When I first moved to New York City I had literally no idea what I was getting myself into. I had a plan A, a plan B, and a plan C on the job front. The housing front was a different story. I crashed with a friend out in Brooklyn for a couple weeks while I hunted for an apartment on Craigslist. I looked at everything. It was February in 2005, it was snowing hard and may I add I was moving from Costa Rica and found myself standing in the snow in soaking wet Puma sneakers, yeah it was an overall adjustment, to say the least, but I was very determined to make NYC my home.
I went to see a 2 bedroom apartment in Murray Hill. When I met the girl that was moving out she told me she was also looking for a roommate for the apartment she was moving into, a 3 bedroom apartment in Gramercy. We got along and I went to see this other apartment the next day. Yes, I was moving in with complete strangers found on Craigslist but I trust my gut when it comes to two things people and collecting.
The apartment I would later move into had black and white linoleum floors, exposed brick, a fireplace and a private and very dangerous rooftop. It was totally charming. My room was towards the back, roughly 8ft x 8ft with a small window with natural light. For what I could afford this was the jackpot. I would also inherit a small dresser left by the previous tenant. A full-size bed would fit snugly between the wall and the open closet that was a shelf and a rod sunken in the exposed brick. I ordered the mattress and box frame over the phone and had it delivered the next day in classic New York style through 1-800- mattress. There were 3 options soft, medium or hard. There was just enough room to shimmy out of bed between the mattress and the hanging clothes. My basics were taken care of.
The rest of the apartment decor was amazing. One of my roommates, Francis was a photo stylist at Home & Garden Magazine. She could have been a founding leader of the shabby chic movement. Her bedroom could have been on an inspiration board for Anthropology branding had Pinterest existed back in 2005. She had collected and displayed throughout the apartment beautiful vases, empty antique frames, and had a great collection of home entertaining books that I spent hours going through. The how-to floral arrangement and table setting placement books had beautiful photography one more charming than the next. A few months of living with Francis and I had learned a thing or two on styling and found out where to find some good antiques in the city.
My room was small but I knew if I could find a large mirror to place above the dresser I could make the space feel larger so, on one of my visits to the flea markets in Hell's Kitchen, I scored an antique mirror with a gold frame. The mirror had a lovely bevel to it and the gold frame was slightly chipped in all the right places. For $20 from its original $25 price (I pulled out just the one 20 dollar bill and told the white lie it was all I had) I was very happy with my find. Of course, after carrying it for a few blocks, I ended up spending the $5 on a cab ride to get home with it, it was simply too heavy to carry any further. The mirror would reflect the natural light that came in through my window very nicely. Along with a purple vase that had been included in a floral delivery from my then boyfriend and a hanging plant for $6 from K-mart, my little room felt cozy.
At age 22 real artwork was not in the budget and posters were still acceptable in my mind, which shouldn't be once you actually live in an apartment and not a college dorm. I was at the Met one day and was mesmerized by a poster of a Richard Avedon portrait of Marilyn Monroe in the gift shop. I remember thinking it was quite expensive, like $65 or something. I'm not really the Marilyn Monroe fan type girl but the black and white portrait is quite sober and melancholy. Looking back, this poster would be the second of several female portraits I would collect later in the future. The first was a poster of Drowning Girl or I Don't Care I'd Rather Sink by Roy Lichtenstein. I didn't really plan to collect portraits but I think in a very personal way I have seen parts of myself reflected in these women, one way or another and collected them in the moment. Prints, paintings, photography and collage make up the art forms in my collection these days.
I was devastated when I learned Francis was moving out and we'd be left without her collected treasures. To my relief, she left us a gold bar cart she had found one day on a nearby corner on her way back from work. She also left us a wreath in the shape of a star that had white lights on it that when lit was super cozy, a cheap find from Pier 1 that hung above the bar cart. But now we needed a couch.
My building on the corner of 22nd and 3rd was far from the sky-rise that is in that location these days. Back then it was a small, 3 story walk-up that housed 2 apartments and a BBQ restaurant that supplied the apartments with the occasional mouse. Delivery for the couch wasn't bad, I was able to find a pull-out that had been recently dropped off at the nearest Salvation Army. For $300 it was in excellent condition. It had the smell of a new hotel and the color was army green, a color I love still to this day and pick out often. Against the black and white flooring, the couch looked amazing, it was also very comfy.
When Francis moved out, my other roommate Melissa was able to negotiate with our landlord to repaint the room she was moving into (Francis's old room) and the kitchen. For the kitchen, we agreed upon a peacock blue/ Asian turquoise that was airy with our white cabinets and black and white floor. I was able to find a little butcher block cart at the tiny local hardware store just a few blocks away and wheeled it home one afternoon. It cost me $40 and I remember I sold it for $60 on Craigslist later, I also made a profit on my couch when I moved out of the city, a good couple hundred bucks too.
Among the several part-time jobs and internships that I had at the time, one of them was at an arts publication located on Broadway near Canal St. in Soho. During one lunch break, I discovered the Pearl River Mart, a Chinese-American department store of Asian housewares, decor, and apparel. It was massive and a NY institution for all things Asian (it has since closed and I believe it's in the process of relocating to Tribeca). Growing up my Mother always had Asian decorative objects around the house. My first memory of anything Asian was a doll my parents brought back to me from a trip to Singapore. The doll's name was Lin-Lin which later became my nickname at home. Spending a few minutes to peruse authentic ceramic soy sauce dishes and tea sets in an Asian market makes perfect sense to me. This place was like walking into heaven. Hanging above me were many colorful paper lanterns. For $16 I had found the perfect accessory to our newly painted kitchen. The bright red Koi fish on the lantern popped against the turquoise, bringing life to the little kitchen room.
It really doesn't take much money to put together a thoughtfully collected home. Even though I don't have any of these pieces in my current home, I remember them dearly and haven't changed my personal style all that much. I still enjoy flea markets, bargains and flipping through home entertaining books. I use Asian decor sparingly throughout and place lights on dimmers to create cozy spaces at night. Large mirrors are always a good way to make a small space larger and add more light to a room. Plants always bring life to a home. Moss or army green is a great neutral color used in any fabric. Collect artwork that speaks to you personally even if you don't understand why you like it, whatever your budget is. The more you collect the more you'll get to know yourself. Resell items whenever you can, making a profit is even better. Mice are best caught with the sticky pads. Have fun collecting your home!
PS. This post was written after binge watching Girls and having flashbacks to my own 20s life in NYC. I wouldn't change any of it.