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Ohhhhh yeahhhh. Last weekend I hosted a big family gathering at my house, and even though I wasn’t in charge of dessert, I selfishly decided to make a little vegan cake so Evan and I would have something to enjoy with our coffee. I’m really not much of a baker, but this turned out so beautifully! It was delicious, too.

OK, so…let’s get my confession out of the way first: I used a mix for the cake part. Yes. I know that baking an actual yellow cake from scratch is not difficult, but we had a box of nice, all-natural cake mix in the pantry already and this was a last-minute plan, so there you go. No shame.

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The mix called for adding water and melted margarine. I subtracted a teaspoon of water and added a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice, and substituted melted coconut oil for the margarine. I love baking with coconut oil! I divided the batter in half, then baked two layers using an 8×2″ Wilton heart pan.

I knew if I waited until the morning to bake them I wouldn’t have enough time to let both layers cool completely before frosting, so I played it safe. I left the cakes on the counter until bedtime, then wrapped them in parchment and foil and refrigerated them overnight. First thing the next morning, I took them out again so they’d come to room temperature.

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FROSTING. Holy hell, this frosting. It’s so good. I wasn’t sure if it was going to come out right so I didn’t think to take pictures until I’d already started putting it on the cake, but it made exactly the right amount to frost two small layers or one standard.

Coconut cream cheese frosting (vegan)
Adapted from this recipe / Enough for two small layers or one standard (or 12 cupcakes)

1 cup powdered sugar (confectioners’ sugar/icing sugar)
1/2 cup coconut oil (must be solid/cool)
2 tbsp almond milk
3/4 tsp apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp salt

Put everything in a food processor for 1-2 minutes, or until everything is well-blended and smooth. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl, cover tightly, and refrigerate.

After about 30 minutes, mix up the frosting with a fork. It’s going to feel like it’s too runny to work as cake frosting, but don’t worry—once the coconut oil cools and re-solidifies, it’ll be perfect. You just have to periodically mix it as it cools so you wind up with a fluffy end result. I mixed it up every 15 minutes or so for about two hours because I was in the kitchen doing other stuff anyway, but I think it would be fine if you wait a little longer than that. Just make sure it stays in the fridge long enough to be cold and fluff it up every now and then. I left it overnight, then took it out first thing in the morning. After it had warmed on the counter for about half an hour and I gave it another fork-mixing, it was PERFECT.

Note: Taste the frosting, but do not eat all of the frosting with a spoon (even though you’ll want to).

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I prefer the dome-topped look when it comes to homemade cakes, so I only de-domed the bottom layer (then I ate the discarded dome for breakfast, naturally). It’s really easy to do that with a regular serrated bread knife—just get down at eye level and go slowly. Small pieces of parchment paper under the perimeter of the cake will make it easier to transfer the layers to your serving plate after frosting.

(That gorgeous cutting board was made by Ariele Alasko, by the way! It was my and Evan’s Hanukkah gift to each other, and it’s right at home in our kitchen.)

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I am by no means knowledgeable about cake decorating, but the most important thing I’ve learned is to do what’s called a “crumb coat” before frosting the cake completely. It does take more time, but it’s worth it. Spread a very thin layer of frosting across the top and sides using a light hand. It doesn’t have to be beautiful, it just has to lightly coat everything. Put the cake in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes after doing your crumb coat. This will seal the cake surface and prevent crumbs from finding their way into the frosting while you’re doing the real decorating! It works so well and makes a huge difference.

You’ll want to put the frosting back in the fridge, too, if it’s starting to feel a little loose. Don’t let it get so hard that you can’t spread it, of course, just keep an eye on things. If you’re working in a hot kitchen or during the summertime, you’ll definitely need to let the frosting cool down while your crumb coat sets.

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Ah! All decorated! I am not very good at this part of cake-making, but I don’t really care. As much as I admire the artistry of beautifully-decorated cakes, I like to keep things simple. I don’t have any special tools, I just used the back of a wide soup spoon. The sides of the cake were looking a little uneven, so I pressed on some shredded coconut. Carefully transfer to a plate, slide out the parchment, and you’re done.

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Ta-da! The cake sliced cleanly and with minimal crumbling, and it’s a miracle I managed to take these photos at all. My family was all crowded into the kitchen while I barked, “DON’T TOUCH THE CAKE, I HAVE TO TAKE PICTURES FOR MY BLOG!” My brother made rabbit ears behind it.

