Susanna Salk


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WHEN IS A HOUSE A HOME?
Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

For the past two years since we bought a little lake house, we have rented out our main house for the summer.
As passionate as I am about my home and the things that are in it, when it comes to allowing strangers to sleep in my bed and sit on my sofa, I am strangely unpossessive. I clear closets but I don’t hide anything away. There’s nothing overtly valuable or delicate here: just very sentimental and therefore deserving of staying in its little hallowed place to be appreciated.
In fact it felt less taxing knowing everything stayed and waited for my return rather than having to disassemble my life only to put it back together again like some jigsaw puzzle.
For many years, I was so passionate about our home that I felt under a heady spell that soon felt albatross-like.
Just the thought of moving or leaving would fell me to tears. Wherever I looked I saw memories that brought intense nostalgic as though I was already an empty nester, (when in fact both my boys were still under the age of ten).
There was the sandbox where they had happily pushed metal Tonka trucks our painter (and soon friend) had given them.
Over there on the hill was where we had buried our Samoyed Omar, who we had bought as puppy back in Los Angeles and had been our beloved child until the real ones came along. There was the framed still life my best friend’s mother had painted one day when visiting.
It went on and on, the memory strands infinitely intertwined like vines, suctioned to my soul.
And then one day close friends made an unexpected offer on our house (in order to be near one of their parents who were our neighbors).
It was a high enough offer so that we would have been foolish not to consider it.
After a few primal shrieks of outrage from yours truly, I finally agreed to see what else was out there.
Surely nothing could compare to the house we had fashioned to our exact needs and style over ten long, expensive and exhilarating years.
My broker showed us a house high up on a hill (I’m a sucker for long driveways) which was in as disrepair as our current house was when we bought it.
And instead of feeling repulsed at the idea of starting over, I suddenly felt the familiar prickles of excitement and possibility.
Before long we were sketching out a new kitchen, family room and office, complete with barn beams brought in from Vermont.
The boys were running around the new lawn as happily as they did in their childhood home. How much kids can teach us about adapting to change, I thought admiringly. Although in truth I certainly wasn’t having as much difficulty as I thought I would. I felt like I was conducting an affair against my current house as I came home whistling with with color wheels and renovational magazine tucked under my arm. She had been so good to us, how could we just leave her for an upstart?
Then the deal fell through. We ended up staying. I didn’t know what to feel. I had forced myself to mentally move to the other house and suddenly I was back.
It felt good and disappointing. The worst part was how anticlimactic it felt not seeing our plans come to life in the new house: I had already had it decorated in my mid, every square foot. A virtual house was waiting for us to make it three dimensional. While a real one was waiting for us to come back with faith and commitment.
The good news: the vines now had been clipped and cleared.
I still very much loved my house but I knew now that if I had to leave it life would go on.
In some ways, renting it out, besides being a financial necessity that allows us to have a second home, is a way for me to keep a little distance.
The house on the other hand, tends to act out when we are not here.
Mysteriously just before our renter was to arrive, the kitchen ceiling started to leak even though there was no rain outside. As the paint began to buckle above I called out: “Relax, we are coming back!” Still had to call in major repair.
The mud room door suddenly swelled and the door wouldn’t open. “Why now?!” I called out as the renter’s emails thrilled into my Blackberry.
“Why not save it for when we’re back?!”
The house calls out to me to return or never leave, yet is ultimately patient for what I need to do.
She will always be my first love but if the time ever comes, I need to know when to turn the front door key over to someone else.

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CHANGE ARRANGE
Friday, February 22nd, 2008

