How First-Time Homeowners Renovated a 120-Year-Old Farmhouse
After a year and a half in her Upstate New York farmhouse, writer and florist Lisa Przystup has learned a thing or two about designing your first home.
Published May 9, 2019 4:39 PM
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Looking back, it was probably the syncopated beat blasting through our street-facing bedroom window until 4 am that finally pushed me and my husband, Jonathon, into the welcoming arms of upstate New York. Our home search started optimistically enough.
We focused on everywhere two hours north of the city, but while Jonathon was drawn to the pastoral hills of Bovina, I balked at the three-hour drive. Turns out tacking on an extra 60 minutes opens the door to possibilities.
The house we ended up buying—a farmhouse circa 1893—was the first we looked at that day, and the 18th overall. Though we definitely liked it, we didn’t have a “this is the one!” moment. But it had lots of potential, and we saw how we could make it ours.
The landing had a picture window; the attic pretty much begged to be turned into a master bedroom; and the staircase, with its tight curve of a railing thrown in just for fun, seemed to map the road ahead: keep moving forward and take the twists as they come. After a year and a half in our home, here are a few things I’ve learned so far…
Having spent seven years in a small railroad apartment surrounded by tchotchkes, we both knew we wanted to keep our place upstate fairly minimal—and the fact that we only had a handful of pieces when we moved in pretty much guaranteed that aesthetic. The trickiest part of decorating was the sheer possibility of it all—rather than spatial limitations dictating where things went, the house’s size made it tough to know where to even begin.
We found that the trick was to just start—put something in a room and work around it, and know that you can (and probably will) rearrange your home multiple times. You’ll also probably buy stuff you’ll never use.
Take, for instance, the pellet stove that almost ended our marriage—despite numerous discussions about where it should go, we never agreed and sold it instead. You’ll also have triumphs when you least expect it, like the $25 vintage wallpaper table we found on Craigslist that fits perfectly on a long, awkward dead space of wall between two windows. The longer you’re in a house, the more you’ll understand what it needs.
There are many wonderful things about owning a home—and one particular marvel for a couple of Brooklynites is having a place for our (my) surplus of bits and pieces gathered from nature. A motley crew of miscellaneous paraphernalia—shells, feathers, horns, rocks, nests—ended up filling in the corners of the house.
A tumbleweed that rode in my lap across several state lines now lives on a bedside table; stones filched from the North Fork sit on a narrow ledge in the bathroom (and anywhere else I can find reason to put them); carefully transported sea fans from a 35th birthday in Tulum, Mexico, are tacked to walls; and a dried palm leaf from Naples, Florida, that miraculously made it through airport security rests in an attic nook.
These little gems bring the outside in, adding an organic touch and legitimizing my collecting habit to my husband (free decor!). They’re often just the right answer to a small empty space—and catching sight of these memories is a really pretty way of remembering.
I have fostered the dream of white floors ever since I saw a photo in Domino of a floor candy-coated in marine-grade paint. Before realizing my fantasy, Jonathon and I had the Sisyphean task of picking the right shade. Which white would work best with this other white, and do we want a warm white or a cool white—and how white is too white?
One hundred dollars in paint samples, five arguments, and many bottles of wine later, we decided on Sherwin-Williams Extra White in high-gloss epoxy acrylic. The contrasting trim needed to be just a shade different, and I think we landed on the color that we did because we were tired of comparing paint samples and it felt good enough. We left the charcoal gray trim in the dining room because we needed to take a break from painting and that also felt good enough.
As it turns out, the clean canvas that our white floors and walls offered prevented things from looking too cluttered or junky—they made almost anything we put in the rooms appear singular and purposeful and striking. Objects and furniture had room to breathe and shine—even thrift store finds suddenly stood out like magic.
The neutral backdrop that our paint choice provided meant that the earthy palette we gravitate toward—in part a subconscious nod to our penchant for the dusty colors of the desert—gave the space a sparse simplicity that somehow still feels warm. The hazy pinks, mustard yellows, and hits of sage in a stoneware mug or vintage rug are not far from Tuscon’s Saguaro National Park landscape at dusk, aka my happy place.
Likewise, looking to the five acres that surround us, I often forage for daffodils, wild lilies, roses, lilacs, and flowering branches (we have apple and crabapple and pear trees)—a florist’s dream and another way to add color. Lately I’ve been drawn to all things woven—from straw baskets scored on numerous trips across the Southwest to wall hangings (hello, hula skirt)—and scattering wood, brass, and ceramic pieces throughout brings in more textural layers.
By working in natural materials and hues inspired by the elements, we re-created parts of the locales we love—even if they’re thousands of miles away (and at least 40 degrees warmer). Because your home is your escape.
Shop the look:
Beeswax Candles, Fredericks and Mae, $15 Natural Linen Quilt, The Primary Essentials, $325 Mid-Century Dowel Mirror, West Elm, $499 Sinnerlig Pendant Lamp, Ikea, $60 Hanging White Oak Serving Board by 2nd Shift Design Co., Food52, $96 Natural Sea Sponge, Hudson Made, $18 Vetiver Tassel, Love Adored, $15 Temple Scarf, Block Shop, $120 Napkins, Gjusta Goods, $56 for set of 5 Cooking Spoon, Black Swan Handmade, $48 White and Green Two Spheres Vase by Robert Hessler, Still House, $450 Vase Eight by Natalie Weinberger, Still House, $253 Handmade Circular Incense Holder, Love Adored, $135
This story originally appeared in the spring 2018 issue with the headline “Nesting Instincts.”
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