so many wires, so much time

When last we left off, I started by trying to turn this oppressive black mass of electronics:

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Into something more orderly that would allow this pile to look a little less like an overstocked shelf of castoffs from Housing Works, the place where old stereos and pre-flat screen TVs go to die.

My first step, a total failure, was an attempt to move the cable modem to a spot enclosed under the window sill. This would have removed the modem and one heavy cable, a phone line and a plug from behind the console. Several hours later, after discovering some sort of wall-within-a-wall in the corner where I wanted to hide the modem, it became obvious there was no moving the cable, as discussed in an earlier post. (Keep scrolling down to read about my previous effort.

The next week, after buying and returning one kit to mount the TV on the wall, I set out with my partner in crime to elevate the TV, rid ourselves of the black plastic stand it lived on and create a little free space atop my blue lacquer console. The very nice lady here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ly4yIW1gfts
said in the four-minute demonstration video that the job would be done in less than 30 minutes. HA!  It took us (me with my big, strong male helper James aka Jim, aka Doc) something in excess of six hours, but we were happy with the result. You can see the results here:

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But see that big heap of stereo receiver, DVD player, cable box and modem still piled up? That, my friends, is what this week’s adventure was all about. It all started here,  with a tidy little post about hiding your cable box in a console on my favorite blog, www.younghouselove.com:

http://www.younghouselove.com/2013/03/hiding-the-cable-box-sealing-the-deal/

yhl hide cable

You can use one of these babies:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B002JSDHCY/ref=oh_details_o03_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

to do the deed. So long as the cable is compatible with your cable box (which I didn’t realize it had to be until my gal pal CHLOE pointed it out, but I got lucky and ordered the right one on my first try) you can just plug that puppy into your cable box, hide the cable box anywhere you like, run the VERY THIN cord from the box to somewhere near your TV and voila! Point the remote at a little half dome smaller than a walnut and you control the TV from something WAY less obtrusive that that big ugly box. So I ordered the eye ($16 plus shipping) and we were off.  Or so I thought.

From my fine friends at www.younghouselove.com I figured I was looking at something like this, using a 1 1/8 inch paddle bit on my drill:

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An engineering friend suggested taping off the area with duct table to prevent the lacquer finish from splintering around the holes, and also going slowly to let the drill warm and soften the lacquer before actually cutting. All fine well and good. Soon we had this:

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And the cable box and the modem were in the drawer, and the remote controls worked with the eye and then … WHA, Wha, wah …. The drawer wouldn’t shut. It would ALMOST shut, but not completely. So we took it off the rails and took it out and discovered a bunch of saw dust had accumulated in the bottom of the console inside the back of it and behind the back of the drawer. GREAT! We thought when we saw it. Remove drawer, vacuum up sawdust, reassemble drawer, re-run cords, and … WHa, Wha, wah!!!! The DRAWER, still wouldn’t CLOSE. Harumph! We removed the boxes and the wires. We removed the drawer AGAIN. It seems like it wasn’t quite square in the back and indeed, we discovered this crack that kept the back of the drawer from sitting completely at a square angle:

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Now to be fair, this drawer had always given me a bit of trouble. I remembered when I assembled it from CB2 that it was just a hair wonky, and that when I pushed it closed I always had to push from the right side, rather than the middle or the left to make it click into place, but by this time we were nowhere near that. The drawer would stop a good quarter inch before it was flush with the front of the console and even then it wouldn’t stay. It would drift open in an EXCEDINGLY irritating way. We tried loading the drawer with books that use to be stored there, thinking the weight might help. No dice. We tried to plane the drawer down. No dice. We tried removing everything from the drawer. It closed. WTF?!?!?!.

Finally, my partner in crime James figured maybe the seven wires and cords and cables weren’t flowing smoothly in and out of the back of the drawer and the back of the console, but rather were getting kinked up as we closed the drawer and sticking between the back of the drawer and the back of the console and preventing the drawer from fully closing.

Enter my super, Ozzie. We traded six homemade chocolate chip cookies for 15 minutes with Ozzie’s jig saw. I own a lot of tools, but there isn’t room for everything. I’m guessing Ozzie wouldn’t lend tools to just anyone, but he knows I’m pretty handy in with the DIY department, plus I had a big guy here helping me, which always seems to make other big guys more comfortable lending their tools.