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SO YUMMY. It might actually be the best cake I’ve ever eaten. It’s definitely the best cake I’ve ever made, and even though I used a mix, I’m still pretty proud. The addition of coconut oil produced a dense but moist cake, almost like a pound cake. That frosting, though—it’s amazing stuff. I want to make another batch for carrot cake! I love that it really tasted like cream cheese frosting without relying on packaged vegan cream cheese. Heavenly.

Most importantly, everyone at my house from young children to grandparents thought the cake was delicious! There really is nothing that makes me happier than feeding people I love.

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Last summer, I did a small budget cast iron radiator refinishing job for our kitchen. Very small—about $28. It went really well—I’ll most likely be doing the same thing for most of the other radiators in the house that are awaiting refinishing. Back in 2008, though, we went with a super-spendy alternative for two of them. We were in the middle of renovating the upstairs bathroom at the time and we’d decided to send out the sink and tub to be refinished off-site, so it made sense to throw in a couple of radiators. I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about what we had done, so I thought I’d do a proper post and show off the results.

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Before (2006) and after (2014)! It’s hard to tell from the before shot, but the radiator had a lot of rust buildup on it. Someone had recently given it a silver re-coat (note the overspray on the wall above), but there were layers and layers of peeling paint underneath. All those layers of paint make radiators less efficient, and as the bottom layers fail further, the top layer deteriorates pretty quickly. It’s a losing battle. At a certain point, you have to take the existing paint off and start over.

We bought the house during heating season, and this radiator’s valve was leaking a ton of water into the kitchen ceiling below it. We have a single-pipe steam system (as opposed to dual-pipe hot water), and I don’t think the steam was even making it through the body of the radiator—it was just condensing at the valve and leaking. Between that and the broken boiler, I understand why the tenants were using an electric space heater back there! We had a plumber in right away to disconnect the radiator and cap the line above the floor so the leaking would at least stop while we figured out what to do with that room.

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We used a local place to do our refinishing, Extreme Powder Coating in New Windsor, New York. They showed up with two burly guys who carried everything down the stairs, out the front door, and into the back of a Hummer. Let me tell you, moving two cast iron radiators, a cast iron sink, AND a cast iron clawfoot tub is no joke. This radiator alone probably weighs about 400 lbs, and clawfoot tubs are around 300…so…yeah. It was hard to watch them go down the stairs. I kept envisioning the guy on the bottom—who was walking backwards—losing his grip and being squashed under the tub.

A few weeks later (it took them longer than expected because sandblasting the tub took some trial and error), everything was redelivered. The detail on the radiator looks so crisp without all of the lumpy paint under it. Sandblasting removes everything down to the bare metal, so even just not having 100 years of filth between the fins is a relief. Powder-coating, by the way, is a relatively safe process in terms of toxicity—unlike spray paint. There are no solvents used (it’s a dry powder that gets baked on), and no VOC emissions. It’s also super durable, so a well-maintained radiator that’s been totally stripped and coated should last a very long time without needing to be re-coated.

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This winter, we replaced all of the vents on our radiators. Depending on the type, vents typically cost less than $20. They’re easy to change out, and it’s a simple fix that will get rid of steam whistling and sputtering. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about when I mention radiator maintenance—if you have a leaky vent that’s dripping condensed steam, you’re going to wind up with rust. Just buy a new vent! Here’s a good instructional video from This Old House.

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This is embarrassing to admit, but the refinished radiator sat, disconnected, in the studio for FIVE YEARS before we had the plumber come to install a new valve for us last fall. We had to change some piping in the basement beforehand, and we couldn’t do that until we dealt with the kitchen radiator…and, of course, the kitchen renovation would up dragging on for an eternity, so…that’s just how it goes. That room has been preeeeeeetty cold in the winters, let me tell you!

I still need to take care of the exposed part of the supply pipe. I’m going to paint it white with a enamel made for metal, and get a fancy brass flange to hide the chewed-up wood around the hole in the floor. I’m thinking about this pretty floral one, probably in white. I need one for the kitchen radiator, too, but I’ll go with bare brass in there.

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Steam radiators need to slope toward the boiler/supply pipe so that steam doesn’t get trapped in the system and condense. When you hear banging in radiator pipes, that’s trapped water that can’t be displaced by rushing steam. Large steel washers work well as shims! See the rust under the feet? Yup, that’s the result of a leaking vent. Fortunately we caught it in time, and the rust hasn’t spread or damaged the coating.

