The ballad of Kenyan Lewis and Grace Kelsey, were there a ballad of Kenyan and Grace, would be in part a song about stuff – old stuff, rustic stuff, American stuff, stuff that was designed, above all, to be useful, but whose handsomeness grows more burnished with each passing year. Prop designers and dealers by trade, the two are collectors of early 20th-century Americana, objects that date, roughly, from end of the Victorian era through the machine age.
The line is drawn at the 1950s: “We don’t get into that stuff,” Lewis, 39, said.
He and Kelsey, 33, gave up their New York City apartment in 2008, and now rent a house in Accord, New York, a tiny hamlet about two and a half hours north of Manhattan. When they moved, their belongings filled two 8-metre moving trucks; they made an additional trip with one of the trucks, plus five more trips with a minivan. The contents included stacks of Popular Mechanics magazines from the 1930s and 1940s; vintage patterns and buttons; tube radios and old fans; camp blankets; books; decanters.
Throughout the house, which dates to 1890, the new is scarcely evident, except in the office, where a worn 9-metre American flag is draped along a window near three computer workstations, and in the modestly sized attic, where a 185-centimetre TV looms like a drive-in movie screen. (Living in Accord, they don’t get out much, they explained; Netflix provides entertainment.)
Just about everything else is old and in use, from the vintage luggage that serves as storage, with labels like “pyjamas” and “taxes” written in cursive, to the bench made in part from a sewing machine dating to the beginning of the 20th century, on which the enormous TV is perched.
The aesthetic Lewis and Kelsey cultivate reflects a nostalgia for the past, but not for the Victoriana that has been so popular in recent years. Like a number of other collectors they know, their fascination is not with dark rooms, ornate lines or the macabre, but with the stylistic era that followed. It is a simpler, more rustic and American-inflected style that is more general store than taxidermy-appointed lodge, and that emphasizes objects that are well-made, durable and useful: wire storage baskets, sturdy machine-age metal tools, leather couches, canvas bags, colourful woollen blankets and interiors made of barn wood.
But the most obvious example may be the wool camp blankets favoured by collectors like Kelsey and Lewis, who stocked up on vintage ones when they moved upstate. The Hudson’s Bay point blanket, the best-known camp blanket, sold out at Colette, the taste-making boutique on the Rue St.-Honore in Paris, in December. It is perhaps no coincidence that Hudson’s Bay, a Canadian company that has been producing the blanket since George Washington’s presidency, hired Partners & Spade a couple of years ago as part of a branding initiative to put the blanket’s primary-coloured stripes on paddles, axes and pillows. (“The blanket is to our company what the trench coat is to Burberry, and the saddle to Hermes, only that much older,” said Suzanne Timmins, the company’s fashion director.)
Melissa Howard, the owner of a men’s vintage clothing store in New York, is another admirer of the early 20th century. “Everything was made so beautifully,” she said.
Her shop, Stock Vintage, which opened in 2006, has become a destination for those with a serious interest in American work wear that predates the 1950s – when “a man looked handsome in his work clothing,” she said.
But furniture and objects are an obsession too: when she leaves a flea market or antiques fair, she said, she puts whatever she has bought beside her, on the passenger’s seat, so she can look at it on the way home. “My heart just starts to really beat,” she said. “I wouldn’t make a dime in the antiques business. I’d want to keep everything.”
In feel, if not in volume, the furnishings she collects fit perfectly in her small one-bedroom apartment, which has a wood-burning stove, low ceilings and floor planks
more than a half metre wide.
Inside is a 1920s bed by Old Hickory, an Indiana company that began selling rustic wooden furniture in the 1890s; a leather couch from the 1930s; Adirondack-style rocking chairs; and displays of early dog collars, hunting boots and L.L. Bean canvas bags. Tucked away are collections of quilts, camp blankets and Navajo rugs. Found portraits of dogs hang on the walls, and painted signs point to Camp Hupie and warn hikers of bears on the trail.
If Howard’s apartment is a cabin, David Coggins’ is a gentlemen’s club.
Coggins, 35, a writer who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in New York, evokes the era of the club from the early part of the century with vintage club chairs, of which he has three and a living room filled with books and, at last count, 20 rugs. Portraits of Argentine soccer teams dating to the 1930s are propped on top of the bookshelves, and the books are all carefully arranged – by size, colour and theme.