Perhaps nothing is more revealing than the home we keep. What we choose and display can be very telling. But what happens when everyone has exactly the same stuff? (Photo: gematrium/flickr)

I first engaged in full-blown, avid snooping at the age of 12, when my Aunt Bernice and Uncle Charlie asked me to babysit for a few hours while they went to the movies. As soon as my younger cousins fell asleep, I made a beeline for the medicine chest, where I took stock of my aunt’s many creams, sprays, and powders. Next, I checked out the family’s pantry, impressed to find four ears of corn rather than a can of kernels. I scanned the titles of the books on their shelves, studied the framed photographs on the wall, picked up and put down every porcelain dish in the china cabinet, and – I mention this in the spirit of total disclosure, though it still makes me blush – rifled through all the drawers of the bureau in their bedroom.

As much as I worried that I might get caught carrying out these investigative raids – what if the movie had been sold out and they returned home earlier than I had expected? ‒ I couldn’t stop. My desire to infiltrate their lives, to define this family, to understand what made them tick, was insatiable.

Rummaging through my aunt and uncle’s house provided me with a snapshot of their lives and revealed what might otherwise have been indecipherable.

Even now, decades later, I am fascinated by the stuff in other people’s homes. Repositories of memories, experiences, idiosyncrasies and emotions, the things we choose to live with, reflected by what we collect, arrange, care for and love, are a clear reflection of who we are. The very best houses are the ones that speak about their inhabitants even when – especially when ‒ they are not at home. Rummaging through my aunt and uncle’s house provided me with a snapshot of their lives and revealed what might otherwise have been indecipherable.

Lately, though, making a house has become a self-conscious, deliberate act rather than one that evolves organically and over time. Personal style has become a commodity. With a click of the mouse or a visit to a popular furniture store, everything from the sofa we sit on to the art we hang on the walls has been codified.

Glossy magazines, perfectly styled catalogs, hip design blogs, reality TV, all serve as constant reminders of how perfect our house – and we – could be. They invite us to invent new personas, seduce us to try on other peoples’ lives; lives that often have very little to do with who we are and how we live.

While others can draw, invest wisely, plead a case or diagnose a rare illness, I can shop. And until recently, my love of shopping, acquired at an early age – around the same time that I started snooping ‒ remained unabated.

It didn’t matter that they didn’t match perfectly. Aunt Bernice was proud of how well they went together. (Cheryl Katz)

But now, when I go shopping, the thrill is gone. Everything looks the same. On a number of recent excursions, I’ve seen no fewer than a dozen wire locker baskets, four “antique” steamer trunks, stacks upon stacks of French table linens replete with a single red stripe, and more deer antlers than I care to remember. Not that there is anything wrong with any of these items. It’s just that that which was once a unique, hard-won object, imbued with meaning and memory, discovered at a flea market or carried home from a trip to Provence, is now a commodity, mass produced to satisfy what we – and the manufacturers ‒ think we want. And so wire baskets end up in the houses of people who have never set foot in a public swimming pool, antique steamer trunks serve as coffee tables for those whose grandmothers have never been on an airplane, French table linens appear in kitchens where no one cooks, and antlers hang on the smooth white walls of high-rise apartments.

When my aunt and uncle returned home from the movies that night, I was watching television in the living room. Aunt Bernice invited me to join her for a cup of tea and some Lorna Doones. From a cabinet over the fridge ‒ one of the few I hadn’t searched – my aunt took two cups, two saucers and two dessert plates. Each had a different pattern, and as we dunked our cookies into the tea, she told me of their origins. The cherished pieces – there were now a half dozen of each – had been collected over time on trips she had taken with Uncle Charlie (usually within a 50-mile radius of their home). It didn’t matter that they didn’t match perfectly. She was proud of how well they went together.

If she were to go on a hunt today, I’m pretty confident that my aunt wouldn’t find her treasures at West Elm, or Target, or Pottery Barn. And, even if she did, I bet she wouldn’t buy them. Because, like two of her favorite recording artists, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Aunt Bernice believed “there ain’t nothing like the real thing.”

LISTEN to Cheryl discuss this piece on Radio Boston:

Tags: Design, Style

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  • Debbie Hemley

    There’s nothing like grandma’s old desk, aunt and uncle’s genuine-antique center pedestal dining-room table or even some of the old pieces picked up at a yard sale twenty-odd years ago. Pieces with history, stories and unique qualities.

    I recently walked through some of those stores you mentioned and was extremely under-impressed, along with this article, they did give me an appreciation of what I’ve always considered my hodge-podge of furniture.

    Cheryl, Thank you for this wonderful article and glimpse into your Aunt and Uncle’s home! And, as an avid Friends fan, I loved the video clip.

  • Janet Banks

    This terrific essay made me think of the folks who never read, but buy books in bulk so they can fill their shelves with leather-bound editions. I still have my collection of unmatched cups and saucers, five dollars apiece, from trips my family took when I was a child. Living in a smallish condo forces decisions about what one keeps or buys – there is not attic or basement. My motto is, “When something comes in, something else has to go out.” Your design customers are very lucky to have you to work with, Cheryl. I can imagine you listening to who they are and how they want to live – then helping them shape their environment to fit both.