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Most of our radiators were made by the US Radiator Co. in Dunkirk, NY. I had a tough time finding out much history about this company, but I did spend some time looking at their “complete” catalog (PDF). I’m not sure what year it’s from, but it definitely postdates the ornate radiators in our house. My guess is that most of our radiators are from around the turn of the century. I love that something so simple can still provide reliable, efficient heat 120 years after it was built, and that it looks so pretty while doing its job.

Costs for having cast iron radiators sandblasted and powder-coated can vary wildly depending on your location and the size of your radiator, but you can expect to pay $200-300. That doesn’t include the cost of having a plumber come in disconnect the radiator (and, just as importantly, cap the line) and reconnect it/install a new valve later, which can run you up a couple hundred dollars more if you can’t do that part yourself. So no, it’s not $28 worth of spray paint, but if you have a radiator that’s in really bad shape or you’re refinishing a bunch of other stuff at the same time (or if you just have bags of money lying around), the results are excellent.

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Hmmm, I guess it’s vintage ceramics week at Door Sixteen! On Sunday I shared the vintage Mexican nesting bowls I bought (thank you SO MUCH for all of the informative comments about their likely origins), and it made me want to take pictures of some of my other recent finds. I always seem to gravitate toward ceramics when I’m on the hunt, even if I’m just at the Goodwill.

Anyway, how about these espresso cups and saucers?! I bought them from the Etsy seller House of Séance, who have all kinds of great vintage stuff for sale. I love that the triangles appear to be hand-painted rather than silkscreened, making each cup unique. I think geometric designs look best when they’re a bit irregular.

(By the way, I wish I could remember who tipped me off to the Etsy listing for the cups. They sat on my Etsy wishlist for months before I went ahead and bought them, and in the interim I lost track. Thank you, whoever you are!)

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The cups and saucers don’t appear to have ever been used, and they’re in great condition—pretty much perfect, in fact. The bottoms all have intact ‘Design by Jonas Roberts; Made in Japan’ stickers on them. Searching for Jonas Roberts brings up loads of results for mid-century ceramics, and this particular design is either from the 1950s or ’60s, depending on whose information you trust. There’s also a teapot, sugar bowl, ashtrays, and even a lighter with this design—and it came in orange, too. Sale prices are all over the place, but I paid $55 for my set of six cups and saucers—$9/set seems like a huge bargain to me!

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Full disclosure: I made this cup of espresso purely for the sake of taking a nice photo. It’s decaf (ugh…), so I didn’t mind tossing it out after. I would really like to put the cups into regular use, but I want to test the glaze for lead first. This subject came up in the comments when I posted about the bowls the other day, so I thought I’d mention in this post as well. Vintage ceramics very often contain lead (as do some contemporary pieces from parts of the world where lead use is unregulated), and even if the glaze is in perfect condition, lead can leach into your food/drink if it’s liquid/hot/acidic, etc. Coffee is liquid, hot, and acidic, so it’s no joke! Even the porcelain glaze on old sinks and bathtubs can contain lead, which is part of the reason why we had ours sandblasted down to bare iron and powder-coated. As exciting as it sounds, I don’t want to take hot lead baths.

That said, not ALL vintage ceramics are lead-ridden, so it can’t hurt to test and find out. Sometimes the white glaze on the inside of a cup is fine, and the lead is contained in the outside designs only. It’s a judgement call, of course, but in that situation I’d be fine using the cup. I also have no concerns about using my vintage tablewares to serve dry foods (crackers, cookies, etc.). Obviously I make sure that there isn’t any glaze flaking off! If a piece is really rough, it’s relegated to display purposes only.

3M LeadCheck swabs are readily available, not terribly expensive, and seem to get the best reviews of the various lead testing kits out there. It’s not a perfect test, and you may get false negatives if the lead content in a glaze isn’t in contact with the swab, but it’s at least a starting point. When you live in an old house, you kind of just have to accept that lead will be a part of your life—but I think it’s worth being safe when you can. If these espresso cups do turn out to have lead in them, I’m just fine putting them up on a shelf and admiring them with my eyes instead of my tongue.

A couple of weeks ago, the 8th anniversary of our home-ownership came and went. I realized it later while I was looking for a before picture of the dining room, which led to feelings of regret over not having taken the time to better document those days, in both photographic and written forms. We bought our house during a time when I wasn’t blogging publicly. I’d shut down my old blog, and while I continued posting in my private LiveJournal (oh, LiveJournal), I had no plans to do…well, this. That was the right decision for me at the time, but I’m sad now that I don’t have a good record of that time in our lives. Then, as if on cue, I got an email from the real estate website Trulia asking if I’d be interested in writing a post about some aspect of my home-buying experience for part of a series of postcards they’re compiling. Pretty perfect timing, no? So I said yes.