So our neat holes for wires and ventilation when from this:

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To this:

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And it worked. Mostly. The drawer once again closes if you tap it shut from the right. The cable box and modem are hidden, and the electronic eye receives the signal from the remote perfectly. Of course I was so darned wound up after this 6 or 7 hour debacle (that involved getting beer at about hour 4, or I would really have lost it) that I couldn’t possibly sleep. I put the living room back together. I vacuumed. I dusted. I reran transparent speaker wire to replace black wire. I even grabbed a white conduit for the speaker wire to run it from the shelves down the corner unobtrusively.

So here’s the before and after:

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And then I went to bed. Still couldn’t sleep, so I got up and re-arranged some knick-knacks. But that’s a tale for another post.

wires from hell, continued …

Stay tuned later this week for another leg of my journey to rid myself of ugly electronics. We’ve now progressed from this to this:

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Honestly, it’s taken three Sundays and a total of about 20 hours so far. Not kidding. Details of the many, MANY pitfalls to come. Just as soon as I recover from the trauma!

forget cake. let’s eat steak!

Forget cake. Let’s eat steak!

If I had to pick one last meal, I would have my dad cook me a steak.  His treatment is simple and, for him, fool proof. When I was a kid I remember him making it in the oven under the broiler and only venturing to the charcoal grill during nice weather. Nowadays he’s got a big gas grill out back that I think he uses year-round.

Being a Manhattanite, I’m limited to the oven. And until I read an article in the New York Times some years ago and discovered Mark Bittman (How to Cook Everything), I had been unable to duplicate Daddy’s perfectly charred-on-the-outside, pink (or bleeding!) on the inside results. (Keep in mind, my dad would probably throw a person out of his house if they asked for a well-done steak. He spent part of his childhood in France and used to eat something they call “Bleu” for blue. As I understand it, this is a hunk of meat just barely warmed on the outside, so rare you can still see any blue stamp of quality approval certifying the meat passed inspection.)

Anyway, I digress. As I recall, my attempts at cooking steak in my 20s fell flat in comparison to Daddy’s. I now realize I never got the timing right, and probably steamed or baked the meat rather than broiling it. My pan wasn’t hot enough and the surface of the meat never dry enough.  Plus there’s the whole matter of choosing the right cut. For pan-seared steak, I personally like a bone-in ribeye because the bone helps retain flavor and moisture and the extra fat imparts flavor as well, but this recipe would work just as well for a T-bone, porterhouse, filet or New York strip. Flank steaks and some other cuts are better off being marinaded to tenderize them.

On to the recipe. (Note, for a little extra guidance, google “New York Times steak cast iron recipe.” You’ll find a few options that may clarify the thinking here. In my experience, trying about three times taught me how to work perfectly with my own oven.)

Lightly oil a cast-iron skillet. Put it on your top oven rack and crank the temp up to broil.

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As the pan heats, unwrap the steaks and THOROUGHLY pat them dry on both sides using a paper towel. Make sure to sop up any liquid that accumulates on the surface you’re working on. I like to use a plate rather than a countertop or chopping board so that I can just pop the plate in the dishwasher and not worry about any contamination on my board or counter. When I was younger, I used to rinse all meat under running water before I cooked it, but then a pro told me that was pointless since any bacteria on the surface of the meat would be killed in cooking and anything inside won’t be helped by water on the outside. Really, splashing all that water around just creates the possibility of spreading bacteria around your sink.

The important part about patting the meat dry is to get rid of any surface moisture that would prevent the exterior from essentially carmelizing, meaning getting a nice char on beef or pork, or crispy skin on chicken.

Next, I stab the steak all over with a fork to tenderize it. (Honestly, I don’t even know if Daddy still does this, or if it works, but he used to do it and I always have. Now that I think about it, I wonder if creating the holes might actually release juices during cooking, which would be bad. Must investigate!)

Apply small smears of butter to both sides, as well as AMPLE salt and pepper. Under-seasoning is big mistake here. And here’s a thought I just had. Traditionally I have splashed the meat with liquid smoke, but I just realized as I typed – BAM! – that this adds moisture and may impede charring. Must eliminate and see what happens. In any case, I do recommend a sprinkle of lemon pepper for added flavor. Again, full coverage of all seasonings on BOTH SIDES of the steak. (Okay, maaaaybe I went a little overboard with the butter here.)

