Ancient pots from the Amazon, faces etched in blown glass and chairs that disappear like ghosts are just a few of Barbara Krantzler’s favorite things. Add race-car driving and hot-air ballooning to the list. “I’m a risk-taker,” says the Rowayton artist and designer whose lively personality adds inches to her five-foot frame. The red curls and laughter-filled blue eyes should be an instant tip-off. “I go with my instincts,” she says. “They’ve never led me wrong.”
Her new home — a 1905 Victorian on Bell Island — is a case in point. She was instantly seduced by its stone walls, L-shaped porch and, to one side, a “secret garden” right out of the classic novel that had enchanted her when she was six years old. “I opened the gate and thought, ‘Oh, my God! How can I not be here?’”
Bell Island’s understated ambience was the perfect antidote to personal turmoil. “In just two months, my whole life had changed,” she says. “My second marriage ended, my father died and my daughter was in a terrible car accident. It felt like God was testing me.”
Having just sold the Westport house she’d created for her husband, son and daughter, Barbara felt like she’d lost her nest. “I’d lived there for fifteen years,” she says. “I needed a home that would be a true expression of myself, a place where I could be surrounded by the things I love.”
“Make them an offer,” Barbara told her Realtor from halfway up the stone staircase to the porch. “I’d always wanted to live in a Victorian,” she says. “I knew this was the one.
It was waiting for me, someone with an eye who could see it finished.”
“Barbara is fearless; she has the confidence to decide instantly and then make it work,” says Rod Jacobson, a close family friend and fellow artist. The secret of her success, he suggests, is style. “You either have it or you don’t. Barbara does.”
Even walking into “a horrible mess” didn’t matter. “There was nothing here,” she says. In 1990 a builder had gutted the main level, leaving a loft-like space. A hard-to-negotiate spiral staircase led to the upper floors; a cavernous emptiness had replaced the traditional small-but-cozy Victorian rooms. On the other hand, it was a bare canvas and Barbara is an artist who also has a degree in theatrical set design. “It’s very smoke and mirrors,” she says, smiling. “I can make any illusion seem completely real.”
The first design decision was easy. The mailbox, a funky little boat, had been damaged beyond repair. “I wanted to replace it with something equally special,” she says, “a piece that reflected Rowayton and also the spirit of this new start.” Weston artist Monica Wayne, a close friend and kindred spirit whose specialty is “memoryware,” was commissioned to create what has become the house’s signature.
“Memoryware is a ceramic art form very much appreciated by the Victorians,” Monica says, explaining that incorporating personal mementos gives each piece significance as well as beauty. “Barbara gave me shells her children had collected,” she says. “We found the mermaid bottle opener in a thrift shop. Barbara loves mermaids.” Miniature lobster buoys, two wooden sea captains and an articulated iridescent fish are just a few components of what has become a local traffic-stopper.
Rebuilding the Victorian’s interior paired inspiration with practicality: the need to create the right environment for a collection of cherished furniture and artwork. “I’d downsized, getting ready to move,” she says. “Everything I brought with me I love.”
Two prized possessions, for example, a silver and cobalt blue cloisonné Venetian mirror and an exquisite art deco table dictated the dimensions of the foyer wall. Both were gifts from Barbara’s mother who, like other family members, is an avid collector.
Adjacent to a specially designed coat closet, an ebony inlaid “King Tut’s chair” adds a regal touch. “It’s an exact replica of one found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1923,” says Barbara. This is the first of several pieces by artisan Michael Gold on display in different parts of the house.
“I think that when you mix the things you love, they work even if the styles are different,” Barbara says. Leopard prints on floors and cushions, glass bricks and a palette of earth tones enlivened by touches of merlot red serve as recurrent design elements, connecting the different areas of the house. On the main level, wooden floors have been stained dark green to showcase the art.