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It’s hard to know where to start with the whole saga without this turning into a third of my eventual memoirs (working title/epitaph: Why Am I Wearing a Cardigan? A Life in Sweaters), but I feel like a little back story is necessary. When Evan and I got married in 2004, we were living in Brooklyn. We’d had to apartment-hop three times in three years, thanks to landlords who decided to sell their buildings. We moved further south in the borough each time, eventually winding up in the beautiful but desolate Red Hook neighborhood (this was before IKEA and Fairway came to town, mind you). Our commutes became hour-plus journeys by bus and subway, grocery shopping felt impossible, the walls of our illegal loft were paper-thin, and it was just time to go.

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Based on little more than my love of Pete Seeger and a few day trips to Dia:Beacon, I suggested we look for a place to live in Beacon, New York. There’s a Metro North station there, which would have us to Grand Central in not that much more time than we were spending traveling to work from Red Hook. We rented half of a two-family house in the village, and we started our new life as Beacon-dwellers who took the train to and from Manhattan every day for work.

I’m not sure what prompted our decision to look for a house to buy, but after about six months of renting, we started looking at houses for sale in Beacon. This was in March 2005, nearly the peak inflation point of the real estate bubble. Home-flipping and renovation shows were taking over reality TV, and mortgages were being passed out with wild abandon. In cities like Beacon, where gentrification had been taking place for several years already, house prices were going up, up, up. I don’t think we really even considered whether we wanted to live in Beacon—we just felt like we had to do something. So we tried. And we failed.

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We looked at every house for sale in Beacon that was close to being in our price range, which I think totaled about four houses, tops. Others that had been listed in our range immediately went into bidding wars and sold for much higher prices. Only one of the ones we managed to visit seemed like what we were looking for (if we even knew what we were looking for—in hindsight, I’m not sure that we really did). That was the one we called the Mint Box: built in the late 1800s, covered in green vinyl, and wreckovated in just about every way possible—right down to a slapdash side addition that was sinking due to a faulty foundation. I don’t think we were in love with it, but we were blinded by the idea of buying a house. It wasn’t about finding the right place, it was just about finding any place. We’d lost all sense of perspective. I think this happened to a lot of people around that time—that desperate sense of needing to buy a house. Fear of missing out taken to extremes.

We made an offer. We had the house inspected. We hired a lawyer. The seller made a counteroffer. We made a counter-counteroffer. And so on. There were lots of problems, things that needed to be negotiated and repaired and cash that needed to be put in escrow—it was complex and it was messy. The house had been vacant for a long time, and the children of the previous occupant were the sellers. Communication was slow. In the midst of all this, we found out that there had been a leak in an outdoor oil tank, which is a big deal. A very expensive cleanup had (supposedly) already been done, but it was paid for by the the seller’s insurance company…who in turn would have forced the sellers to accept a very low offer on the house in order to recoup their costs. Then the sellers refused to produce documentation from the EPA that the cleanup had actually occurred, and also refused to allow our lawyers to speak to each other. It was a disaster, simply put, not helped by the fact that our real estate agent was not doing her job. She didn’t seem to fully understand the home-buying process, or even really care much about whether or not we bought a house at all. We felt like we had no allies to represent us, and we were in over our heads with something we clearly couldn’t resolve ourselves. As much as we wanted to believe our real estate agent and attorney and mortgage broker and inspector and everyone else involved had our best interests at heart—and legally, they’re supposed to—that wasn’t always the case.

So…we walked. I don’t think this gets talked about much because everyone imagines the home-buying experience being like House Hunters, but knowing which house is “the one” is as much about knowing when to let go and move on as it is being aware of your must-haves and wishlists.

Instead of feeling defeated after losing the Mint Box, we were relieved. Yes, we’d lost the cost of the inspection, but we were given a strong dose of healthy perspective on the whole endeavor, and we finally took the time to do what we should have done from the beginning: We spent time talking about why we wanted to buy a house, what kind of house we wanted to own, and where we wanted the house to be. We set a budget based on what we wanted to spend, not how much we could afford if we stretched our financial limits to the max.

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Perhaps the most important thing we figured out was that we didn’t have any particular attachment to Beacon. I grew up in the Hudson Valley and we both felt connected to the Hudson River, and we knew we had to be able to commute to work every day. So what about Newburgh? Why hadn’t we been looking on the other side of the bridge?!

