An empty room in a new house or flat is an exciting thing: a blank canvas; an opportunity to create; a fresh start maybe. But it can be tempting to rush into its refurbishment and get it wrong. At Blackbirds, I intended from the outset for the lounge to be the highlight of our home, and it had to be just right: a good reason for not rushing it. As the ‘before’ photo which I'll add in my next post will show, there was much which needed doing in this room. The carpet was threadbare; the lights, which were either broken or 80s misfits, needed replacing and the wiring, checking. The catalogue of horrors will be continued in the next post, but suffice it to say here that the decorating, and the selection of a new sofa, were going to have to wait until a carpet was fitted; and other work was to take precedence over this..
This period of waiting meant that we had to make-do-and-mend, and whilst during this time it was not quite the perfect mid-century modern lounge aimed for, all the elements were yet coming slowly together. The colour scheme was establishing itself, encouraged by the prominent position of the green blown glass vase and objects on the sideboard. The sideboard was, in fact, the very first piece of furniture to arrive at Blackbirds, spotted in a second-hand shop for just £50. It not only provided a platform for the items which would determine the room’s colour scheme, but also gave the room an instant head start in a mid-century modern direction.
It's important not to fall into what I term 'the Homebase trap': i.e. copying what appears fashionable at the time, but in fact quickly becomes ubiquitous with many households up and down the land looking identical and effectively containing no character. Don't follow a trend, follow your heart - and the heart of your home, which should gently express itself to you if you take the time to listen and feel. Mid-Century Modern is a fabulous framework and helps create a streamlined, sophisticated home which should feel warm, not cold ( it should not be confused with minimalism); but what makes it are the finishing touches, and these should be very individual to the property and be meaningful for its occupants. You will know that you have succeeded when it doesn't just look right, but feels right too!
Snippets, teasers, and details of the completed lounge at Blackbirds can be seen on my Instagram account @blackbirdsandme; the final refurbishment of the lounge in all its glory will be revealed in my forthcoming book, 'Mid-Century Modern on a Shoestring & The Memory of Walls', so I am hoping to have piqued your curiosity! But yes, simple or random as they might appear, there is method in my madness and the humble objects pictured were indeed the starting point for this room. I wonder what yours will be!
For many years, we have travelled to Scotland for our main holiday (other short breaks usually consist of stay-cations in Britain or the odd long weekend in France, usually Normandy). We toured Scotland for our honeymoon trip, and in subsequent years stayed in various picturesque locations with our young daughters in tow; it has become very much part of a family tradition, and although our daughters are now 21 and 18 respectively, they seem to appreciate the tradition as they still - for the moment - want to come with us!
On our return, the advent of September is invariably nearing, and so I often associate the little knick-knacks we bring back from our travels with a fresh look in the house for Autumn, which begins almost exactly on my birthday (the 21st September) but which for me will always be associated with September as a whole. Thus the Arran Aromatics entitled 'After the Rain' brought home have directed golden-hay hues for the downstairs cloakroom (see future post); and the blues and purples of the pieces collected and pictured here, add cool but dreamy tones to the Autumn vibes in the End Room, creating an air of reverie and reflection - all in good time for the fresh start which September will hopefully bring.
This is our second cheeseplant (or Monstera Deliciosa) here at Blackbirds, the first, and largest, is practically climbing out of our home office and will be shown in due course. This one is positioned in the upstairs lounge, and appreciates the useful extra light which filters through the frosted glass on the landing: one of the original features we were happy to find at the property. We bought this cheeseplant when it was fairly small and more affordable but it, too, has since increased in size fairly rapidly and has already been re-potted twice. Proving that you don't need overly green fingers to own houseplants (although I'm sure that always helps!) And of course, what could possibly be more mid-century modern than a houseplant or two, large or small?
Hopefully the month of June will be less restrictive than May in the thick of lockdown. Whilst we could have done without the financial, health and other worries, the silver lining to the cloud is that Mid-Century Modern on a Shoestring - some three years in the making - is now nearing completion, although the photography itself, an important part of the work, has a little way to go yet. For this post I am featuring a detail from a favourite picture, Vernon Ward's iconic Flying Ducks: the sight of which never fails to lift the spirits. Hoping that our little book, in spite of the current difficult climate, will soar high too.
It's difficult to be positive in the shadow of the current coronavirus, or Covid-19 to be precise, crisis. Here in the UK as in many places in the world, the past couple of weeks have been spent in 'lock-down', and in many ways it seems as though we are under virtual 'house arrest'. It's a necessary action to protect ourselves, those we love, and to ensure that the NHS is not overwhelmed during the peak of the crisis. Staying at home is harder for some than others, for many and varied reasons. It is a very strange and difficult time, and thoughts go out to those who have suffered illness, loss, or financial hardship. Of course health is the foremost concern, but equally it's difficult to retain health when one is in fear of losing one's job, or one's business; and then there is the issue of mental health, too, and its impact on physical health. This Easter, we can only hope and pray that the worst will pass soon, and that the whole world can begin to rebuild, maybe even for the better. Note that the words 'a reset' can be found within the word 'Easter'; perhaps this is no coincidence and a sign that things really do need to change. Coronavirus is not the only sickness: society itself has been very sick for some time. In a civilized country, it cannot be right for so many to be homeless or through no fault of their own to fall through the cracks in society; for some to have so much for doing virtually nothing, whilst others work so hard, for very little reward; moral boundaries have been stretched beyond what should be acceptable in the film industry and in celebrity culture, and even decent people have been sucked in; sloppy parenting in turn allows children to succumb to this sickness. So a reset button in certainly in order. Here's to a brave new world.
