real things, light and dark

thrifted vintage brass Stiffel table lamp with black-and-gold patterned shade

Two of my favorite designer-stylists take dueling positions on light. I first saw British designer Abigail Ahern's evolving London home spotlit on Design*Sponge several years back and was awed by her depth of color and scale play, juxtaposing big and quirky pieces like gigantic, oversized floor lamps and convex mirrors with more traditional elements like huge bowls of fake flowers, or by painting an ornate round antique table a high-gloss teal. She coats her walls and ceilings with a smoky deep blue or charcoal and then adds a shot of hot pink or neon yellow or lime somewhere in one of the furniture pieces or on a decorative object like a giant letter propped on a layered shelf, the effect being highly dramatic and often surreal. Even her beloved dogs look like big shag rugs. Pictures of her rooms make me want to step inside and curl up right there in the photo with a book and a cup of tea, though I might not make it more than a page or two into my book because of staring around at everything, trying to piece it all together before yawning and falling asleep wherever I'm sitting, like a narcoleptic, because everything's just so very dark and intimate. It makes sense that a Brit from a land of gray drizzle would seek to create cozy spaces. But though her rooms are bold, mysterious, and inspiring, she seems completely uninterested in natural light, turning her back on the sun like the Victorians as if to say, "There isn't enough of you on this northern island, but who needs light, anyway?" Ahern's the perfect designer for vampires.

unmade bed with oversized philodendron at window

By contrast, Morgan Satterfield of Brick House fame is a full-blown neo-mid-century modernist. Her rooms explode with the warm light of the southern Californian desert. Living in Hemet, a small town between Palm Springs and Los Angeles, she has local access to some of the best, freshest modernist secondhand sources on the planet. She paints her walls white and fills her spaces with sleek vintage designer teak pieces, upcycled or repurposed DIY projects, bold-leaved green house plants (real ones), handmade pottery vases that might or might not contain succulents, and bohemian streaks of Turkish kilims in pillows or rugs, with bare dashes of bright color, mostly orange or yellow, punctuating all the gold, brown, and khaki neutrals. (Ahern claims she herself once tried going Scandinavian modern but grew "bored," white being nothing but dull to her.)

repurposed handmade ceramic pendant light

Both designers have a casual, chatty blogging tone, and their distinct verbal styles are easily apparent. Satterfield flings out words like "ain't", "yo," and "bam"—little punches of exclamation—and loves her fragments, while Ahern's daily early-morning posts stream together in run-ons, punctuation strewn about in guesswork. In their defense, these talented women's strengths are in visual, not written, language, but at least their voices, like their design points of view, are clear and invite dialogue.   

Both designers also sell stuff. It seems you can't make a living in the design world without putting your name on a few products. Ahern has her own eponymous London shop and also sells online and holds design workshops. Her mass-produced line of products for England's Debenhams department-store chain contains things like colorful letters made to look like those off real vintage signs, neon-colored fake-antique ornate mirrors, and animal-sculpture lamps with frilly bright shades on their heads, which would be quirky if a one-of-a-kind reuse project, but an army of behatted rabbits and penguins and ersatz marquee letters in mass production? Sorry, but that's so Nat-Berkus-for-Target—yet another designer selling out to a giant chain.

vintage oversized ceramic herringbone-patterned table (floor) lamp with handles

Why fill a home with ubiquitous made-in-China crap within a limited decorating budget and time frame when instead you could surround yourself over time with personal, quality items found piece-by-piece, each containing real, lived-in history—untold, unknown stories hidden inside one's own collector stories like some antique puzzle box with a secret compartment? But, as with anything meaningful, collecting takes effort, time, and commitment. The negative side of this philosophy means I still have no dining chairs and can't host any dinner parties until I do, unless I seat everyone on the floor around the coffee table. But I'm waiting until I can afford beautiful vintage chairs.

vintage brass Stiffel lamp detail

For reasons aesthetic, financial, and environmental, I absolutely prefer used and repurposed objects to new ones, just as I prefer live plants and flowers—in other words, the real thing. In the last year, Satterfield has opened an online shop called Camp, in which she sells small quantities of jewelry and household items she (so far) hand-produces, such as necklaces, repurposed military-fabric throw pillows, stark contemporary lighting, and leather cabinet pulls. Satterfield's sustainability philosophy is thus closer to my own than Ahern's. Ahern couldn't seem to care less about handmade or vintage reuse as guiding principles except when they add an interesting "layer" to the overall mix in her rooms. Still, much as I admire Satterfield's restrained taste and enviable estate-sale and eBay skills, Ahern is the true risk-taking genius, despite her narrow desire to convert everyone to "the dark side."

unlit large vintage brass lamp against bare white wall in afternoon light

Personally, it's interesting seeing my little apartment come together as I collect pieces over time, almost as if watching the process from the outside. The bedroom, for example, is still the least complete room—though, per a recent dream, I'm planning a wall of vintage beveled mirrors aside the bed, gathered one by one. I only buy secondhand pieces that speak to my gut, but sometimes my gut doesn't match the assumptions in my head, like: Huh, I always thought I was more of a sleek modernist at heart, but look at all the texture, sheen, shape, and pattern leaking in. Who knew I'd one day own a pair of gold pheasants?

thrifted vintage gold pheasants (salt and pepper shakers)

I do agree as Ahern insists that the best, most interesting rooms present a "friction" of contrast: tons of texture, multiple focal points, an asymmetrical mix of heights, styles, numbers, and sources, and the drama of the unexpected. The question is, can only darkness and color be dramatic or can white and light hold a mystery all their own, as a sheet of crystalline snow blankets a winter field?

thrifted silverplated scrollwork tea light holder


  1. Brooke, it's lovely. Like a poem.

  2. Thank you! It's funny how we can be drawn equally to opposites. I guess the tension comes in when we attempt balance.

  3. Beautiful! I have a pair of the Stiffel lamps featured. The shades you chose are just perfect. Where could I possibly get them?

    1. Thank you. My Stiffel lamp was picked up one lucky day at a thrift store here in Portland, Oregon. As far as I can tell, the shade is original, definitely vintage with patina. I don't know any sources for vintage shades other than checking eBay. But good luck in your search!


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