At Home in the World

Well-traveled Westporters break with traditional New England décor to showcase treasures from other cultures. Here are three women who have designed a home environment around the treasures of lands north, south and west of our eastern seaboard hamlet — creating a personal space that is anything but foreign to them.

Ohio natives Sue and Steve Smith met on spring break in Florida, when his fraternity invited her sorority to a party, and, yes, a lovely romance began to blossom. After college, Steve went to graduate school and Sue took to the air as a flight attendant for Pan Am, where her favorite routes were the Asian ones. Upon marrying, the newlyweds took an extended honeymoon in Hawaii, Hong Kong and Bali. In 1982 they moved to Westport and put down roots — or so they thought. In 1991 Steve, a consulting partner for IBM, was offered a position in Tokyo. Since he and his wife both loved Asia, they started packing.

Rejecting the company offer to ship their own furniture, they chose, instead, to receive a furniture allowance. “I didn’t set out to amass a huge collection,” says Sue, cozy in her living room that could have been lifted straight out of a Zhang Yimou film set. “I started off choosing very carefully, with an eye to things we’d keep and add to our own home eventually.”

One of the most exciting shopping prospects was a weekly antiques fair, always held at a different shrine. Dealers, collectors and a phalanx of expatriates would show up every weekend. “I learned by prowling,” says Sue, who also took classes, including a language-intensive course, to bridge the culture gap. “I also learned a lot from family-owned stores. The Japanese are very fair and honest. They’ll point out every imperfection. Equally helpful,” she adds, “were books on integrating Japanese things into a Western setting.”

Her first major purchase was essential: a custom-made ivory silk sofa, chosen for its style and fabric. It had to be large and neutral enough to blend with the more colorful pieces she knew would come later.

Her second great find was an old warehouse door tucked in a corner of a small shop. One glance told Sue that she had found her coffee table, whose built-in cubbies she was already mentally filling with the sake cups she had accumulated at the shrine sales.

Mostly she let her eye — and good fortune — guide her purchases, though she did make a mission of finding a pair of bronze temple lanterns, one that was eventually accomplished. Weekends at shrine sales became an obsession. “You didn’t want to miss one, because you didn’t know when the next great find would show up,” Sue says.

After three years, just when the three-bedroom apartment was finally decorated, Steve was sent to Hong Kong. This time the Smiths shipped their new furnishings, with the intention of rounding out the collection with Chinese pieces. The ninety-minute ferry ride to the antiques stores on Macau Island became a regular weekend activity. And the apartment’s very high walls presented Sue with the perfect opportunity to learn about (and start collecting) art.

Again serendipity prevailed, and over the next two years she found an extraordinary wedding cabinet, temple dogs, an ancestral portrait, tomb figures and so much more. For her, the fun was mixing and matching cultures, guided not by anyone else’s strict rules but by her innate good taste and sense of fun.

Steve and Sue still travel often. Sue owns her own business, called Red Lacquer, for which she goes to Asia once or twice a year. While there she sources textiles and antiques and oversees the manufacturing of limited-edition handbags. But, for the most part, the two are happily settled in the Asian atmosphere of their Westport home. Just brew up a pot of green tea, put on some Japanese bamboo flute music, order in some sushi — and they feel as if they never left Asia.

West by Southwest

One step into Cathy and Bob Colgan’s sprawling living room has you craving margaritas and nachos. The entire downstairs feels like a Mexican hacienda, from the furniture, colors and quality of light right down to the tiniest details, such as painted Oaxacan animals, silver milagro charms and a southwestern Mona Lisa in the bathroom.

The Colgans, like the Smiths, met in college, at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Cathy hailed from Illinois, Bob from Colorado, and together they traveled around the Southwest every chance they got. They married after college, and when Bob landed his first job on Wall Street, they moved to Westport, started a family (they now have three girls) and bought their home in 1993.

As they started to decorate their large, contemporary home, Cathy felt something was wrong. Frequent trips to Bob’s hometown of Mancos, Colorado, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, had intrigued her. “I grew up in suburbia, where everything was supposed to be polished and finished and modern, but now I was thinking about houses and how space makes you feel. In New Mexico the skies are an incredible blue, and adobe houses, chili peppers and piñon smoke are everywhere. I wanted to create that feeling here. There’s something spiritual about it.”

Also something very approachable. “What I love about living in this décor is that you don’t feel that you can’t touch it. Faded fabric, patinas, dents only improve something. I love the rustic quality of the handcrafted items and the earthy appeal of Mexican art.”

