Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Obsession Confession

When I was very young, my family lived next door to the Kemps. To a ten-year-old, the Kemps were ancient. Older than my oldest grandparents were at the time, I think. They had a turquoise-blue Ford pick-up parked in the driveway and a giant land-yacht of a car in the garage. Mr. Kemp spent many, many hours in a rocker on his front porch. He taught me how to speak a little Spanish, un poquito solamente. And showed me the kidney stones he kept in a jar. He let us pick pomegranates from his tree. And had a great dog named Josie we could play with whenever we wanted. Mrs. Kemp? Well, I'm not sure exactly what she did with her time, but she always looked dressed-up and ready to go do it, whatever it was. To me, they were an endless source of fascination. And so was their home. Built in the 1950's, it was an attractive single-story, clapboard-sided, California ranch with a big tree in the middle of a nice suburban lawn. But it was what I found on the inside of that house that sparked my obsession with homes and interiors. Not that anything here was particularly remarkable, and certainly not 'high-style', it was all just so different from what I lived with in my house. That's the key to my obsession, I think: a simple desire to know how other people live, and what they choose to live with, in the places they call home.

A quiet, well-behaved girl tagging along after her mom, I was a welcome guest in the Kemp's home. And while the adults carried on with their visit, I was practically forgotten and could spend my time taking it all in. First pretty thing to look at: Mrs. Kemp's fancy sandals! Sometimes metallic leather, sometimes not, but always bejeweled.

After that though, just inside the front door, there was so much more. And to this perhaps uncommon ten-year-old, these other things were far more interesting than a pair of sparkly shoes. Furniture and art and decor that had been collected over a long lifetime. Oriental carpets on the floors,

panelled walls in the dark den with built-in bookcases stuffed to the gills,

and a display of interesting art pottery. Most pieces, I would come to understand, had been crafted by their own son, a struggling, not ever very successful artist.

Some days, if I was lucky, we would be invited into the back of the house. Along the way, there were quiet, shadowed bedrooms to peek into as we passed,

and a windowed wall (or was it French doors?) on one side of the long hallway that looked out onto the Kemp's well-tended cactus garden.

Then there was the kitchen... a wonder of maple cabinetry and copper pots

and wallpaper that looked something like this:

Perhaps my favorite room in the Kemp home was the one outside the house. A storage room attached to the garage held what seemed like an entire household's worth of cast-off furniture. Sofas and chairs and tables and bureaus. Framed art and out-of-service mirrors and lamps. And I had permission to play back there whenever I wanted! I can still recall the scents of old varnished woods and musty upholstery. There were drawers and shelves into which I tucked secret notes and books and it was the perfect quiet place to get away from my pesky little brothers. The nubby rose-colored sofa and chair were my favorite pieces.

Now I don't really know, all these years later, how closely these photos resemble the things in my neighbors' home. You know how it is when, as an adult, you go back to your elementary school and everything that seemed so big to a fourth-grader (including the teachers!) now seems so small? Well, that could be exactly what's going on here too. And I'm sure my mother would tell an entirely different story about the Kemps and their house. But in my mind, mixed up as they are with all my other childhood memories, I'd say these images are a pretty fair representation of the scenes and feelings I remember. What I do know for certain though, without a doubt, is that it was this particular house that awakened my life-long interest in how people live in their homes. And while my formal education would come much later, an informal, self-prescribed, course of study in the decorative arts and design began right there. And continues to this day.

All images via Flickr

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