By the end of February many signs of Spring have already appeared and, as the days grow longer, the hearts of country dwellers are stirred to renewed wonder at the swelling of buds and the sight of the early blossoms of hazel, willow alder and poplar ...
....thus begins the introduction to the Ladybird Nature Book by E.L.Grant Watson,
with illustrations by C.F.Tunnicliffe (1961)
Here, hazel twigs from our hedgerow make an understated but effective mid-century modern display in a Habitat 'onion' vase. What to look for in Spring lies open on the first illustration, featuring catkins and mallard ducks, a favourite mid-century theme. Completing the scene on the teak nesting tables is a hand-carved teak duck from Canada, all ready for Spring.
This was the post from @blackbirdsandme instagram account, this time last year, and I love it so much I'm using it as this year's February blog post. Because, amidst all the storms we're having and the disheartening flooding which is affecting so many homes, businesses, town and country folk alike, Spring is hopefully just around the corner, and we need, more than ever, to look for it. In our Devon hedgerow, the catkins are dangling once again, just as they did last year, the robin is sweetly singing and a female blackbird seems almost grateful for the sodden lawn. If we keep looking for Spring, maybe we will find it.
The kitchen had begun to look messy with too many disparate elements. We decided to scale right back to the original idea, removing clutter and non-complementary colours. This yellow table was crying out to be used in the kitchen which combines sea blues, and sunny yellows with just a touch of bright red for jollity. We removed the pinks and dark greens which had crept in, and the space became far more harmonious. The overall effect will be evident in our forthcoming book 'Mid-Century Modern on a Shoestring'. Note how a simple platter of fruit can add to the feel of a space, adding colour and life - even if 'still life'!
So here it is, not just a new year, but a whole new decade, which has crept up on us - with a hopeful ring about it: 2020. In January, a 'spring clean' might seem a little pre-emptive, but here at Blackbirds, with the nest more than ordinarily empty, with Christmas decorations put away after Old Christmas on Twelfth Night and children 'back to school' and university, it always seems a good time to start getting things ship-shape once again.
And with the clean sweep, comes a chance to look at things with fresh eyes and envisage different colours for the new season, a sorting out of the superfluous, a fitting in with feel. In our kitchen, an accumulation of 'favourite things' had become something of a mish-mash (it happens to the best of us) rather than the desired mid-century modern streamlined idyll: stuff had crept in and the colour scheme seemed to have crept out. Too much stuff weighs down upon us heavily, the mind restless, needing visual guidance, a tranquil path: when this happens, it is time to have a clear-out. Which brings me to an important point: a home is always evolving and new seasons - not to mention new decades - can bring inspiration and the necessary motivation for making small changes, thereby breathing new life into interiors.
And it doesn't mean getting rid of everything: on the contrary, I always plead for the necessity of nostalgia, the importance of keeping solid things which hold meaning, whether one is on a 'shoestring budget' or not. No: more often than not, all that is needed is a little tweak here and there, a toning down of a colour scheme or the clearing of bits and pieces; or perhaps the introduction of an entirely new piece which brings all the disparate elements together. So it's time to get the cupboards in order and scrub the decks here at Blackbirds. 2020 has a balanced air about it, let's live up to it, clear the decks and set sail !
So Advent is truly underway, and our Advent Calendars here at Blackbirds are propped up against the light of the windows shining through. Though our children are older now, they have not lost interest in opening the windows with no thought of a chocolate reward as we've always had the simple sort, the original kind: the ones with a manger scene at their very heart, in which the joy of taking part in an unfolding story adds meaning to what might otherwise be something of a commercialized countdown. This little nativity scene, handed down by family, demonstrates what it's all about: the Christmas Story, forget its origins as we may. So let's at least celebrate the message of Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all Men (which of course is just old-fashioned-speak for 'everyone' before anyone gets offended). And there's nothing sacrilegious about creating a stylish mid-century modern home at Christmastime: what better setting for this treasured, vintage set than the teak sideboard in the dining room, where many a family meal will be shared, candles gleaming : the 'manger' at the heart of the home.
....So says Jo in the opening lines to Little Women, the beloved book by Louisa May Alcott, and a firm favourite since childhood. There has been much talk, in recent years, of making Christmas less materialistic: it's encouraging to see that there has been a growing 'malaise' about the superficiality attached to what should be a meaningful tradition, the sheer volume of waste, the expectations. Many young people growing up may have come to see Christmas as nothing more than a frenetic festival at which they get to have the latest tech upgrade, and whatever else is on their wish-list, no matter what the cost. So it's good to see that retro has made a comeback, and tradition once again beckons promisingly, at least to some of us!
