NEW YORK — For many, it seems, the smooth surfaces of modern design have lost their allure.
Hollister and Porter Hovey, sisters age 30 and 26, used a chain from a hardware store to lash a crystal chandelier to a crossbeam in the ceiling of their loft in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. But it is one of the few contemporary objects in a habitat that embraces, among other cultural touchstones, W. Somerset Maugham’s last days of colonialism, Victorian memento mori and the Edwardian men’s club. There are also apothecary cabinets, fencing masks and pith helmets, stacks of antique luggage and a taxidermy collection that would have made Teddy Roosevelt proud.
Hollister Hovey has been blogging for two years about what she considers a personal passion for this “new vintage” style. Yet the sepia-toned and “extremely previous lifestyle” that she and her sister lead, in the words of Megan Wilson, 43, a book designer and blogger with a similar world view, is one that is gaining traction beyond the Hoveys’ living room.
Taxidermy, clubby insignia and ancestral portraits have been decorative staples at trendy New York restaurants and clothing stores for a while, but now they are catching on at home.
“My interests are old things from different periods,” said Sean Crowley on a recent steamy Friday night. Despite the heat, Crowley wore a pink gingham dress shirt, khaki pants and black velvet loafers with green-and-black-striped socks. While this uniform has traditionally signaled conservatism, Crowley’s politics cleave determinedly to the left.
Crowley, 28, is a neckwear designer, and his apartment in the Fort Greene area of Brooklyn looks like its rooms were plucked whole from the National Arts Club. But the link between Crowley’s objects and his impulse to acquire them isn’t nostalgia, he said. It’s “the draw of authenticity, whether it’s an aesthetic, a recipe or a technique.”
That is how he explains a voracious interest in, for example, the restoration of English and French umbrellas from the 1930s and ’40s (his collection numbers 16). “Finding the right black silk with the right selvage was a whole saga for me,” he said.
Crowley lives with his girlfriend, Meredith Modzelewski, 26, who works in public relations for sustainable brands and corporations, and a collection of arcane cocktail ingredients, including seven kinds of bitters, that threatens to colonize half their apartment, which is already chock-full of Edwardian-style portraits, heraldic devices and mounted antlers.
“I like to cook, I like to sew, I can fix things with my hands,” Crowley said. “There’s so much to learn. I am curious — ravenous, really — about everything.”
It is true that the sort of collecting he, the Hovey sisters and their blogosphere brethren do requires a lot more engagement than a similar passion for midcentury furniture — particularly when it comes to the taxidermy, osteological antiques like monkey skeletons and other Victoriana that draws the attention of tinkerers, armchair scientists and artisans like Ryan Matthew.
Matthew, 29, is a silversmith with a knack for articulating, to use the expert’s parlance for rigging and displaying skeletons; for creating the tiny domed vignettes the Victorians were so fond of (artful arrangements of taxidermied squirrels, for example, in twiggy settings); and for making delicate pencil drawings that look like old photographs. His apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, is accessorized with mummified hunting dogs, wax figures and Black Forest taxidermy. There is also a bone saw from the American Civil War and a cabinet full of antique medical specimens.
“I wish I had a leg, though I do have a lot of feet at the moment,” Matthew said proudly. Growing up in Woodstock, New York, he used to collect plants and “things the dog had eaten,” he said, “which my parents would find under my bed.”
Matthew’s collections will find their way into his shop Against Nature, opening in mid-August in Manhattan. Inspired by the Huysmans novel of the same name, it will look an awful lot like Matthew’s apartment. “We’ll have barristers’ shelves and old leather chairs and two albino peacocks I have in the basement here.”
The store — which will carry tailored suits by Doyle Mueser, custom denim by Simon Jacob and jewelry and leather items by Matthew — is perfectly sited to snag new-vintage consumers on their way to Freemans, around the corner.
Many, in fact, point to Taavo Somer’s restaurant, open since 2004, as the catalyst for the latest round of interior decay and decorative revisionism, and for making taxidermy, as Caroline Kim, editorial director for LX.TV, a lifestyle division of NBC, said recently, “a hip-yet-comforting decorating trend.”
Somer seemed bemused by his role as a tastemaker but gamely explained the thinking behind Freemans, which began life as a party location. “The idea was to make this clandestine Colonial tavern,” he said, “the sort of place the Founding Fathers would have conspired in.” The look, he added, reflects his assumptions about their tastes, as refined Europeans living in a rough New World: “Taxidermy was a symbol of that wildness.”
Asked why Freemans has a look that young Brooklynites like the Hovey sisters might want to replicate at home, he suggested that his own anti-modernist impulses may be shared by many others. “I look at all the glass buildings and think, who wants to live like that?”
Somer, who grew up in a Swiss-modern household and once worked for the architect Steven Holl, said the perfectionism of modernism had begun to grate. “I got fed up and rebelled,” he said.
Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, offered a different explanation. “It’s way more than anti-modernism, this sort of deep spelunking into the past,” she said. “It’s not aspirational, and it’s not nostalgic. It’s a fantasy world that is almost entirely a visual collage. It’s a stitched-together, bricolage world, an alternative world.”