The couple’s first big step was to tear down the Guggenheim-like spiral staircase that dominated the living room and put in a new one, with more detailed balustrades — “very Santa Fe,” says Cathy. They put in wood floors, built-in cabinets and painted the all-white house appropriate shades of sand and blue.

“I’m a total detail person,” says Cathy, “down to hardware and light switches, which are all punched tin from Mexico.”

She remembers her first big purchase vividly: a pair of kilim chairs from George Smith in Soho. “It was my most expensive impulse buy ever,” she says. But it was a pivotal purchase that inspired the design Cathy would choose for her home. “The great thing about this style is that everything goes together,” she adds.

“There’s a whole spectrum of color, which is so powerful. Originally I was drawn to fabrics and furniture that was Santa Fe, but slowly I started to take more risks and mix styles and just pile it all on!” Fortunately, Bob loves her taste. In fact, says Cathy, a lot of men like the house. “Maybe it’s a guy thing,” she muses.

As for the milagros that adorn the house, Cathy says she “loves, loves, loves” them. These tiny silver charms, usually in the shape of body parts but sometimes of animals or food, are attached to statues or church walls in Mexico and offered to a favorite saint as a symbol of one’s particular need or as thanks for a prayer answered. “They have a magical quality,” says Cathy. “First I started collecting them individually, then I found boxes covered with them. I can’t have enough.”

And yet, says Cathy, her house is finally “very full and very finished. I hate to stop collecting, but I guess at some point you have to.”

South Africa
“When I see something, I don’t buy with my eyes, I buy with my heart,” says Johannesburg native Lauren Kaplan, leading the way through her stately Westport home to a special room in the furthest corner. “My ‘African room’ always has quote marks around it,” she explains. “I’m sure to you it looks and feels very African” — which she pronounces with a long “a” — “but the objects in it have actually been bought all over the world.” The other thing that strikes her as ironic is how, back home, “nobody decorates like this,” she says. “But when they leave South Africa, everybody has an ‘African room.’ ”

Cathy Colgan thinks a pair of chairs was a big impulse buy: Lauren’s husband, Laurence, on the other hand, bought their house over the phone. Lauren had seen it when it was ninety-five percent complete and called her husband in Europe, where the family was living, to say it was perfect. “And he bought it,” she recalls, just like that. “Eight weeks later he came to see what he had bought.” Fortunately, he loved it, too.

Because the couple dabbles in property development (and Lauren had designed and remodeled homes in the past), they know a thing or two about homes and land. “My taste had changed since Africa and Europe,” says Lauren, “and demanded a different look. At this time, African flair had become very ‘in,’ and even in South Africa, people were decorating with that look.” Perhaps a bit of nostalgia had set in as well.

“When we came here, I had a vision for the style that I wanted: young, informal and contemporary.” But she couldn’t find the look she sought, until she found the designer and furniture manufacturer Donghia. Excited, Lauren made plans to go into the city and visit the showroom a month after she had moved in — on September 11, 2001. Needless to say, the shopping was postponed.

Slowly Lauren furnished the house, but knew all along the side room would be the “African room.” The woman who had spent her childhood rearranging furniture first in her dollhouse, then in her parents’ home began to gather things she already owned and bought new ones that blended. She created a look you won’t find in any design book but one that is both visually stunning and, to an American eye anyway, appears authentic. Beaded Zulu baskets are handsomely displayed on the entrance wall. A large zebra skin commands the floor space and dictates the color scheme.

Lauren was creative in turning place mats into framed wall hangings and mixing and matching Nigerian and Kenyan pieces with South African ones — and even objects from Barneys that look convincingly African. In Johannesburg she was a potter, an art skill she still practices here in the States, at Silvermine Guild Arts Center. In fact, many of the gorgeous vases and bowls in this and other rooms are her creations. Elsewhere hang masks, spears, Zulu skirts, musical instruments, mats and baskets — all of which, explains Lauren, reflect a “typically African” design style.

“I am passionate about being African,” she says; this extends to her favorite African musicians: Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mombasa and Johnny Clegg. She loves to cook authentic dishes, like boerewors (farmer’s sausage and grits), when entertaining her many friends from home. “Americans will take you out to a restaurant,” she says, describing a fundamental difference between the cultures. “But South Africans like to entertain in their houses. At home, we’ll call each other in the middle of the day and say, ‘Put on the kettle, I’m coming over.’ ” There’s little doubt which room they’ll sip their rooibos tea in.

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