Younger children - less exposed to peer pressure and more able to enjoy the simple things in life - are often easier to please: sufficient to them, a box containing a few bits and bobs; colourful books or craft items; traditional toys, dare I mention them, such as dolls and cars. As long as they can rip off the bright paper and enjoy the excitement of the moment, after the tremendous build-up of Advent; and watch, with almost equal excitement, as others do the same. Christmas carols and school nativity plays? God forbid, but surely they are all a part of it. Yes, the spirit of Christmas is far more likely to be found in the hearts of the very young, if they're lucky enough to have parents who encourage it. And older folk, who remember how it used to be. Perhaps, might I humbly add, the mid-centurians amongst us who, not quite old and certainly no longer young, treasure that lost age of innocence in which Christmas was really Christmas.
In many ways, the vintage and retro communities in which I have found myself immersed through my love of mid-century modern and mid-century, lead the way: a fondness for old-fashioned things like books, board games and soundly-made stuff which bring back the nostalgia of yesteryear, and send a message of reuse-recycle-remember rather than upgrade-degrade-forget. We are the collectors who attach value to things we've been given, who have kept those little bits and bobs from Christmases past. Who cares about upgrades? I want my beloved things to last forever, not just of themselves, but because of the memories they embody, the meaning they embed. What we get for Christmas now, ought to include, at least in small measure, things we treasure, tomorrow's vintage.
So, making Christmas less materialistic isn't about not giving: Dickens' Christmas Carol has surely made clear once and for all that, with life's many hardships, the joy and atmosphere of Christmas are something even the poorest should be able to look forward to, with a little helping hand from the community and their own extended families. It's about giving what you can afford to give, with thoughtfulness and generosity; and not just within your own little world, but within the community too, where others might not be lucky enough to have a family like yours; where everyone can make a difference, no matter how small. And by all means buy a new decoration or two for the tree each year, because that's part of the fun and helps keep the economy going (buy from small businesses or vintage sellers if you can!) but keep the old ones too: there in that box of memories, you will find the spirit of Christmas encapsulated, ready to be brought out each year to bring comfort and joy.
Are charity shops losing the plot? A few years ago, it was possible to pop into a high street charity shop and pick up a nice little bargain. On the odd occasion, you still can. But more often than not, and increasingly so, I walk out empty-handed. Soon, I doubt I shall bother walking in at all. Why? This might be a contentious statement - and I would love to hear about exceptions to this trend - but I think that charity shops have become - dare I say it? - greedy; not only this, but in their greed they have also become out of touch with reality. If I want to pay 'what it's worth', I will go to an antiques, quality secondhand or bric-a-brac shop which, after all, are paying higher rates and are often struggling to stay open; charity shops also clearly do not offer the same 'shopping experience' as an independent shop which has put its objects into an inviting interior with an attractive backdrop. No: the enjoyment previously experienced when visiting charity shops was the joy at scooping up some coveted item which one had little hope of affording elsewhere. Now, such items are picked up with excitement but, on seeing the price, put back down again in disappointment. Recent examples have been: sets of vintage plates with faded designs which might have tempted for a tenner, but not when offered at an eye-watering £45; Hornsea pieces at around £10 an item - or at any rate, more than I would pay for them on eBay; and books I'd gladly snap up for my collection, were they not hastily replaced once the price on the inner cover was revealed.
The shops will argue that their job is to raise as much money as they can for their charity and that only by putting the highest possible value on objects will they achieve this aim. But in reality they are alienating the very public on whom they rely for support, and in the process, shooting themselves in the foot. Would it not be better to have a greater turnover of goods than to price products irritatingly high (I mean, who would pay the same (sometimes even more!) for a used item of clothing in a charity shop than what it costs in a brand's 'as new' sale?) ; then have customers walk away, and items which could be filling the shelves and rails sitting in bags waiting for spaces? Often, the customers who donate goods are the same ones who, in turn, would like to spend a little money in the shop and pick up a bargain, so it's a shame that the pricing deters them from effectively making a double donation.
But it's not just this. Many members of the public donate these items in good faith, not only because they want to help the charity itself, but also because they want to do their bit for their community: in charity shop days-of-old, this was where people on the breadline could find a lifeline: in clothing; toys and books for their kids; kitchen essentials; something for a pound or two. At a car-boot sale last year, I was shocked to hear a seller say that they were taking everything they didn't sell that day to the recycling centre. "Couldn't you drop it off at a charity shop?" I asked. "I don't do that anymore," they replied, "the people I want to benefit can't afford to go to charity shops, so I'd rather donate to clothes banks and recycle." Hmm...her comments struck a cord as I'd been having a couple of begrudging thoughts myself lately. Charity shops need to listen up. In denial about it they may be, but they have a dual function and duty: it's not just about the charity they represent, it's also about the community they serve. Charity begins at home.
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