My stepfather, Bernie, has lived in Newburgh for about 70 years, and my mother moved there 20 years ago, so they of course proved to be an invaluable resource when we started looking at houses. Bernie was more than happy to educate us about the City of Newburgh, and to point out significant buildings and their individual histories. We saw block after block after block of majestic Victorian mansions, Arts and Crafts bungalows, and modest, turn-of-the century brick row houses. We saw families hanging out on their front porches, talking to the their neighbors and looking out for each other. We also saw a lot of abandoned properties and all of the classic indicators of urban blight. It was the combination of these things—the architectural beauty, the feeling of a welcoming community, and the desperate need for care-taking—that made us fall in love with Newburgh. We wanted to be a part of the city, and to make a home for ourselves there. It felt right.

The house search in Newburgh was very different than it had been in Beacon. For starters, we wound up with a great real estate agent this time. He was a property owner in the City of Newburgh, and he was relentless when it came to pulling listings for us to check out. He understood what we were looking for, and he wanted to find the right house for us. At that time, many of the house listings in Newburgh showed little more than a tiny, exterior thumbnail image, so we really had to rely on his familiarity with the various properties.

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We were not prepared for what we’d see when we started to enter those properties, however. Unlike in Beacon, where the housing stock was primarily being turned over by owner-occupants, the houses we looked at in Newburgh were mostly a combination of abandoned, bank-owned foreclosures and single-family houses that had been converted to multi-unit rentals. Many of those houses were fully occupied, often by large families with children. And there we were, a young couple looking to swoop in and buy the whole place just for ourselves. It was upsetting. We didn’t want to uproot those families, who in many cases were completely unaware that their homes were even for sale until we walked in the front door. Did we want to be a part of that? Or did we want to try to make Newburgh better for everyone, including the people who already lived there? These weren’t things we’d ever had to think about before—certainly not when we were getting priced out of neighborhood after neighborhood in Brooklyn. When it came to abandoned and condemned properties, we not only felt overwhelmed, we also knew it would be a losing battle trying to get a mortgage that would make sense for us.

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We refocused our search, and eventually found a very nice Victorian row house that had already been renovated! It was a flip project, a formerly-derelict building that had been bought and totally rehabbed—a rarity in Newburgh. The renovations weren’t our taste, but that was all cosmetic. A lot of the original details had been removed over the years, but it was still full of character. The idea of moving into a place right away was very appealing. Remember, at that point neither one of us knew ANYTHING about renovating houses, so we didn’t know what we were capable of. The house was within walking distance to the new commuter ferry that was about to start running to Beacon, too, which was a huge plus. It was listed higher than all of the rehab projects we’d been looking at, of course, but the price was still within our budget (and still much less than the would-be nightmare we’d run away from in Beacon).

So: Offer made, offer accepted, inspection done and paid for, mortgage broker involved, mortgage secured, attorney hired, deposit made…closing date set! YAY! Except not “yay” at all.

The day before our expected closing, our mortgage broker called to tell us there was a problem. Apparently the bank he’d secured our loan with had waited until the last possible minute to pull comps (prices that other similar houses in the area had sold for recently), and they’d rejected our previously-approved mortgage. See, this house was a rarity. It had already been renovated, but it was being held up against unrenovated houses that had sold for half or even a quarter of the price. The bank appraiser wasn’t interested in seeing the house in person or considering the extent of the renovations. They were not going to approve a mortgage that high for any house in that location. Period.

The mortgage broker assured us that this was no problem, and that he’d hook us up with a new bank right away. And then the same thing happened again.

So there we were, having made a deposit on a house that we were not going to be able to buy. It was awful for the seller—who we had met and liked, and who was not at fault and was probably going to wind up having to sell the house at a loss—and it was devastating for us. We had to fight to get our deposit back (we finally did, months later), all the while feeling very sad and hugely disappointed that we were losing another house. This time we really felt it, too. This was in October, the week of my 30th birthday, and I remember lying on the floor in the living room of our rental and just sobbing. The lost money, the stress, the anticipation, the worry, the disappointment…it was too much. It’s easy now to look back and say, “Oh, it was just a house,” but when we were all caught up in the moment, it was crushing. At some point, the seller called us directly and offered to rent the house to us with an option to buy under the terms of our current contract after one year. He was confident that the real estate market in Newburgh would’ve caught up by then, but we weren’t willing to take that chance.