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Now, the pan that has been heating in the oven should be smokin’ hot. Don’t add the steak before the oven reaches broil!

Then quickly open the door, slide the pan out and lay the steak in the pan, being careful not to splash yourself with the oil. Quickly slide the pan back in and close the door.

Here’s the tricky part. This really depends on your oven and the thickness of the steak. Bittman calls for three to four minutes per side. In my experience, the steak needs to be a little more than an inch thick for this to work. SET A TIMER! Don’ t estimate!

A novice won’t usually be able to detect perfect doneness without cutting into the steak, but please make only a tiny cut with the tip of a knife to keep too many juices from seeping out. Otherwise let the meat rest for five minutes before cutting to seal in the juices and maintain moisture. Et Voila:

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let the chaos ensue

Ladies and Gents, the battlefield:

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And the war zone:

 

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Media cords are the bane of my existence and a total nightmare for a technophobe such as myself. (Yes, I have an iPhone, but only because my carrier finally texted me to say if I didn’t give up my old cell it would stop working.) The idea of wireless speakers is terrifying. I haven’t even put my CDs on iTunes. (That’s definitely on the to-do list.)

This seemingly lovely corner actually looks like this every time I turn from the living room down the seven-foot hallway to the bath or bedroom:

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So I have a battle plan. Put the TV on the wall. Move the cable box into a drawer in the blue lacquer console (by drilling a hole in the back for the cords to enter in phase 2.5). Buy some cordless speakers so I can ditch the tuner and stream NPR from my laptop, which is the only radio station I ever listen to. So here we go.

Step One was actually a week ago. I THOUGHT I would move the cable modem from the top of the console to the built-in cabinet under the window sill. A couple of hours later I realized some unholy alliance had been conceived between my cable company and the contractor who enclosed the area under my windowsill. Basically, when I tried to pull the cable cord from the wall behind the lacquer console to the area underneath the windows I found it to be impossible. Somewhere deep in the bowels of the walls there’s a second wall. And multiple metal studs. And I think maybe the cord is wrapped one of those studs. In any case, the cable is utterly intractable. So that was Week One. On to Week Two: hanging the TV on the wall. Here are my weapons:

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I started by cutting out a cardboard template the size of the TV and marking holes in the spots where the TV would connect to the bracket on the wall.

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Next stop was putting the template on the wall, marking the corners with painter’s tape and (scary!) drilling the GIANT round holes in the wall. Extra fear was added by the fact that wallpaper covers my wall, not paint that could be easily patched and taped up in the event of a – gulp – mistake.

But I plunged ahead. Template. Check. Tape, check. Measurement. Check. Top hole (where the TV cables feed into the wall). Check.

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Bottom hole (where the TV cables emerge from the wall) OOPS! Yes, folks, major issue. See this:

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See that little metal edge at the top of the hole? That, my friends, is the inexplicably placed HORIZONTAL metal stud. It’s inconvenient location at the top edge of the four-inch hole meant that the giant contraption that needed to sit IN the four-inch hole couldn’t be seated flush with the drywall. Did I mention, “gulp?”  So the choice was this: cheat the hole by redrilling just a half inch or so down, meaning the circle hole would become an oval; or redrilling the hole entirely six inches or so south. I opted for the former. Luckily, the plastic flange that fitted around the hole covered the extra space created by the circular hole-turned-oval hole.
And then … voila! Before:

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After:

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So, a little blue console space cleared of heavy black electronics. Next week, drill into the back of the console to stash the cable box and modem. (The trick will be buying and installing an half egg-shaped electronic “eye” that will sit on the console and transmit remote-control signals from the remote to the cable box. More news to come when the full wire-free landscape is in place.

Thanks for reading!

lovin’ me some biscuits

or will they be hockey pucks???

Here’s the thing about me and biscuits: Like any good Southerner — yes, this thoroughly indoctrinated Manhattanite is a Southerner by birth —  Like any good Southerner, I love me some biscuits. But I also hate them. I hate them because I’ve never mastered the art of making them. So what better place to embark on my quest for biscuit perfection that to throw down in front of y’all and see if I can’t overcome this most embarrassing handicap.  (I know, I know, keep the ingredients cold and don’t overwork the dough. But mine STILL turn out like hockey pucks! Every. Last. Time.)