  • Jim Sloman

    Cheryl Katz forces the reader to confront an essential and vital question, what is real.
    Not being one who collects objects or likes to shop, what I was drawn to was the conversation over tea and lorna donnes, the sharing of travel and collection- a revelation of self. Yes people can create images through objects and fashion but is that a window into essence or is it a visual for the moment. American society has become polluted by slickness where ever we turn, politicians say what they think we want to hear, retailers and media rarely are original and we wallow in stuff. Image if the truth was told, could we handle it?

  • QR

    I sometimes think I am like a child greedy with their toys, but my most treasured possessions are made all the more special to me by knowing that no one else has them. The “rare” finds I’ve collected along the way are far superior to those that I can facsimiles of. This was brought home to me on a recent trip to Brimfield Antiques Fair. After thinking I had found something special, I rounded the corner to the next booth only to find the same half-rusted-here, dented-there treasure in triplicate. I felt no small bit of defeat. What I had purchased as a relic, was in fact a manufactured fake, with all authenticity leeched out.

  • David Ekizian

    Cheryl, I could not agree with you more in regards to shopping these days- dare I say that even a trip to our favorite haunts in NYC produce little excitement for the undiscovered find. Perhaps we need to re-boot our process, and see what is left on the LAST day of Brimfield- after the stylists deployed from Hilfiger, Lauren, Martha and the like- have scarfed up all the “good stuff” within the first opening minutes. Perhaps it is the chum left behind that we need to embrace as the new must haves? I don’t know. Just thinking. Plus, we would get a better deal on it, no?

    • cheryl katz

      I should know to count on you for a novel, fresh approach. Love it!

  • Alexander Bardonner

    Ah yes, how very true. I too am a passionate shopper and bemoan the over-abundance of mass-produced “found” objects that have no history behind them. I love the stories behind objects that become a part of each person’s decor, stories that give true meaning to the word home. Our lives have become slickly packaged and the lack of history distressing to say the least! Even a jaunt through the Marche aux Puces can reveal items “found and collected” but mass produced in China…

  • kevmoose

    I love this article- It reminds me of the “heirloom silver coffee trunk” from restoration hardware. First, it is beautiful, it really is- but it is not an heirloom. It is an “authentic reproduction”- their words not mine- so It’s a copy of an old trunk, whose purpose WAS to store silverware- But now, because it is a coffee table, RH has “repurposed” the interior- they don’t say how but like the friends clip cheryl shared- it probably holds DVD’s and remote controls.
    The new object is not an heirloom or a precisely copied reproduction whose original function is retained, it is not a trunk exactly, it is not a coffee table exactly-
    Finally, the idea of using a trunk as a coffee table implies an AD HOC make-do approach to decoration – This heirloom silver coffee trunk is not at all that-
    what it really is baffles me.

  • Kathleen

    Cheryl, before I even began reading your essay, I was nodding my head about “snooping” and my mind harkened back to my babysitting days when I would comb threw each room when the baby was asleep. I breathed in each photo, silver collection, vintage pillows, and, yes, what they kept in their pantry. Not an obsession, but more of an interest of heart, wanting to know this family. Then I began to read your essay…I was stunned by how absolutely similar we were.
    I collected tea cups for a long time, unmatched, but beautiful in their individuality. I was in my early twenties. I am now 50 and share “tea time” with my son, he has picked out his favorite tea cup and saucer and I do the same. We have cookies, Lorna Doones is a good option I’ll have to seize upon. But the tea cups will be passed onto him and I hope he can do the same when he has his own family. That is called “heirloom” and those memories cannot be purchased over the internet or at Target or Pottery Barn.
    Thanks for your article, truly,
    Kathleen Chaudoin

  • Sandell

    How well you remind us that what matters is the human connection, not the thing itself.

  • Terry Hall

    Terry Alan Hall
    It’s sad but everything in Cheryl’s piece is true. Malls and chain stores have taken much of the pleasure out of shopping. It might be easier but who cares if there is no fun in it. A big part of the thrill is the hunt. Even antique malls and stores are a shadow of what once was as so much of the product in now on line. I guess ” The times they are a changing” I know I sound like an old fart but it was more fun!

  • DF

    A thought provoking article. It makes me think of my recent trip to see my grandfather-in-law. He spent many years of his life making handsome furniture and small sculptures out of wood. A fine craftsman. Actually many of his furniture pieces from the sixties have such clean and simple lines I still drool a little to see them. So upon returning home last week I carefully unpacked some of his smaller works from my suitcase. Not only are they beautiful, unique, and fit with the style of our home, but every time I look at them I will think of Grandpa Ted. Especially the beautiful bowl made of Koa, his favorite wood from Hawaii. I have a very limited budget, but instead of buying ten mass produced items maybe turning to a local artisan to find those unique treasures is the way to go.

  • Judy BF

    Snooping is in my blood and reflected in my name. I love the way Cheryl Katz has ushered us past the front door of a home to dwell in its soul and listen to its heart.

