A passionate collector since childhood, the American fashion designer James Coviello’s farmhouse in the Hudson Valley is a masterclass in decorating and living with antiques. He tells Jessica Jonzen how to do it with similar aplomb
THE DINING ROOM AT JAMES COVIELLO’S HUDSON VALLEY HOME. IMAGE: JAMES COVIELLO
Can you tell us more about your home in the Hudson Valley? What was it about it that appealed to you when you decided to buy it?
It’s a perfectly imperfect 1840s Greek Revival getaway. I had very specific ideas in mind when I was looking for a house. The most important thing to me was that it was built in the 19th century with as much original detail as possible with the windows, floors, moldings and doors and so on. This house fitted the bill!
How did you approach renovating it?
First of all, I’ve taken my time – it’s been 15 years so far and is still a work in progress. I wanted to do it right, using a carpenter and craftsmen who were sensitive to my particular idea of period restoration while living in the space to see how it functioned best for my lifestyle. I basically brought it back to an imagined period in the late 19th century, only renovating the bathrooms, kitchen and pantry and keeping as many original details intact as possible.
Does your work as a fashion designer inform your approach to decorating your homes?
I do not ruminate and procrastinate endlessly on making decisions, making things happen and getting things done. I trust my instinct and rarely make a really bad decision. Time is a luxury one does not have in fashion and this is a most helpful skill while putting together rooms!
(LEFT) THE OLD AND NEW COME TOGETHER IN JAMES’ KITCHEN, WITH A NEW ITALIAN RANGE COOKER AND ANTIQUE CUPBOARDS. (RIGHT) DISHES ARE WASHED BY HAND IN THE BUTLER’S PANTRY. A DISPLAY OF OLD PARISIAN VASES SITS ABOVE THE ANTIQUE MARBLE COUNTER DISPLAYING A SELECTION OF CRYSTAL GLASSWARE FROM JAMES COVIELLO HOME. IMAGES: JAMES COVIELLO
How does your home make you feel?
It is a perfect reflection of how I live my life, comfortable, inviting and warm – that is exactly how it makes me feel.
Which room gives you the most joy and why?
I would have to say the kitchen. This room is an early addition to the house (1850-70). It was renovated sometime in the 1950s and had a very low ceiling, unattractive wooden cabinets, a terrible electric stove and layer upon layer of linoleum on the floor. As someone who enjoys cooking, this was not ideal, to say the least! After gutting the room to the bare joists and beams it was carefully put back together with a raised ceiling and walls clad in wainscoting, and the original wood plank floors were cleaned and waxed. It is the perfect combination of vintage country house style mixed with functional, modern appliances and is a joy to cook in.
Has the pandemic and the amount of time it will have made you spend at home changed the way you feel about it?
It’s made me appreciate my bedroom a lot more! I have been spending much more time in this room than ever before and I am thankful every day to wake up here.
You have a passion for 19th century arts and architecture. What is it about that century which appeals to you?
I think it is the attention to detail that was used in designing the most basic objects, so that it was not just functional but beautiful to look at, hold and use. There is a romantic quality to the 19th century that resonates with me like no other. Every object, interior, garden, public space and building instill in one a sense of beauty. There is a comfortable and familiar feeling that has always spoken to me – it is a truly visceral feeling!
(LEFT) JAMES’ HOME IN THE HUDSON VALLEY IS A 1840S GREEK REVIVAL FARMHOUSE. (RIGHT) A VIEW FROM THE KITCHEN TO THE DINING ROOM. JAMES FOUND THE 1920S DOUBLE BUTLER’S SINK AT A FLEA MARKET IN BROOKLYN. IMAGES: JAMES COVIELLO
Is there a particular style or era of the 19th century which you’re most fond of?
I like every decade of decorative styles in the 19th century, from Federal to the Aesthetic Movement and everything in between. All of them are a reflection of their time and all beautiful in design and execution. Lately I’ve found myself drawn to early American antiques (1800 – 1840), especially if they are a little primitive and naïve. This style is really speaking to me these days.
Do you think about how pieces will sit together when choosing what to buy, or is it simply a case of you responding to something beautiful?
I like to think that if you love it, it will work together but there is a certain amount of editing that happens when putting rooms together. I use a colour story to combine and unite objects more than their style.
What does an object need to have, or what feeling does it need to provoke in you, for it to make the cut?
A sense of nostalgia first and foremost. Secondly, the patina of an object lovingly used and well-worn by the hands of time.
(LEFT) THE DOWNSTAIRS BEDROOM FEATURES A PORCELAIN PEDESTAL SINK AND OTHER VINTAGE PIECES WHICH JAMES FOUND IN AN OUTBUILDING WHEN HE BOUGHT THE HOUSE. (RIGHT) A 19TH BALDACHIN BOUGHT AT PORTABELLO MARKET AND A COLLECTION OF 18TH CENTURY HAND-COLOURED PRINTS SURROUNDS JAMES’ BED. IMAGES: JAMES COVIELLO
Which item in your home means the most to you and why?
That’s a hard one, but usually it’s the last great find I managed to squeeze into my house – currently a mid-19th century sandpaper painting of the Hudson River in a beautiful gilt frame hanging in my bedroom.
What inspired your love of antiques?
My parents definitely got me hooked at a very young age. I still have the first real antique I bought when I was 13 years old. It was an ornate brass picture frame and I still love it!
Which is more important to you – the era and aesthetic of your home, or the objects you have within it?
You really cannot have one without the other. The building decides the décor, 100 per cent!
What’s the secret to decorating well with antiques?
Don’t buy them unless you use them, that’s the key to keeping antiques alive, otherwise you will be living in a house museum without a soul and nobody wants that, especially now.
(LEFT) THE ORIGINAL FIREPLACE, DOORS AND MOLDINGS IN THE DINING ROOM FROM 1846. (RIGHT) THE LIVING ROOM IS WONDERFULLY COSY, WITH ANTIQUE VELVET SOFAS, FLORAL WALLPAPER, BOOKS AND AN ANTIQUE PERSIAN RUG. IMAGES: JAMES COVIELLO
What have you found are the best paint colours to use with antique furniture?
I just adore the time-worn, richly faded look of well-loved rooms. I feel strongly that wall colour shouldn’t distract too much from furniture and art – it should enhance and enrich the objects in the room. I do have a favourite color. It is a mossy, dusty, greenish ochre. Through trial and error, I have discovered that any variation works perfectly as an interesting neutral in every room. It acts as a subtle yet tasteful backdrop for any kind of romantic furnishing or decoration, it has never failed me yet! I have an entire blog post in my journal on this subject.
What – or who – has had the greatest influence on your aesthetic?
I would say it has to be a series of houses I have visited and studied over the years, each a rich source of inspiration, joy and admiration. Olana, Calke Abbey, Aiken Rhett House, Brodsworth Hall, Isaac Bell House and Wilderstein to name but a few. My Instagram account @james_coviello is a great source for images of these houses and many more as well as my own home, and all the photos are taken by me.
You’ve recently launched your homeware brand – can you tell us how your aesthetic and values has been translated into these products?
I am using classic, timeless design and quality craftmanship inherent in vintage and antique objects for my home collection. I love the idea of actually creating home furnishings that have the spirit of the 19th century but can be used every day in a modern setting. I am starting out with table linens, crystal glasses, soap and scented candles, adding other products as the year unfolds.
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