Daddy makes terrific buttermilk biscuits and my friend Michael – my cake baking advisor from last week’s post – has revived my envy of the skill. Year after year, weekend after weekend at a little piece of paradise in Upstate New York, Michael makes biscuits that leave me in awe. Although he has encouraged me many times, I don’t dare touch the dough lest my hockey-puck curse take hold in his kitchen.  So Michael mixes and rolls and bakes and I watch and gobble up a little more than my share of the biscuit bounty.

Now it’s time for me to try. Again. So this past weekend, my sweetie amassed this collection:

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And proceeded to try and teach me. A WORD ABOUT THIS RECIPE: IT’S GOOD, BUT IMPERFECT. I have a call in to Michael for some extra tips and thought I’d peruse some other recipes this week to try a variation or two this weekend. So there’s more biscuit intel to come.

Here’s an excellent first start:

Preheat oven to 450 degrees

Use these ratios:

2 cups flour to 1 cup buttermilk
6 tbsp butter to 1 tbsp baking soda
1 tsp salt to ½ tsp baking powder

Sift the flour and combine the other dry ingredients into a large bowl. Stir with a fork. Cut the very cold butter into chunks about the size of a square centimeter, being careful to keep it cold. Pop it back into the refrigerator if necessary. Better yet (I just thought of this) maybe cut it into cubes the night before and put it back in the fridge. Add the butter to the flour mixture and lightly combine with a fork so it looks like this:

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Use the fork to mash the butter thoroughly into the flour until the pieces look like the size of small canned peas (not to be confused with big, plump FRESH peas.) Using the fork keeps the mixture cooler than mixing it with warm hands would allow. When finished, it should look like this:

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Next, add the buttermilk in a stream while stirring until just combined into a dough that’s slightly on the wet side. Add a little more buttermilk if needed. It should look this way:

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Flour the counter or a cutting board and turn the dough out onto this surface. Turn the dough over just once, until it’s covered lightly with flour. Now this is the part everyone emphasizes: DON’T OVERWORK THE DARN DOUGH!!!  If you do, you’ll get HOCKEY PUCKS!

So my sweetie’s trick is to do only this: press the dough into a disk about 6 inches around:

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Then trifold it, folding 1/3 of the disk into the center, then the other 1/3 over that. Turn it over, press out into a disk about 6 inches again and repeat the 1/3 fold-over five times and STOP! Press the dough out until it’s about ¾ inch thick and use the rim of a glass or an empty can with the lid cut off to cut out the biscuit rounds. It helps to dip the rim of the glass in water, periodically wiping the rim of clumping dough.

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Butter a cookie sheet, keeping in mind that a true cookie sheet is flat at the edges, allowing air to circulate better around the base of whatever you are cooking. This is not to be confused with a sheet pan that has ridges all the way around, but a sheet pan will do in a pinch. Arrange the biscuits on the pan. We experimented here, positioning some together and some apart from one another and found those with distance between them rose more. Here are the final results:

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Definitely not hockey pucks. And better yet:

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So here’s the thing. I never actually TOUCHED this dough. This was a lesson, and an overall success. I’m curious to hear and read what others think about using Crisco rather than butter. There was also something just a little tiny bit dry about these to me, maybe just a tad too much baking soda. Thoughts? So this week I’m reading up, gathering advice from my Daddy, my pal Mikey and my friend Dolores. Then it’s time to take what I learn and get my hands dirty again, or doughy, as the case may be.

Stay tuned!

let him eat cake

My neighbor Doug expressed a titch of shock when I made the following confession: I’ve never made a cake from scratch before. Well, before last weekend, that is. Let me explain. I do cook. I’m told I even do it pretty well. But generally when I’m looking for a kitchen challenge my thoughts wander to savory sauces and hunks of meat. Maybe a creamy gratin. I like dessert, mind you. I’d just rather grab a cupcake from Magnolia Café than wait two hours to eat one I made myself. And they’re cheap. A cupcake costs about $2.50, but the rib-eye I plan to order this week at Quality Meats is $48. MUCH cheaper to make it myself.