Thinking we were about to close on a house, we’d obviously already given notice to our landlord in Beacon. So where would we live? Well, fortunately for us, my mother and Bernie very generously invited us—including Bruno, two ferrets, and a gerbil—to live in their basement while we figured out what the hell we were going to do. Were we going to move back to Brooklyn? Were we going to look for another rental? We were still in love with Newburgh and we still wanted to own a home there, so we decided to keep looking. We also got smart and hooked ourselves up with a local credit union, whose policy is to pull comps on houses at the beginning of the mortgage process, instead of the day before closing. Smart, right?

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On Halloween 2005, we went to look at two houses. One of them was a vacant, grand Victorian that was way out of our budget (it was later condemned and eventually purchased at auction by some of our amazing neighbors, who gave it the love it deserves), and the other was its back-door neighbor—a two-story brick row house virtually identical to the four others attached to it. House number sixteen.

It had been a HUD house for a while, and then it was bought by a guy who thought he’d renovate it and sell it for a bunch of money. Instead of doing that, though, he rented it to some friends of his and let it fall further into disrepair. I guess he got tired of them asking to do things like fix the boiler, and eventually they found another place to live and he put the house on the market.

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(With the exception of the kitchen photo, I don’t think I’ve ever shared any of these before! They are terrible quality, I know, and wish I could go back in time for an hour or so and take better ones. Alas, this is the best I can do. Incredibly, these photos make the house look like it was in much better condition than it was…)

We were only about two steps into the house when we saw the white marble fireplace for the first time. I remember Evan and I shooting looks of excitement back and forth to each other. The more we saw of the house, the more we knew it was THE ONE, all-caps. It clearly needed a lot of work, but almost everything original was still intact. All of the rooms were perfectly proportioned. The backyard was a mess, but it was a good size and had so much potential. Cast iron radiators, original windows and doors, a big clawfoot tub, ceiling medallions, 10″ baseboard moldings, pocket doors, fireplaces in every room…yes. YES! And it was below our budget.

We made an opening offer. We waited nervously. And then the next day (THE NEXT DAY!) a huge article about Newburgh appeared in the Sunday edition of the New York Times entitled, “Finally, a Confirmation of a Rebound.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

I don’t really have a word for what we felt when we saw that article, but there was definitely panic involved. And, of course, the seller also saw the article—as did some mysterious “investor” who supposedly wanted to buy and flip the house. Of course. So we upped our offer and continued to wait…and…our offer was accepted! (I mean, obviously, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this blog. Spoiler alert!) Yay! Mortgage approved! Comps approved! Yay! Yay!

Nope, still not “yay.” Here’s the part in the story where I resigned myself to living in my mother’s basement forever. I mean, there are worse things (she is a really good cook), but things were feeling pretty bleak. The seller had decided to not sign the contracts because his girlfriend told him he could get more money if he waited longer.

SERIOUSLY, MAN? Yeah, seriously. And then the seller disappeared.

A month or so of teeth-grinding frustration later, the seller materialized and we were allowed back into the house to do our inspection. During the inspection, all kinds of Bad Things were discovered, but none of them were surprising—except, of course, the fact that there was an active carbon monoxide leak and a broken boiler in the basement that was supposed to have been replaced so his friends/tenants didn’t die. Sigh. (He later tried to accuse our inspector of breaking the boiler.)

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Yet another month passed. Clearly there had been no other interest in the house, but the seller continued to drag the process out longer and longer. We still don’t know what was going on, exactly, but we continued to hold out hope because we loved the house so much. We didn’t care about it being an investment for us—we cared about taking care of the house and doing our part to improve Newburgh. At this point it was vacant in the middle of winter, and we didn’t want it to suffer burst pipes or a roof collapse and be condemned like so many other houses in Newburgh.

On February 28th, 2006, we got a call from our attorney letting us know that the seller had finally signed all of the necessary documents, and that our final walk-through and closing would be on March 2nd. We celebrated a little bit, but not too much—after all, a lot can happen in two days.

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Almost exactly one year from when we started looking for a house, the big day arrived, and, in the middle of a snowstorm, we drove to our credit union for the closing—which was attended by no one other than our agent, who didn’t even need to be there—and signed away our bank account for what we would come to call Door Sixteen. On the way home (home!) our car died—which is exactly what you want to have happen on the day you make the biggest purchase of your life, right? I’m pretty sure we just laughed, because we couldn’t handle any more crying.

Then we ran upstairs and ripped out all of the revolting, moldy carpeting in the back bedroom, because ewwww.

