Michael Weschler for The New York Times
Michael Weschler for The New York Times
Hollister and Porter Hovey, sisters age 30 and 26, used a chain from Home Depot to lash a crystal chandelier to a crossbeam in the ceiling of their loft in Williamsburg, 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 make 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 Lower East Side restaurants and clothing stores for a while, but now they are catching on at home.
It was probably inevitable. Consider the example of new-vintage merchants like J. Crew Liquor, the men’s wear store housed in an old TriBeCa bar. Or Freemans Sporting Club, the “gentleman’s” clothing store created by Taavo Somer, the architect and restaurateur responsible for Freemans, the taxidermy-bedecked hot spot on the Lower East Side. The recently opened bar at the Jane hotel, created by Eric Goode and Sean MacPherson, is a mash-up of an English country estate, the set of “The Royal Tenenbaums” and an interior landscape imagined by Joris-Karl Huysmans, the author of “Against Nature,” the 19th-century decadent’s manifesto.
It was only a matter of time until the “dark nostalgia” of such environments — as Eva Hagberg, a design writer, characterizes it in a book of the same name, out this fall from Monacelli Press — made its way home.
Not since Ralph Lauren moved into the Rhinelander mansion more than two decades ago have so many merchants focused on exhuming the accouterments of the turn-of-the-19th-century leisure class. But while Lauren’s market was Manhattan’s Upper East Side establishment (or those who wished to belong to it), the current one lives miles south of East 72nd Street and couldn’t care less about social provenance.
“My interests are old things from different periods,” said Sean Crowley on a recent steamy Friday night. Despite the heat, Mr. 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, Mr. Crowley’s politics cleave determinedly to the left.
Mr. Crowley, 28, is a neckwear designer at, in fact, Ralph Lauren, and his apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, looks like its rooms were plucked whole from the National Arts Club. (His cellphone ring tone is Mouret’s “Rondeau,” the old Masterpiece Theater theme song, and his e-mail address is mrwooster, a nod to the P. G. Wodehouse character.) But the link between Mr. 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.
Mr. 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 chockablock with Edwardian-style portraits, heraldic devices and mounted antlers.
“I like to cook, I like to sew, I can fix things with my hands,” Mr. 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, which operates more on a cash-and-carry model — 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.
Mr. 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 Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is accessorized with mummified hunting dogs, wax figures and Black Forest taxidermy. There is also a bone saw from the 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,” Mr. Matthew said proudly. Growing up in Woodstock, N.Y., he used to collect plants and “things the dog had eaten,” he said, “which my parents would find under my bed.”
Mr. Matthew’s collections will find their way into his shop Against Nature, opening in mid-August on Chrystie Street. Inspired, just like the Jane hotel, by the Huysmans novel of the same name, it will look an awful lot like Mr. 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 Mr. Matthew — is perfectly sited to snag new-vintage consumers on their way to Freemans, around the corner on Freeman Alley.
Many, in fact, point to Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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?”
Mr. 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.”
“Authenticity is such a fed-up idea,” she continued. “But collecting these old things, it’s like there is an aura attached to them. It’s not some prepackaged product being foisted on you by a big corporation. Too bad it’s going to be commodified. Everything in the fashion world gets hoovered up.”
Marketers, in fact, are already paying attention. Steven Grasse, chief executive of the advertising and branding agency Quaker City Mercantile in Philadelphia, said he recently sent a sample of a new product, a vintage-styled liquor called Root, to a few retro-loving bloggers like Hollister Hovey.
“Hollister’s blog is extremely influential to the sort of people we want to discover our product,” Mr. Grasse wrote in an e-mail message, by which he meant young consumers with a taste for vintage barware and letterpress stationery, some of the retro items sold at Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a store he owns in Philadelphia.
“Root fits very well with the Art in the Age brand,” he continued, “because that brand is all about restoring the ‘aura’ that has been lost with the mass commodification of our lives. Our job is to restore the aura that has been lost by strip malls and cheap junk from China. The approach is particularly appropriate right now because everything has collapsed. The old notions of luxury have crumbled. People are looking for what is real.”
Or at least looking for a good story. “Your imagination can run wild with the taxidermy,” Ms. Hovey said. It can be challenging, though, to get it home, she admitted, particularly when that means carting it through the streets of New York. Recently, she said, she had an eBay purchase — an entire taxidermied sheep — shipped to her Midtown office, terrifying her co-workers. (Ms. Hovey has a day job in medical public relations; her sister works in a management consulting firm and is a photographer.)
The Hovey sisters sat recently on their tufted leather sofa and recalled their childhood in Kansas, growing up surrounded by ostrich eggs and old steamer trunks, with a mother who sent them to grade school dressed in Ralph Lauren cricket jackets and a father who mowed the lawn in a pith helmet (he had passed some of his early years, like a character from a Maugham short story, working in a Bolivian gold mine and on a cattle boat in the South Pacific, and had the gear to prove it).
“We spent Saturdays in flea markets,” Porter said, “when we were in second grade.”
Now the sisters are watching their antiquarian interests crest in their hipster-Brooklyn neighborhood, where every act seems framed in quotation marks. While Hollister’s blog started as a way to curtail her purchases — sharing an item instead of bidding on it — as well as linking to a community of anachronistically inclined friends, she said: “now it’s given me street cred. My neighbors used to glaze over when I talked about this stuff. Now everyone is dressing like Ulysses S. Grant.”