But I digress. The topic is cake. Specifically this cake:

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I’ve been staring at this baby on the back of my Barefoot Contessa Cookbook for YEARS. So when a special guy said the only thing he wanted for his birthday was homemade cake, I knew exactly where I was headed. What I didn’t know was that it would take SEVEN HOURS to produce. That’s right. Started at noon. Wrapped up at 7 p.m. Now, to be fair, I did busy myself with chores while the cake baked and maybe blew off another half hour somewhere, but basically, undertaking a new recipe from the unfamiliar land of baking just took me a REALLY LONG TIME.

First I sifted dry ingredients (flour, cocoa, salt and baking soda.) Then came creaming the butter with the eggs. Whoops. Butter not warm enough to cream. The recipe calls for room-temperature butter, eggs, buttermilk and sour cream. I set the eggs out the night before, but didn’t have enough butter in the house, so I had to run to the store in the morning. Stores, you may have noticed, keep their butter cold. I waited about an hour after getting it home, but it needed longer. I wasn’t worried since no chemical reactions were at issue in the creaming process, so I figured it was fine to let the bowl of lumpy butter and sugar sit. It looked like this:

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So I waited. I gathered frosting ingredients. I changed my vacuum bag. I called my baking-crazed friend Michael for reassurance. “Beat the heck out of it,” he advised. Done:

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Then it was on to combining the wet and dry ingredients. Here the Contessa is very specific. Combine the ingredients only 1/3 at a time, starting with the liquid ingredients and ending with the dry. This proved a little awkward for some reason. More time passed. It was at about this point that I realized why people buy stand mixers. I was using a little hand-held Sunbeam from about 1993. I don’t even remember why I bought it.

Anyway, the batter went in the pans and the pans went in the oven. (BTW, when I went to my cabinets I discovered I had two nine-inch cake pans but only one eight-inch pan. Doug across the hall loaned me his. I love my building!)

While Michael had urged me to let the cake cool, then wrap them in plastic and refrigerate for as long as possible (one to eight hours) to ensure smooth icing, my guy was pretty anxious for his cake by this time.

Icing was quite interesting. We started by making a meringue that I’m not convinced ever set up as it should. Then I added melted chocolate, a mix of bittersweet and semisweet. Lots and lots of icing resulted. Like this:

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Which required this much butter:

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But it ended up like this:

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And this:

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Personally I like a high icing-to-cake ratio, but I noticed my birthday boy left spoonfuls of icing on his plate after every serving. Something to keep in mind. The cake was very dense and the icing very light, despite all that butter. A great recipe over all. Never a doubt when you’re following the Contessa.

I’m not sure of the legalities of posting other people’s recipes, so I’ll just reiterate that this cake is from the “Barefoot Contessa Cookbook,” which I think was Ina Garten’s first. See page 195. Conclusion? The Contessa got her toes all in that cake and it was DELICIOUS!

Thanks for reading!

a little thing i like to call a manifesto …

Who doesn’t take stock around the start of the year? I don’t often make resolutions, but I do have traditions that usher out the old year and ring in the new. (Times Square? No way. New Year’s Eve is AMATUER night in New York!)

Often I start the new year with an extra day off and do a sort of New Year’s cleaning. This year I had a cold, so instead of cleaning the apartment, laid on the couch brain storming about this little blog. (Brain storming? Who am I kidding? Try OBSESSING.)

Starting the blog got me thinking about point of view. A good blog has one, right? And I love the idea of a manifesto, sort of like the one that potter-turned-retail icon Jonathan Adler posts here http://www.jonathanadler.com/manifesto.php.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

Small touches count: Get the pretty dish towels.

distowels

Friends are family too.

Use the right tool for the job.

Decorate for your soul.

Be kind to animals. You may come back as one.

Try not to yuck someone else’s yum.

Color = happy. Surround yourself with happy.

Buy flowers.

Save for retirement. It’s empowering.

Take vacations.

Take staycations.

Organic is best, but McDonald’s fries are good too.

Sometimes expensive stuff is worth it.

New York City rules.

