovy chairs or tea kettles with a click of a mouse at 3am. We decorated with what few pieces we brought from our dorm rooms and childhoods, trying to make them more sophisticated in their new setting.
The other day I came about a box of Poloroids. Inside were a contained flurry of pictures documenting this time period from our marriage to our first year in that brownstone. Amidst wedding and dinner party pictures, (a jumble of people always jammed onto our one grey sofa in the living room), there’s a shot of our tiny Brooklyn kitchen.
We were so proud of it domesticity: the green and yellow tiles above the old white stove felt so exotic. We couldn’t afford art so we taped postcards we loved above it. We kept tea and such in a curious rattan cupboard on the wall and herb plants crowd the window sill.
Dangling from the window sash is a decorative bird cage with a stuffed red bird on a swing in its center.
We went on to get real birds, (and a cat or two) and real art in our lives but our first home looks as comfortable today even from the perspective of my now much more spacious kitchen, as it did when I was actually there making breakfast.
As I was dusting the watercolor, I read my husband’s inscription for when he gave it to me as a gift just before we had to move back to the city: “Dear Susanna: Because of you, this has been the happiest home. May we have many more.”

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TUNING IN
Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

We are not TV people.
Our kids enjoy their shows and play their video games on a regular basis but we don’t all group around the electronic fire unless we are watching a movie.
I grew up watching my parents only watch the news (when it mattered), Wimbledon and an occasional episode of BBC’s Upstairs Downstairs or Monty Python. They preferred (like their parents), to share a room, some music and a New York Times between them.
I am proud to say that this non-habit habit rubbed off: I feel very strange when I walk into homes where TVs blare in the kitchen instead of music or conversation and rooms where the enormous flat screen television suffocates the decor. When a friend of mine in LA promptly installed a TV in her daughter’s bedroom as soon as she could sit up, I had trouble scheduling play-dates.
We have always had just 2 television sets in our home: one in the living room and one in the master bedroom. The bedroom one is ten years old and tucked surreptitiously in a cupboard that probably held firewood back in the 1800s.
The living room set has never been very glamourous either: it just grew in size over the years but not in design sense. With its bulky screen and large behind, it ultimately resembled an overfed cat napping in the corner window, sucking out all the sunlight.
Shelves of books I have carefully honed over the years to contain only classics and favorites occupy the rest of the wall and surround the other window. The room, therefore, feels as my friend likes to say, “neither fish nor fowl.” It’s not Zen enough to beckon you to curl up and open a book and not inviting enough to watch movies either because you have to sort of turn and face a corner to see the screen.
When we got back from the lake house a few weeks ago, I patrolled this room again and again, prickling from the lack of light and Feng Shui.
My husband suggested getting rid of our old TV and getting a flat screen one we could put across the bottom of the bookshelf. This would free up the window to be just a window instead of a backdrop.
I am proud and lucky to say my husband does not watch any sports on TV. OK, he does enjoy a rousing Hannah Montana episode with my 8 years old from time to time, but his reasons for shopping a new set was more for the thrill that men get from buying electronics. Like shoe shopping can be for women. Before I could say Manolo Blahniks, a box arrived the size of a small freight train.
It’s 41 inches, (I don’t even want to calculate what that is in feet), black and shiny as a new pair of patented leather boots I just bought.
The only way we could install it was flat against the book shelves so that it ultimately blocked some access to my design library, a fact I found ironic and disheartening.
Until I saw how good it looked. Centered in the space, its dark hues seem to merge with the dark qualities of the book shelves instead of vying for attention. Even in my traditional room of cranberry, pinks and yellows, this mother lode of modern electronics let the light in. Not to mention Sponge Bob Squarepants.
So I’m happy to report that we’re not watching more now, just better.