The word “change” is echoing an awful lot across our landscapes these days. There is the demand for the political: we read it in our newspaper headlines and hear it feverently debated on television and perhaps we even chant it at rallies.
Others often demand it of us personally: scan the New York Times bestseller list and dozens of titles call out to us to better ourselves: “You! Only Better. Younger. Sexier. Richer.” Sometimes we feel like waving the banner at the front of the Change Parade and sometimes all we can muster is to shuffle somewhere towards the back and hope no one notices us.
Amidst change we want, change we can’t have and change we need, there is always the comfort of the constant: what we have created inside our homes. We can count on the faithful grouping of furniture in our living room and the visual landscape of collectibles across our shelves that are as dependable as an old friend’s birthday card. We arranged it and it will all stay, until we say so. And often we never say so, because if it makes us feel good, it it makes us feel steady in the ever-bobbing ocean of change, than why on earth would we tamper with it?
Because of my job, where I am constantly styling, fussing and tweaking, I tend to do the same at home. I like there to always be an artful slant to all my rooms: it makes me feel cheerful, safe and loved.
So when my husband first gently pointed out that perhaps, in certain places, I was maybe….over-arranging a little…well you can imagine.
I close my eyes and half listened, clinging defensively to my domestic life raft: how could we not love what I had done? Wasn’t it pretty?!
Yes he said. It was all very pretty. But where could one put down a mug of tea? Amidst my army of frames and books and precious little groupings of little this and thats, there was very little elbow room. Not even thumb room.
Now I am not a pack rat. Nor am I believer in total Zen. Sometimes more is more, especially when it comes to fresh flowers coats of white paint.
But after I told him not to quit his day job, (Emergency Medicine), I walked (OK: stormed), around the house eying all my arrangements and realized some were as old as ten years. I had created them to be admired but I no longer really even saw them. They were just part of my peripheral vision. And Eric’s words kept echoing: “even if we just got rid of one less thing…”
So I took out one thing. Then another. After awhile, the act of removal was almost as satisfying as the initial creation. Sometimes my work left an almost-empty shelf. And I’m proud to say I left it like that.
And of course you know already that I didn’t miss any of what I took away. Even if they were replaced, I don’t feel unfaithful. Just a little reborn.
And at the end of the day, wasn’t I lucky he didn’t want room for a La-Z-Boy?

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EVERY DAY UNIQUE
Monday, February 11th, 2008

So often we buy something for our home, take it out of the bag when we get there, then immediately put it in the designated spot we’ve already chosen in our minds. And there it stays until it breaks, fades beyond appreciation, or is usurped by more a youthful version of itself.

And as satisfying as finding just the right something for somewhere can be, (whether it’s a chic black toothbrush that makes you feel like a model at 7am or a white vase that makes your flowers feel like they’re in a photo shoot), I encourage us all to push the boundaries on our everyday objects and open up the possibilities to all they can be.

I remember when I was helping manage a designer’s showhouse in the Hamptons. Overseeing 25 designers while they installed their individual visions into a 29 million dollar spec house that was still being constructed the day of the gala opening, (as I welcomed Al Roker from the Today Show, the first thing he noticed as the cameras rolled live was that there still weren’t any doorknobs on the front door), was slightly less hectic and stressful than if I had been asked to plan the Olsen twins’ double wedding.

The incredible upside however was all that I learned from what the amazing designers had created behind those doors: there wasn’t an inch of 40,000 square feet where I did not take inspiration. Case in point: the entry hall, where Barclay Butera made an exquisite declaration of elegant independence.

Each designer had been asked to weave in a sponsor’s item into their spaces somehow and in Barclay’s case, it was a perfectly lovely iron chandelier which he could have easily just hung from the ceiling and called it day.

Instead, he spent three days covering its curves with thousands of tiny shells and corals. The coup de grace: large pieces of coral placed in the center along with a large polished nautilus suspended from the bottom, like an exclamation point.

There was drama, there was symmetry and suddenly there was so much more than a lighting fixture. “My goal in design is to be as original as possible. Attention to detail always makes the difference. And I love the element of surprise,” Barclay told me when I asked him why.

His enthusiasm and creativity were contagious. Instead of going home exhausted each-night, the image of the enchanted chandelier buoyed me like warm, turquoise waves. Who cared there were still mountains of sawdust outside the house when that chandelier greeted all those who walked inside?….

Oddly enough, the sponsor didn’t know what to think of Barclay’s suspended imagination. Because of it, their once ordinary chandelier was now being photographed as often as a super model and all they seemed to care about was that it no longer looked like the picture in their catalogue.

I hope we all can remember to take our noses out of the magazine/the instruction booklet/the catalouge after we open that box and get ready to welcome our new items home. Maybe its buying four of that white vase you love and then displaying all of them: without the flowers. Because sometimes our imagination- and a little glue gunning- is the fastest path towards ultimate gratification.

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HEIRLOOM STYLE
Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

I am hunting and gathering pieces for a March 5th Today show spot called “Heirloom Style.” I’m looking for pieces-new and old- that bring a sense of generation and history to a room as well as a touch of whimsy. So if you’re not lucky enough to have an Auntie Mame in your life, (imagine if EBay had existed when she was alive?!) your rooms don’t have to suffer. There are treasure troves of things to be had to give your space a sense of history. (And let’s not forget how the word “story” dominates that word: for every piece of furniture in every room should come with its own little back story, even if its history begins right when you found it: I swear even the most basic of pieces become more interesting if there has been some emotion in their questing. (“Oh that chair? Found it at Target the day I fell in love with Roger.”)

