Photographs: Garvin Burke
above: Blue is in resurgence, here in the form of accent pillows and a montage of late- nineteenth-century Chinese export platters and plates.
On a recent January morning, Carey Karlan alights from an imported sedan in the parking lot of Stamford’s Antique & Artisan Gallery, a watering hole whose pilgrims arrive from all over the tristate area and beyond. In a houndstooth jacket suitable for hunting foxes in the Scottish Highlands, and with a leather tote ubiquitous among decorators for the easy access it provides to fabric swatches and paint chips, she appears ready for another kind of hunt.
After assessing the outdoor display—garden statuary, bronze armillaries, sundials with patina, fluted concrete urns, a cast-iron Victorian settee—Karlan pulls open the doors of the 22,000-square-foot emporium owned by Mari Ann Maher and Bruce Wylie, veterans of the antique and auction worlds. With an air of conspiratorial impishness, the decorator shares her strategy.
“First I sweep,” she says, encapsulating in three words how she’ll cast her eye about the airplane hangar of tangible sentiments, taking a preliminary inventory of what’s for sale. “The second pass is for focus,” wherein she homes in on the baubles that excite her fancy. “It’s just like dating,” she says. “First you swipe, then you take a closer look.”
Whether she’s bringing a client back from the brink of death-by-Benjamin-Moore-fan-deck or specifying, to an upholsterer, the length of the fringe on a Chesterfield sofa, she can bundle up the decorating sensibility of an entire decade, or the signature motif of a particular period, into a single clarifying statement that is authoritative but not bossy, reassuring but not pandering. And in a profession where editing is essential and aesthetic telegraphy indispensable, her striking ability to distill a reverberating truth into a clever aphorism serves her well.
On offer, for instance, might be a commentary on when the cabbage rose bloomed, why cocktail tables became vast stages for adult picture books and Buddha heads rather than places where highballs linger on coasters, or how an industry-wide fascination with saturated color faded.
“And then yellow was banished,” quips the self-proclaimed lover of “all the greens, from limey to acid.” She is explaining the disappearance, for example, in the mid-’80s, of Grey Poupon from the walls of drawing-rooms-of-distinction as if by despotic decree. “After that, it was Planet Beige,” an alien outpost of numbing neutrality that she believes has only recently begun to show signs of, ahem, color—again. But not before a sustained reign of gray.
Spry and petite, the Darien-based designer crisscrosses the floor, cutting through alleys delineating discrete dealer vignettes that together showcase both the canon of decorative styles and the narrow purview of individual fetishes. Her stylish suede booties are already proving their mettle.
Amidst Federal-style Girandole mirrors embellished with giltwood eagles and intricately painted Chinoiserie chests on bun feet, she spies a curvaceous, statement-making Biedermeier chaise. With its scrolled arms and feet shaped like cornucopia baskets, she muses that the asymmetrical lounger would make an interesting installation in a bay window or a foyer, requiring nothing other than a tiny table.
“It’s an object of art, a piece of sculpture.” The graphically patterned blue and white upholstery, she adds, has a contemporizing effect. “I’m always looking for something that no one else has, that’s unique, not mass-produced.”
Inside one of the gallery’s many simulated libraries, Karlan shares some tricks. Busts work well on bookshelves, as do brass bookends, and unexpected accessories like metal ice buckets and candleholders, and anything else that adds interest and sheen. In an age of lost books, she believes paperbacks are more appealing than no books at all. Framed art—landscapes, portraits—is attractive when hung in front of books or propped against the back of the case.
Her eye roams. A mirror adorned with antlers could double as a perch for hats in a mud room; a Chippendale-style settee would wake up with modern batik pillows; and glassware available in nearly every shape and color presents an opportunity to add pleasure to a room. (Shopping for tabletop essentials is a frequent assignment).
Delighting the eye is the overarching objective of this self-described purveyor of an eclectic, collected look—with detectable French-antique and English-cottage influences—that mixes color and texture into schemes that often incorporate, mercifully, her curated selection of her client’s existing pieces.
COOL AND CALM
If the ten-dealer gallery in Stamford is high-octane overwhelm, then Westport’s serene Eleish Van Breems boutique, known for its selective importation of Swedish antiques and modern objet decor, is an invitation to slow down and savor spare arrangements. Eighteenth-century Swedish case clocks lovingly painted in the pale pigments derived from Scandinavia’s abundant natural resources are juxtaposed with newer acquisitions, including a spindly Trident floor lamp whose pliable stems are wrapped in leather, and a snuggly pair of Fritz Hansen lounge chairs from the 1940s—stained-beech legs, lambswool upholstery.
Karlan appreciates the contrast, gravitating toward a massive, nineteenth-century Swedish clock secretary that presides over the back room of the store. While its height requires high ceilings, she says its shallow depth makes it serviceable almost anywhere, particularly in a kitchen or a family room.