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So here we are, eight years later, still in love with our house and with Newburgh—and each other, plus another dog who joined the ranks. Our house has not proven to be a blockbuster investment monetarily. Maybe it will be someday. We didn’t have any reason to think it would be, and since we have no intention of selling our house, that’s A-OK. By 2010, the New York Times had decided that the confirmed rebound of 2005 had become “Newburgh, Where Gang Violence Reigns,” and then in 2013 they said Newburgh “Seeks Renewal Without Gentrification”—which, thankfully, is the most accurate of the three articles (gentrification, of course, is a rather massive subject in and of itself; one that I haven’t even really begun to touch on here). We invested in the City of Newburgh’s future and in the well-being of our community, and we feel very responsible for the care of our own little piece of it all. Our house is in a wonderful neighborhood where we’re surrounded by a mix of multigenerational Newburghers going back a century, families who moved there in the past decade, and everyone in between.

I’m so glad we hung in there and didn’t give up. I think about that every single time I look at the living room fireplace. Door Sixteen is our house, our home—it will outlive us, and we are so lucky to be a part of its history. Everything we do to improve our house is as much about protecting its future as it is enjoying our present.

So, your turn, assuming you made it through this beast of a post: If you’ve bought a house, what was the searching process like? Were lots of tears involved? If you’re searching for a home now, are you pulling your hair out in anguish? I mean, feel free to share even if you had a good old time, but everyone knows drama and anguish is more exciting.

I am blogging on behalf of Trulia, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Trulia’s. To learn more, visit: http://on.trulia.com/postcards.

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I picked up this set of four terracotta nesting bowls yesterday at Newburgh Vintage Emporium, a vintage and antique marketplace that just opened a couple of weeks ago. I’m amazed I made it out of there with just one purchase. So much great stuff! I have a feeling I’ll be going back there every weekend.

The vendor tag on the bowls said they’re South American, but after doing a little research, I think they’re actually Mexican. More specifically, they look like they could either be Talavera pottery (the glaze and terracotta reminds me so much of a set of Talavera plates from Spain that I inherited from my grandmother, but the pattern reminds me of Mexican pottery…though it’s also possible I have no idea what I’m talking about) or like designs I’ve found from Tlaquepaque.

I’m really curious to know more about where these bowls might come from or how old they are, so if you have any knowledge about them, please share!! There are no markings anywhere on them as far as I can see.

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The largest bowl in the set is about 9″ in diameter, and the smallest is 5.5″. The base glaze is a milky off-white, and the design appears to be black—though in areas where it’s bled a bit, it does seem like it could be a very deep cobalt.

They’re so pretty in the kitchen. I’m a little scared to use them for anything other than putting fruit or bread on the table, but they look beautiful just displayed as they are. It seems like a shame to nest them, though—I want to look at them all at once!

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The last time I blogged about a TV show was a year and a half ago, and that show was Breaking Bad. By the time the final episode BB aired, I (and seemingly every other human with a television) had become so emotionally invested in the series that it was a bit traumatizing to have it all come to an end. With the possible exception of The Sopranos, I had never felt that strongly about a TV drama before. I’ve half-heartedly tried to watch The Wire and Sons of Anarchy and House of Cards and so on, but I can never fully commit. (I did think Top of the Lake was excellent, but it wasn’t a multi-season show—it’s in a different category.)

There is now another show that has managed to suck me in and make me want to binge-watch 10 episodes in a row, though, and it’s the Scandinavian series The Bridge (Bron in Swedish, Broen in Danish). It’s SO GOOD. I keep telling everyone I know that they HAVE TO WATCH IT, OMG, but my power of persuasion isn’t working! I don’t know if it’s because they’re skeptical about being able to get into a foreign-language show with subtitles or the fact that they’re all too busy watching True Detective or because they just think I have bad taste, but no one is taking my word for it. Argh.

(For the sake of clarity, it’s worth mentioning that there is an American remake of The Bridge with the same name on the FX network, as well as a British/French version called The Tunnel. I’ve never seen either of those shows so I can’t compare them, but I can assure you that the original is perfection.)

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The title of the series refers to the Øresund Bridge, which crosses the Øresund strait between Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmö, Sweden. It’s on this bridge where the story begins, with a body that’s been found on the territorial line—with precisely one half in each country. The crime falls to both Swedish and Danish police jurisdictions, and homicide detectives Saga Norén (Sofia Helin) and Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) are assigned to the case.