And no worries if you’re not the antique-trolling type or if garage sales give you the hives. Click on Anthropologie, 1stdibs.com or even Crate and Barrel to find furniture and accessories that didn’t let a little thing like lineage get in its way. (WAIT til you see the pink velvet Savoir Chair from Crate and Barrel I’m going to air! If only I had had that in my door room in college! I swear my grades would have improved -not to mention my love life.)

A few times I have been blessed by the Heirloom fairy. Last year, I was given my late Grandmother’s blue velvet sofa which looked like something Noel Coward would have lounged upon. Oddly enough, it looked completely out of place in her staid living room surrounded by antiques and yet, when it found a home in our Connecticut play barn, (not enough room in the house), it seemed to let its hair out with a glamourous sigh of relief, finally ready for its close up.

After my Grandfather passed away, the grand children were allowed to pick one piece each that belonged to him. As admiring I was of him and his formidable character, I did not know him that well. Yet for some reason I gravitated towards his mirrored shaving stand, a most intimate of belongings. But it was so quirky and distinct. And stood as poised and amused as he did, so I just had to have it.

It’s now in a corner of our master bedroom. I don’t look into its mirror. It’s more like I nod respectfully in its direction whenever I walk past, grateful for the dignity its-his- style brings to our room. And I wonder who will have it next? Will one of my sons place it in another corner in their room and think how much more at home it looks with them than it ever did in their childhood home?…

Or maybe furniture was meant to always be on the journey to somewhere else and that the ultimate destination, is the memory it leaves behind.

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WHILE YOU WERE OUT…
Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

As I was researching cool home office stuff for an upcoming segment of the same subject for the Today Show, (see link to the segment on this site from January 25th) it occurred to me that my husband’s bill-paying lair up on the third floor was in desperate need of revamping.

As I pondered his ho hum farmhouse-table desk, Staples-style chair and Eighties bank lamp (remember when that seemed so cool?!), I suddenly knew some big changes had to be made and they had to be done behind his back or he’d never approve.

It’s one thing to toss his weary gym shorts while he went out for his weekend hardware store run, but did I dare do a purge and splurge of this magnitude without his knowledge?…

Ladies, you already know the answer.

I had a two day time period where I knew he would not go up there due to his busy work schedule so I had to move and move fast.

First thing I did was get a tall, white, modern lamp from West Elm that looks like it belongs on a movie set, not a desk. Which is precisely why it instantly glammed up the quiet wood planks below and filled the space above. I realized why so many desk spaces are grim because there is no visual landscape to entertain the eye: just low-lying functional objects.

We needed height here, not to mention texture and dimension and the lamp was like adding a coat of mascara to bare lashes.

Next up was placing a rust orange Moroccan rug with a bold white hexagon pattern on top of the wall to wall beige floor. The orange was a nice compliment to the wood in the room and gave a masculine edge.

This defined his space and gave the whole room instant pizzaz.

I could have stopped there but of course didn’t.

I took out the so-Eighties Tiffany silver frames which held family pictures and placed them in Moroccan-style matching frames instead.

I chucked the hideous stapler and tape dispense and swapped in Lucite ones. The depressing steel file cabinet bowed to a white wood one on wheels.

Finally, I got a mod-looking chair for the other side of the desk, to round it out and take away focus from the office-looking chair he used and which I knew he’d never part with. If I changed everything, he’d see the new room as a insult not as a makeover.
(Smart, huh?)

His reaction? He grumbled a little, smiled a little and still complains about the lamp. (“What was wrong with the old one?!”)

But the bottom line is, it looks fabulous. And I love him.

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MATCHMAKER
Monday, February 4th, 2008

The other day I was happily scouting apartments, (it’s as much fun as clothes shopping and even better: it’s free!), for 1stdibs.com.

Before I get into the distinct pleasures of seeing of how other people personalize great design, (whether its with tapestries or toothbrush holders), I need to wax a little poetic about 1stdibs.com.

Even if you’re not in the market for antiques or vintage tables, chairs, chandeliers, jewelry, fashion or anything fabulous, from Paris to Pennsylvania, just mining this richly visual site is the equivalent of eating an entire bag of your favorite potato chips while wrapped in eight ply cashmere. In other words, you don’t want to stop the feeling. Even if you can’t yet/ever afford that Seguso Frosted Glass Flower Sputnick chandelier, no harm, no foul in just attaching that glorious image at the top of your Wish List ceiling. I always find that the designers and tastemakers I admire most, get a little breathless when they talk about 1stdibs. It’s like entering the coolest corner of the most beautiful playground and unlike childhood, everyone wants to talk to you. But I diverge…

Back to scouting. Every time someone is gracious enough to open their doors for me, I am piqued with anticipation. It’s sort of like getting fixed up on a blind date. There’s a feeling a house immediately gives you that’s as distinctive as a first handshake. With the right house, there’s no small talk. You enter right into its soul from the moment you cross its hearth. (No coincidence what word you get by simply removing the “h” from “hearth.”)