  • AK

    Reading this piece was particularly hard for me. Certain sections made me nod and smile (like Kathleen). Others made me reminisce about snooping while babysitting (the DVR is an interesting source). What made it “hard” to read the story was that I frequently found myself glancing around my new living room (I very recently moved in with my sister and a friend).
    Before reading this, I may not have noticed how high the “antique” Pottery Barn mirror was hung. That the white Ikea couch has an orange “Emily-shaped” stain on its cushions. Or that my unscuffed pumps usually callously stuffed into my “work bag” but never worn.
    The reasons for how these things came to be are more telling of the person than they themselves can explain. For instance, my friend is so naturally pretty that she doesn’t have to check her appearance before she leaves the house. The orange stain offsets memories of melanomas gone by. The pumps reinforce my insistence upon dressing like a grown up until I remember they make my feet kill.
    Before I ramble on, it is the truthful and thoughtful voice that narrates this story that compels me to respond. It is alarmingly easy to identify with. I loved it!

  • Library Lil

    A beautiful piece of writing that is so relevant to the society we live in today. Authenticity has taken a back seat to mass production. I use a spatula every day that belonged to my mother and is at least 60 years old. I feel her presence whenever I hold it in my hand. You can’t buy that at Target. Bravo to Cheryl Katz!

  • John Lawler

    What Cheryl writes is absolutely true…the internet allows for such instantaneous cross-pollination that everything gloms onto everything in no time at all. The exciting finds of something new and visually arresting are more rare, but it does make them all the more enjoyable.

    • John Lawler

      I meant everyone gloms onto everything.

  • Deb

    Very interesting and well written. This article had me thinking about our family’s most precious items in our home, and how so many of them are found objects.

  • TA

    Oh well…did we really need any of that stuff anyway? Corporate america has pretty killed retail…encouraging us all to do better things with our lives than shop. It’s probably for the best, Cheryl.

    • Saki

      I am not certain if you are being sarcastic or you are just a moron. Not that I don’t get sarcasm, I’m in contact with so many stupid people that sometimes it’s had to tell the difference.

  • Larry

    Moving from roomy suburban colonial to small city condo showed us that only about 5-10% of our possessions were “the real thing,” which now sit on a shelf purchased from the proceeds of selling the rest.

  • Bonnie

    Why is it that when a home goes on the market it must be cleansed of all personality? Realtors insist that it be “staged”. So that the walls be painted white, the artwork reduced to one piece per wall, and all signs of family be removed. They seem to want to achieve the Pottery Barn look. I loved this article . Thank you.

  • emilyschild

    Thanks for your article. Your reflections on your younger rummaging are important to our modern young people. I know that there is still an American value for original creations; but I cannot see it anywhere hereabouts. In my city, if we leave old things on the curb, they are gone in the morning. Those things are not scooped up by Americans. The people who come by are used to fixing things, but they are not born in the USA. Can nothing be saved by us now; by ideas and activities of refinishing, or repairing of well-made things?

    Because of your musings, I remember my own early discovery of literature. I think of a library of books that I found in a small, defined, well-lit room; a really good light from my left. It must have been during the day. I think I am twelve or thirteen, small, and stationary; curled up in a large comfortable chair, with no feminine smells to the upholstery. My uncle’s room. My parents were first generation Americans of uneducated western Euoropean immigrants. They came to New York City in the late 1890’s.

    I am 74, and a woman. My folks did not read books to we children, not because they could not read, but because they had not learned to read to children, scaresly to themselves. At the age of 14, I was reading alone. Vociferously; from the library of my maternal uncle, the oldest son. He was a Catholic priest, at his home in his nearby parish, the parish near to my home. In the working-class Western European immigrant tradition, the oldest male, my uncle, was educated in the tradition of the scribe. My uncle unwittingly contributed to my development as a thinker in ways that he could not have imagined. My experience of him is that he was a dear, silent, humorful man. He would have been willing to give me the full purview of his library. Indeed, he must have. I could not have read “How green was my valley” to completion, if he were not. He would have wished that his library had been larger. Please let young Americans read.

  • smc

    So true, Cheryl, it makes the world smaller when everyone can so easily attain these (pseudo) treasures. There’s such pleasure in the far fought meaningful ephemera in our personal lives, but seeing it in a staged catalogue set diffuses its soul.

  • KMH

    The perfect lifestyle, ready-made and easily available. Maybe this is why the figure of the collector–there are so few of them left!–seems at once old fashion and domesticated, but also provocative, even dangerously anachronistic in our own time. The opposition between commodification and collector is that between capitalist rationality and mystery, the marketplace and the interior, the preassembled set and that magical object always just out of reach. In a collection, it is not the perfect thing that is offered, but evidence that it might exist.

  • cstrandberg

    Reading Cheryl’s wonderful article made me dig in the cabinets and closets for the things that I actually cherish. (A watercolor by my great grandmother, a well-used 1928 silver mirror and brush set monogrammed with my grandmother’s initials, and the special wedding presents that tend to stay in their boxes.) It is a pleasure to see them again!