To the left of the front door, a powder room with unusually angled walls has been transformed into a minigallery of South American art. A grouping of very large Shipibo pots comfortably inhabits one corner; their painted faces inspect visitors with what feels like benevolent curiosity. “These are pre-Columbian,” Barbara says. “They were made by head-hunting tribes in the Amazon.” On grass-cloth walls, a collection of funeral masks stitched on goatskin makes a dramatic statement.
After reestablishing the boundaries of dining room, living room and dinette, Barbara turned to her next concern — that, with the removal of the original staircase, the house had been stripped of its center. “Fireplaces make a house a home,” she says, “ so I designed one to anchor the living room and put the heart back into the house.”
An architectural remnant from United House Wrecking in Stamford made the perfect fireplace mantel. “I think it once was part of the exterior of a building,” she says. “I like reusing something old in a new way.”
A wicker love seat used outdoors in her Westport house is a nod to the casual lifestyle she embraces. Brought inside, it seems right at home across from a vintage mirrored coffee table and two very elegant armchairs that she found long ago in Manhattan and fell in love with. Barbara regards the reverse-painted mirrored table with an artist’s appreciation of technique. “I’m not a coffee-table person,” she says, “but this one is wonderful.”
A painting by Joseph Hirsch called The Rain People occupies a place of honor on a living room wall. Barbara describes it as her absolute favorite in a house filled only with what she loves. “I never get tired of looking at it,” she says, “and making up stories about what those people are doing.”
Tempus Fugit, a three-panel screen in the far corner of the room, is one of Barbara’s own decoupage pieces. “I made it a long time ago,” she says. “It’s my sense of humor. Time flies so I’ve included clocks and flies, and there’s Father Time over there in the corner.”
“I’ve seen Barbara take scraps of things that look like nothing and create a work of art,” Monica says. “She’s delightfully quirky and totally original. I mean, who else would think of turning a dining room table into a person?”
“It’s my ‘clockwork orange’ table,” Barbara says, noting that practical concerns drove her creativity. “I needed a place for this very large Shipibo pot.” Under the table’s glass surface, the ancient pot sits enthroned on a base of exquisitely grained Japanese wood, which also encircles the tabletop. The pot’s round curves magically become a torso, its painted face a whimsical variation on the table’s surface centerpiece: a hauntingly beautiful face of a woman.
“That’s a Fornisetti glass piece, one of many faces I’ve collected over the years,” says Barbara, adding that little shoes she’d bought long ago made perfect feet. The pièce de résistance? A chandelier that practically tips its multiple top hats to announce that dinner is served.
On one wall are antique African oarsmen with their longboat and on another, a shaft of ambient daylight ignites the brilliant reds, greens and purples of an abstract paper and brass construction by Rod Jacobson.
“This was done with found pieces,” Barbara says. “He’s color-blind, which makes it really extraordinary.”
She points out that she comes from a family that has always been into art and design — professionally in the case of one of her three brothers, but mostly out of sheer enthusiasm. In the fifties her aunt and uncle, Ethel and Robert Scull, were patrons of pivotal and as yet unknown twentieth-century artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rosenquist, Franz Kline and Jasper Johns. “Andy Warhol did a thirty-six-image portrait of my Aunt Ethel,” she notes.
A malachite green, intricately decoupaged chest of drawers commands the opposite corner of the dining room. “That’s one of my pieces,” Barbara says, describing how the design is created by cutting pieces of paper that are then glued to the surface and finished with a clear varnish. “It has the impact of a painting,” she says, “but there’s an extra three-dimensionality to it.”
Above it, a painting by Oscar DeMejo called The Last Supper features an American flag motif, one that’s repeated in folk art pieces elsewhere in the house. “My grandparents came to the United States from Russia and Romania,” Barbara says, “so call me patriotic.”
Running the width of the house — and visible from both living room and dining room across a corridor that leads outside to the garden — is the kitchen/dinette area. “I broke the wall down to make it one space,” she says, “because we really spend a lot of time here.” A cozy window seat upholstered in a leopard print is the perfect foil for another Michael Gold piece. “It’s art as coffee table,” Barbara says. “That’s what works for me.”