When 1stdibs founder Michael Bruno and I stepped into a little jewel box of a pad just off Bryant Park I was instantly drawn to the scarcity of the space. There wasn’t a lot of furniture but what furniture was, looked just right. (Think mid century modern meets Ikea).

For two expert photography editors, the walls were strangely void of artwork. Along a single section of hallway was a casual yet careful cluster of dozens of framed family photographs. You instantly were drawn closer, wanting to relish each of the hung moments even though you didn’t know anyone in them. They were postcards of a life and you wished you were there.

At the end of this hallway was the dining room which overlooked the outskirts of Bryant Park and the public library. But it wasn’t the glorious view that struck you, it was the color of the walls. A vivid, beyond-chartreuse green I promise you’d never in a million years think of painting your dining room. And yet here, in this four room apartment, where there was not a smidgeon of extra room for whimsy, two people had chosen it. Painted all four walls in it. And didn’t hang a single thing on it. It felt formal and friendly all at once. You wanted to sit down, you wanted to look outside the window, you wanted to have a martini, you wanted to read a children’s book. When I asked them why this green, they told me: ” We loved how green everything gets outside in the Spring and Summer and wanted to bring a bit of that indoors. With the classic lines of the room we thought we could be a bit bold with color. It’s kinda preppy gone mad.” No wonder it all felt exactly and absolutely right. Because the decision behind it was so personal. The perfect match.

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DESIGN STEAL
Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

Sometimes I throw a dinner party not to socialize but to have the excuse to set my table and buy fresh flowers.

(Not to mention the left overs the next day: is there anything better than brie and half a baguette for breakfast?!…)

I used to get anxious about how to dress up my table so it would look welcoming and stylish to whomever tucked into it. But did I really want to spend oodles on flowers for them only to fade the next day like my red wine hangover?

There’s something so Eighties about sitting at a table with a formal floral centerpiece that so clearly smacks of the host phoning in for “something low and beautiful” to her florist that morning. Sometimes good, careful taste can be as disappointing as the flower arrangements in Architectural Digest. (Can anyone explain to me the appeal of placing pink lilies stuck into a tall vase in an Aspen billiard room?!)

I love it when I go to someone’s house and it looks like the hostess actually chose the flowers herself.

People don’t understand: flower arranging is SO easy!

I learned this when I interned post college at Marlo’s Flowers, the florist to all the ladies on Park Avenue, from Jackie O on down. (I remember my first day when I answered the phone and the caller identified herself only as “Jackie” and I was dumb enough to ask, “Jackie who?”

Then she proceeded to place an order which she begged “to not cost more than a car.”)

Anyway, Marlo was one of the first people to show me that the beauty and luxury of in arrangements was not in the stem size but what lay at the end. In other words, cut to the flower. And that’s exactly what she did, to the gasp of people as thousands of dollars worth of flowers were shortened in one single swoop of her shears. I immediately started doing the same thing to the rose bouquets my husband-then-boyfriend brought me. “Look how much better it looks!” I explained, plunking them into the little silver vases Marlo had everywhere.

“But I paid extra for the long stems!” he would say, exasperated. “Well that’s just what is wrong with everything,” was my only answer.

So here, in my opinion, is the right way when you don’t have a lot of time or money and someone wonderful is popping by. (Or better yet, when no one is and you are in need of cheering up)

Buy three bunches of white tulips for fifteen dollars. Chop the stems short and plunk them into silver-plated mint julep cups. (I really can’t sing enough praises about my faux mint julep cups. Once bought from at an online wedding supply outlet, I cast aside all my gangly glass vases that suddenly felt so FTD.)

Plunk the now tuliped-cups along the middle of your dining table and dare I say the effect is as fitting for a visit from an interior designer (pressure!) or my mother-in-law (another kind of pressure best describe on another kind of blog). And can we wax poetic about orange dragon tulips in julep cups? Or purple hyacinths. I could go on and on.

But this blog isn’t about floral arranging, much as the intense, little joy it brings me.

It’s about finding ways to express my style for not a lot of money. Or time.

The best thing about personalizing great design? Its one of the few mediums where you can plagiarize and won’t have to confess on Ophrah the next week. You can take my idea and spin your own way in your own space because lets face it, I’ve just done the same thing from someone else. Whether it’s from David Hicks or West Elm Catalogue, there’s a lot to be inspired from out there And knowing how to bring it to life in your own life is surprisingly easy: it just takes a little confidence and courage. And maybe a few mint julep cups at the ready to drink or to display from.

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