Tuning In



DOMINO EFFECT
Thursday, October 9th, 2008

I don’t love change. In one week my hair dresser of 10 years and my son’s beloved music teacher of 5 moved to another state.
I bought them parting gifts, hugged them goodbye with a smile and then I cried in the car all the way home.
We have our orbit of people, places and things always spinning around us just so, until someone or something removes itself from the constellations and we are forced to replace it. Sometimes with an improvement, sometimes not.
Our rooms at home are planets within this universe and we are the gods.
We place sofas, mirrors and book shelves in arrangements that suit us. Often there are no words for why we want a picture frame to go on this shelf as opposed to that one. Some rooms get our best stuff, others get the stuff we don’t know what to do with but keep. We toss when we want, buy when we want. But we are always in control.
And as much as I love the security blanket of the status quo, I have learned that change in rooms is good if not vital to the life lines of a home.
By change I don’t mean new kitchen cabinets or ripping down walls.
I mean experiencing the giddy effect of walking into a room that looks different yet the same. Simple changes. But changes that force your eye to reconsider the new pleasures of its altered landscape. Eric taught me this.
He has no problem moving a dining room table away from where it has been for years clear to the opposite side of the room.
I used to dig my heels in with resistance but now I know better. Every time we have moved stuff around we never go back to the old way. The new way becomes status quo until you decide to shake it out again. And I suggest you do. Baby steps first. Switch this with that. Hey wait, now that THAT’S there, THAT over there would look great THERE instead.
But the domino effect goes beyond just a visual sensation.
A very generous vendor insisted I take home a unique piece I had just featured on a Today show segment as they were no longer able to sell it.
It can best be described as Moroccan-style step of drawers. It’s sort of part bureau and part display case. It didn’t quite fit in anywhere yet its unique beauty demanded it to belong everywhere. It arrived at a doorstep like an exotic bird looking for its perch.
My 8 year old son instantly knew exactly where it was going.
His room is exotic and we had taken great care to outfit it in style, comfort with copious amounts of Legos.
The piece was not going to fit in without us getting rid of something.
First to go was a bureau that belonged to my older brother growing up that my parents had then given to Eric and I for our first apartment.
Eric had lovingly painted it white and then with an overcoat of blue, combed through a pattern all over. It represented all of our homes together.
And yet…I moved it out of the space. He was working, I felt guilty. A huge flurries of dust bunnies and missing Hot Wheels scattered everywhere along with my memories of that bureau.
The new bureau went in its place but it didn’t look right. Too cramped. At this point I felt committed to the change. And suddenly knew I would make it happen regardless.
I spied a tall book shelf that held Winston’s books and collected treasures. He looked at me surprised, but game.
Before I knew it, that was gone too, exposing a wall I hadn’t seen in years.
The room suddenly exhaled.
I quickly went through the books from the soon-to-be-gone shelf: I divided the keepers from the library give aways- a task I would never have considered until we moved someday. So many books we didn’t read anymore that could give another child pleasure right now.
Like an archeologist, Winston examined his little universe of unearthed treasures that had been stored on the shelves.
Some things he got rid of and others took new prominence on the step shelf.
When we were done, he hung his Chinese lantern lights above his new bureau.
He and I took turns walking into the room and admiring its new landscape.
It’s like we had moved but were home.
I realized I didn’t just teach him a lesson about decorating.
But that we need to look at our every day world with a fresh set of eyes, no matter how stalwart or transitory it may be.

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House of Worship
Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

I do not go to church.
As much as I revel in the sanctuary of my own shelter, houses of worship do not provide me comfort. No matter the arc of the nave or how dazzling the light illuminates the stain glass windows, nor what spirit prayed to from the pews, I feel trapped.
I take long walks instead. For the past 11 years I have rarely missed a day.
I debate, converse and entertain whatever voices come into my head, whether my own or others. As I walk, I am looking outwards and inwards simultaneously. I feel completely free and completely safe, just as all houses should provide.
I am lucky to live in a place where I can drop my children off at school and within minutes be hiking along a brook or climbing up to admire nature’s views, no matter the season.
The walls and ceiling are always infinite yet I feel completely sheltered.
In Autumn, fallen foliage can obscure my path so I simply give a high kick, reveling that such a carefree gesture can help get me back on track.
In the Winter, cold tempts me to stay away but every time I venture out into it, I am grateful.
In Spring, the green astonishes me with its perennial optimism.
In the Summer, I appreciate every footstep as I know it won’t always be this easy.
My walks are year round sustenance that informs me on what steps to take each day.
I guess you could say I am religious about them.

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THE HOUSE ON THE HILL
Sunday, September 28th, 2008

Moving coats back into our winter home yesterday, I came across a basket in the back of a closet. It was filled with magazine images tagged with stickies that excitedly exclaimed “LIVING ROOM COLOR!” “PERFECT BATHROOM TILE!” “KIDS HEAD BOARDS!”
Two years ago we had thought we sold this house and fell in love with a gut renovation on a magical property nearby.
It was set high on a hill and was just waiting to be rediscovered after years of neglect.
Here I thought I could NEVER sell the house we had raised our children in for over 11 years and, after begrudgingly agreeing to go see it, after five minutes I was deciding which kitchen walls to knock down and where to put a new stone fireplace.
While we waited for the deal to go through (our buyers-to-be weren’t able to sell their apartment and buy our house until their buyers-to-be got were approved by their Co-op board), I decorated the entire house in my head with the patience and passion of a new suitor.
I even bought the new street number plate which I painstakingly designed on the Internet.
And now here was the numbered plate still waiting patiently to be attached to that oak tree at the base of that wonderfully looong, winding driveway (I am a sucker for long driveways) at the base of the house on the hill.
I’ve never read that book “The Secret” but isn’t it essentially about if you REALLY wish and envision something in your head then it will happen?
Well I knew what kind of doorknobs the house on the hill would have and it didn’t happen.
Like a bad game of real estate dominos, strangers in Manhattan decided where we would live: the Co Op board nixed the couple and the deal fell through.
The house on the hill still sat on the market as we kept trying to sell our house (because of course now we felt we had to keep the wheels in motion) but every day buyers came, it would pour rain. Cold, nasty rain that hissed: “Stay away! I’m taken!”
Our home was taking a stand for itself, as if it had ownership of us and wouldn’t let go.
Two weeks ago, I was at a party and a real estate agent bounded up to me with the news that the house on the hill had sold.
My heart sank. All that wishing, all that virtual decorating: I felt so betrayed. After all, wasn’t the house almost already sort of ours?!
I told my husband the news and we drove home in sad, stupid silence. Why did we want something so much when it clearly was never ours to begin with?
So yesterday, I threw away the numbered plate that I hoped was a beacon to a new place of possibility. It was a final gesture that didn’t being much relief.
But I kept most the tear sheets. I was still dazzled by the possibilities they had to offer. Even if it was to somewhere else someday. Or to the perfect hilltop house in my mind that at least
I know, will always belong to me.