Does this inspire any thoughts about a manifesto of your own? Leave a comment and lemme know!

almost spring house tour 2014

Welcome to the 550-Square-Foot Castle

Happy spring cleaning! Ok, so it was 19 degrees this morning in Manhattan. It’s not even remotely spring. But hey, what better excuse to clean like a madwoman than a three-day weekend and the opportunity to introduce ya’ll to my abode?  So without further ado:
THE LIVING ROOM

HOUSE1

Welcome to version 7.0, roughly speaking. See that green wall? That color changes every time my life does. So far it’s been peach (the truly hideous color it was when I moved in, circa 1998); muted green (a long- forgotten Martha Stewart color that always had more gray in it than I would have liked); honey dew green (loved it, but it had to go after a painful breakup necessitated disassociating the living room from memories of the ex); Pepto-Bismal pink (a girlie reaction to the breakup that only lasted one weekend); ice blue; deep red, then deeper red (new boyfriend’s choice. It went with a more rustic look that accommodated some of his belongings); and now spring green (harkening to the afore-mentioned honey dew. It was always my fave and now enough time has passed that I no longer associate it with the ex.)

The couch is from Room & Board in “Cloud” velvet. Etager and cocktail table from Crate & Barrel. The yellow chair was my first adult furniture purchase: $13, plus about $300 to recover it whenever the whim strikes. Footstool from Home Goods. Built-ins under the window to conceal the AC, radiator and litter box designed by moi and Euro Tom 3000. Concrete window ledge, Art in Construction. (Both the built-ins and window ledge were big bonus-season splurges in 2012.)

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Pivoting left, you’ll find last year’s bonus splurge: tree branch shelf brackets from West Elm; custom-cut Carrera marble shelves; “Eleanor” wallpaper in Moonbeam on Cream from Walnut Wallpapers; and a laquer console from CB2 that added a ton of much-needed concealed storage. Soon I’m planning to wall-mount the TV and hide the cable box in the console using one of those small electronic eyes to send the signal from the remote control to the box. Stay tuned for a major media makeover!

THE DINING AREA

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One of the best things about this apartment is the separate dining area. The 42-inch oak pedestal table expands to hold two leaves and comfortably seats six, but can squeeze eight. It’s also a great place to work on the laptop, wrap presents or work on other projects. But this little nook has been a real challenge to decorate. It’s oddly shaped and always felt cold in contrast to the bright wall in the living room. I toyed with the idea of wallpaper here, but ultimately chose to put that behind the TV. The wooden cabinet added some nice texture and the Jonathan Adler light was a great addition. I like the $100 painting there for height (I picked it up in Hudson, NY several years ago.) The plates on the right wall were part of my great grandmother’s china service. They’re Lemoge from I’d guess about 1920 or so. I love the idea of dining plates from my ancestors adorning my dining area today.

The chairs in this space are Stickley “re-issues” as opposed to reproductions. They come from the company’s original plans and are made using the same craftsmanship of the originals. The seat covers are newish, and I’ll tell y’all all about how I made them in a future post.

THE KITCHEN

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This is the highlight of my little home, a big investment made to renovate back in 2002. The space used to be fully enclosed, but an architect in the building who lived in an apartment identical to mine inspired me to take down the walls. He designed the hanging cabinet too, but his version would have cost a whopping $15K to build! I came up with this design working with my contractor for about $2,500. It features Ikea cabinets and lights. The metal components lashing them together and hanging them were custom made in the restaurant supply district down by the Bowery. The cabinets are red oak and I mixed the stain and finished them myself because I couldn’t find a pre-mixed color I liked. The countertops are concrete, again by Art in Construction, the company that made my window sill in the living room.

THE BEDROOM

HOUSE6

This room is still very much a work in progress. I grew up with a beautiful antique bed my grandmother bought me when I was 6 years old. I loved it. Alas, it was a full-size, rather than queen and really doesn’t fit two people very comfortably, so it’s on long-term loan to my God daughter, Chloe, in Pennsylvania. I spent real dough on a good queen-sized mattress, but haven’t found a bed that’s as special as the one I grew up with. I’m thinking of an upholstered headboard with something of a curve to it, but that may not be permanent. I’m also about to replace the tattered lampshades that came with these vintage lamps with some that are a little more fun, maybe something from the lighting collection of my favorite bloggers over at www.younghouselove.com. The window sill feels very bare, but I do love the art in this room. The grand painted screen above the bed was a gift from my father when he lived in Taiwan about 15 years ago. (Thanks, Daddy!)

Some other shots:

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So that’s my little home introduction. Check back here for evolving projects, inspiration and I’m sure a few decorating mistakes.

Thanks for reading!