The second floor is now easily accessible from the dining room by a staircase as traditional as the upstairs architecture is outrageous. Courtesy of a two-story-high wall of windows, this is where the house breaks open. “From downstairs,” Barbara says, “you don’t expect it.”
In contrast to the more adult area on the main floor, this is family space where her children hang out with their friends. Their bedrooms run parallel to the communal area. Barbara’s four rescued cats rule the laundry room. A minidoor topped by a sign that says “Laundry 15 cents” lets Xander, Nalla, Margot and Mischief come and go at will.
On the second-floor landing, a folk art piece called The Standing Man dominates one corner. “He’s larger than life,” Barbara says of the enormous sculpture, which was once owned by her parents. “He comes apart,” she says, “and he’s fallen down a few times, but he always bounces back.” Unflappability aside, the wooden gentleman has good reason to be transfixed.
On the opposite wall, which soars to the room’s highest point, the Rubenesque proportions of Renando Velasco’s painting A Lady with a Pearl Necklace are truly inspirational. “I built the wall for this painting,” Barbara says. “I love her. She’s all decked out, completely fabulous.”
Animal prints mixed with vibrant reds lend warmth and continuity to the upstairs family room. An armoire decoupaged by Barbara conceals a television; the intricately carved surface of Michael Gold’s giraffe table hides a secret drawer.
Up another level is the master bedroom suite, which includes Barbara’s private office for K-art, her now thriving art and decoration business. “It’s grown through sheer word of mouth,” she says, pointing out that she also does just color planning upon request. “I walk into the space and it’s a kind of epiphany, like a consultation with a psychic,” she says. “Ideas occur to me. I tell my clients to write it all down because these things will be wonderful.”
On the staircase leading to the third level, she stops to point out another favorite: a painting by Edward Pound featuring sixteen birds erupting from a morning coat in a flurry of feathers. “I got this from my brother,” she says, “and I built the wall to display it.”
Leading the way into the master bedroom suite, she points out that the furnishings from her Westport bedroom have taken on a different personality. “And of course, here’s where I got to play with the ceiling,” she says, “popping it up in true Victorian style.”
Walls of mistletoe green provide a rich but neutral background. A third Krantzler decoupaged screen on a Chinese red ground mixes vintage botanical prints with fruits and butterflies.
Glass bricks over the sofa-style headboard filter light from a window with a view of Sheffield Island on Long Island Sound. A favorite Rafael Soyer watercolor of a reclining woman has been hung where it is easily viewable from the bed. A child’s Adirondack chair sits in a corner. “Believe it or not,” Barbara says, “I used to use that as a desk chair.”
The fireplace is this room’s heart. Barbara found a Swedish mantel covered with white paint in a shop on Route 7. Once stripped, it just needed oil to bring out the grain; fitting it to the fireplace required a skilled cabinetmaker and plenty of patience. “But I saw what it could be,” Barbara says. “It’s perfect!”
Her blue eyes twinkle as she points out a pair of sconces that flank the fireplace. “They’re my Wizard of Oz sconces,” she says. “Remember that scene where they’re all marching around with torches going ‘YO-HEE-HO!’ Well, these remind me of those torches.” One extremely silly demonstration later, she hears the front door slam.
“That’s my son, Seth, home from school,” she says, suddenly switching to mommy mode, inviting the ten-year-old up to say hello and asking about his day in school. “Seth is into tigers,” she says, “so we put a tiger-print rug in his room.
Back on the front porch, weathered buoys hang from a set of oars and a hooked fish dangles, announcing: “Fish Stories Told Here.” To one side, the secret garden is awaiting spring to begin its evolution into the picture Barbara sees in her head. A kinetic cowboy-and- Indian sculpture, however, is winter-proof, a hint of what the future may bring.
Barbara points to the porch railing, where a folk art bird’s nest, complete with eggs, is being watched over by a mother bird. “I’m calling this house ‘Belle Aerie’ because it’s a nest perched up high,” she says. “This is my nest, a home for me and my children, one that expresses who I am. I moved in two years ago and it’s just right.”