“It’s a fabulous command post,” she says, gamely demonstrating the furniture’s many features, including a desk that folds out, a plethora of secret compartments, and cupboard doors where one could post—and then conceal —school calendars and party invitations.
Then an array of English and Swedish steamers and molds for elaborate cakes and puddings captures her attention. The quaint shapes evoke a time when life moved more slowly—when one could wait for an aspic to set. Grouped in a small collection, they fill a kitchen with a hearty glow Julia Child would covet, and on a cabinet or in a bookcase, they deliver a chic gleam.
Carey Karlan is an Oklahoma native born into a tradition of decorating rooms and arranging freshly cut flowers. She ventured north to Trinity College and then spent a decade in television advertising sales before departing to raise five children. Along the way, she attracted a steady stream of friends and acquaintances who asked her to furnish their homes with the same taste they admired in hers. Then, after sewing window treatments and tablecloths, re-doing numerous living rooms and libraries, working retail, and studying at the New York School of Interior Design, Karlan established the award-winning Last Detail Interior Design.
At the helm of her own firm for more than twenty years, she has found both her creative bliss and her niche of excellence: designing a few rooms at a time, usually on the main level, all the while building client relationships that span many years—and many homes—from Greenwich to Nantucket and from New York to Naples. When finishing a space, she sometimes pulls into a client’s driveway trailed by a truck loaded with ceramic lamps and antique vases, accent pillows and English pottery, side chairs with rush seats and hand-painted tilt tables. The pieces can be auditioned inside—and purchased if they work—or trotted back to the curb if they don’t.
“It’s occasionally glamorous and very thrilling,” she says of her work, dispensing yet another lesson in concision, this time one that embodies her very own opus maximus.
On the Hunt in Fairfield County
From the classic to the quirky, these markets have it all
FAIRFIELD COUNTY ANTIQUE & DESIGN CENTER
If you’ve got only a few hours to spare before lunch any day of the week, duck into Norwalk’s Fairfield County Antique & Design Center (fairfieldantiqueanddesign.com) where a humble exterior belies the fun contained within. Upon entry, browsers encounter an intimate shopping experience deliciously heavy on quirk and thematic creativity. (The floor is regularly trolled by set designers from Hollywood—surprise!)
Open since 2014, the space consists of 12,000 square feet and more than forty dealers who peddle furniture, art, decorative objects and jewelry from a slew of periods and genres. Notables on a recent visit include a Shaker rocker, its original woven seat intact (JB Richardson Gallery); a pair of bobbin-turned corner chairs and matching table in pristine condition (Andrew Stark); a Qing Dynasty blue-on-celadon vase and covered jar (MTE Antiques); and dainty, ebonized Chinoiserie side chairs embellished with mother-of-pearl inlays (Ryan Matthew Cohn).
The curiosities, and the re-purposing of old objects as new art, titillate the senses. DC Kingswood obliges taxidermy fiends with mounted stags, grounded pheasants and piles of turtle shells and alligator heads. The aforementioned Cohn, a self-described purveyor of oddities, offers spooky bisque and leather articulated dolls and industrial spotlights with thick green lenses likely useful after a prison break, while Tiny French Flea’s corner stall features a pale pink aviary tall enough to accommodate a Saugatuck River egret. The divine symmetry of industrial design is on display in Lost Found Art’s perforated brewery crates and golf-ball molds turned into art and mirrors. Steel Petanque balls would bring heft to a console table or a bocce court.
AVERY & DASH
A helicopter is recommended for exploring the breadth and depth of wares on offer at Avery & Dash (averydash.com), a glamorous hypermarket meticulously curated by father and son Edward and Nicholas Savard. Located on Stamford’s design strip, the warehouse comprises 23,000 square feet of paintings, prints, porcelain, silver, and fine furniture, much of it from the family’s own collections.
From the hovercraft, the binoculars could rest on many a prize: a pair of porcelain plates in leaf form made by Mary Kirk Kelly with a spring luncheon in mind (Antiquarian at Greenwich); a pair of Modigliani-inspired blown-glass figures designed by Walter Furlan and made on Murano by his son, Mario (Antique Soul); and a compact, lollipop-red storage trolley on castors by mid-century design-futurist Joe Colombo that could brighten even the dreariest day in the WFH age (Nicholas Savard).
Worthy of a helipad landing: A late nineteenth-century locking liquor enclosure known as a tantalus and named for the Greek king condemned by Zeus to a fate of perpetual thirst whilst standing in a pool of water he could not drink. (Tantalus, in other words, was tantalized.) This etched-crystal example, with its Aesthetic Movement essence and ornate, bronze-dore detail, would likely have had the same effect on the parched monarch. For sale by Rita Fusaro Antiques, it features four gilded decanters and matching glasses—and of course a lock and key. The other show-stopper: an ebonized 1930s cocktail cabinet for sale by Nicholas Savard—demilune in shape, with interior mirrors. Think Greta Garbo ordering a whisky with a ginger ale on the side. Just don’t be stingy, baby.