My Fair Cottage: A Southampton swan story

Or, how to turn an ordinary home into a photogenic magazine subject

August 29, 2004|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

When I read shelter magazines such as Elle Decor or House Beautiful -- as I have, avidly, for years -- I always experience a warm glow of appreciation for the domestic creativity of my fellow human beings. How happy it makes me to see the splendid way some folks live.

Ha! Believe that, and perhaps you'll come visit my maisonette on Mars.

No, indeed. I'm ashamed to admit that gliding my eyes across photographs of faultlessly appointed rooms sometimes fills me with a toxic mixture of envy and self-recrimination. Do I have terrible taste? Am I lazy? What would it be like to live in such glossy-paged perfection?

Friends, be careful what you wish for. For, as luck would have it, at summer's end my house is featured in just such a magazine -- and on the cover, no less. The tale of how I got from here to there is one of blood, sweat and tear sheets. If you dare read on, here's fair warning. The techniques described below were all enacted by highly-trained professionals. Don't try them at home.

As with many of life's upheavals, this adventure started innocently enough. I have a friend, Isabelle Kellogg, who writes for Hamptons Cottages & Gardens, a magazine that celebrates the home style of rich and famous people on Long Island's South Fork. I am neither of the above, but I do own a small weekend cottage in Southampton. One day when I was out, Isabelle drove by with Newell Turner, her editor, and impulsively decided to offer him a peek through my windows.

Newell declared the house cute.

A maddeningly indeterminate word, this "cute." Did he mean silly and naive? Or, youthfully fresh and vibrant? Before I could ask for clarification, Isabelle went on to say that Newell told her, "We should shoot it." This seemed clearer, if more fantastic. We, meaning the magazine; shoot, meaning photograph?

Sure enough, Newell called a few days later and asked if he could "publish" the house.

Hmmm. As I looked around, its failings of decor were now quite conspicuous. Slipcovers were badly bleached by the sun. A coffee table in the den was an unfortunate color. And a sofa floated in the living room's center like a beached canoe. It was as though I were en route to having my high-school photograph taken, and had suddenly noticed an eruption of acne.

Could a home interior photograph be airbrushed to remove anything unsightly? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, but I didn't know that then.

What I did know was I needed help. So, I called my friend, Sarah Bune, a raucously funny Brit who is nicknamed "Podge." She's had many careers -- chef, therapist, faux-finish painter -- but in Podge's latest incarnation, she's an interior decorator. She must be good at it, because her very first job was published recently in Architectural Digest.

She'd been to my house before, but usually at night when candlelight hides a multitude of sins. Walking about in broad daylight, however, Podge's attitude was ominously changed. Imagine your nosiest neighbor, mother-in-law, and the tire-kicking customer all rolled into one. Podge was not only permitted, but encouraged to snoop everywhere. Which she did.

Darling, how soon do they want to shoot?"

"A month," I replied.

Hearing this, Podge pursed her lips as if unable to express the horrors she was experiencing. She paced in silence, stopping in corners, and staring at things from peculiar angles. I aged a year in those minutes. I could hear my hair growing. Finally, she spoke. "Not to worry. Things just need a bit of polish."

So it began.

Rallying as would a war general, she quickly established a system of triage. Some rooms could survive on their own, others were dead and would be declared "off limits" for photography, and a third group would require emergency assistance to resuscitate. Projects I'd been meaning to get to, but might never have, suddenly were a top, I-need-it-yesterday priority.

"Polish" translated into new upholstery, curtains, credenza and living room rug. Things went flying out the door, and I was never quite sure if they were going to return. As the den emptied, I found myself watching television from a beat-up rattan chair that I dragged in from the porch.

Whenever I questioned the necessity of some alteration, say mustard-colored lampshades, Podge would answer, "think of the photos." Nature -- and shelter magazines, I learned -- abhors a vacuum. The camera's depth of focus must find interesting things in the foreground, middle distance and horizon. The eye needs to be carried (what an image!) from place to place, she said. There must be "flow." Hence, the mustard-colored lampshades.

Well. That made sense.

Sometimes the cuts were surgical, and I didn't feel much pain. I'd come back from a chore -- "darling, we need a piece of glass cut for that coffee table" -- to find a pillow or knick-knack banished to the basement. Other edits were more blunt. An arrangement of branches in a tall vase that I was quite proud of simply disappeared. I found it outside later, decorating the compost heap.

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