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They are both very attractive, of course, but not in the way people are on American TV. Saga’s character in particular isn’t like anyone I’ve seen in a show before. Her hair is a mess, she’s got a big scar on her face, she looks tired, she wears the same outfit almost every day, and she seems as though she possibly has Asperger syndrome. Martin is slightly more polished (and his house is really beautiful—but I’ll direct you to this great post at Ouno Design for more about that), but he’s still quite rough around the edges and emotionally insecure to the point of being self-destructive. They’re quite a pair when you put them together! The entire supporting cast is great, too, down to the most minor characters. So much good acting—and so little over-acting, something that usually keeps me away from crime dramas.

The story line is completely gripping and totally unpredictable. It takes twists into politics, social problems, infidelity, parent-child relationships, race relations…and it all ties together perfectly somehow, with plot turns that are perfectly paced. We just watched the season one finale tonight, and the conclusion was satisfying. Season two takes Martin and Saga to a different crime entirely, and I’m not even going to read a synopsis before diving in.

If you’re in the US, you can watch the entire first season on Hulu for free right now. I’m not sure when the second season will be available here, but hopefully very soon because I need mooooooore!!

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Remember when I went to Stockholm like three years ago? OK, it was last month, but geez, could it take me any longer to put a second post together? I know I’ll regret it if I don’t do it, though. Last night I was talking to a friend about how my blog still serves as a rough diary (albeit a very selective one) for me to refer back to, and how legitimately sad I feel that I haven’t written posts about a lot of stuff. My memory isn’t as good as I’d like it to be, and it’s comforting to be read old posts and see how I felt about things in my life when they happened. OK, so now that I’ve explained the arcane concept of a diary…haha.

The schedule on my second day in Stockholm was, to put it mildly, bananas.

10:15am — Get on bus to Skeppsholmen.
10:30am — Presentation about the history and design of both Hotel Skeppsholmen and the Nobis Hotel, both designed by the studio Claesson Koivisto Rune. Tour of Hotel Skeppsholmen.

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During the presentation at Hotel Skeppsholmen (which, by the way, is very beautiful), my eye wandered across the room to this AMAZINGLY FABULOUS textile hanging on the wall. I couldn’t stop looking at it. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a great full-size shot of it without moving the banquet table (don’t think I didn’t consider it), but you get the idea.

I asked the hotel director if he knew anything about it, and he said he was a little unsure but that he thought it was from the 1890s. This seemed a little bit maybe not right to me, but I wrote it my notebook and decided to look it up later.

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As I was looking at my photos, I noticed these details in the corner: The number 1961 (which seemed much more likely to me as the year of origin than 1890) and the initials MR. A little bit og Googling later, and I had answers! The textile, called “Karneval,” was designed by Marianne Richter (MR) for the Märta Måås-Fjetterström AB studio in 1961. If you have a whole bunch of money, keep an eye out for auctions! One recently sold for about $12,000. Gulp. (The photos at the auction link are much better than mine, by the way.)

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Visiting the Moderna Museet wasn’t on the agenda, sadly, but I did gaze longingly at it from the window while I was in Skeppsholmen.

11:30am — Walk to Arkdes for presentations on Swedish design at the Arkitektur– och Designcentrum. (The presentations were excellent and I took loads of notes, but I’m not sure how well they translate into a blog post. They did, however, give me an awful lot to think about when it comes to the future of design, Swedish politics, and sustainability.)

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1:00pm — Quick stop at the offices and library of Svensk Form, the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design.

I could easily have stayed there all day looking at the bound issues of Form Magazine, the world’s oldest design magazine, reaching back to 1905. I was in heaven…but only for 15 minutes. It was at this point that I started feeling very sad about having to adhere to such a strict schedule, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Next time. (I said “next time” a lot during this trip.)

1:15pm — Bus to Pizza Hatt, where designers from LAST introduced their new brand and collection of design pieces.

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2:30pm — The event scheduled for this slot was canceled, so the bus dropped us off at Svenskt Tenn for about 20 minutes.

Svenskt Tenn was on my list of places I really wanted to visit, so I’m grateful for even that short bit of time to quickly zip around the whole store and take in as much as possible. I admire Josef Frank and his work so much, and seeing it in this context was overwhelming and emotional (and over all too quickly…next time). As I was leaving, I noticed Barnaba Fornasetti on his way in! I was immediately star struck, and could barely manage to sneak a quick picture, much less introduce myself.

I later spotted Fornasetti and his son at my hotel eating breakfast, waiting for a cab on the street, at baggage check at the airport, again while going through security, and then buying a banana and browsing design magazines at a new stand. I think maybe he thought I was stalking him. And yes, he dresses like that all the time. Style for days. (When you have a minute, go look at this slideshow of Barnaba Fornasetti’s house—it is fabulous.)

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3:00pm — Bus to Snickarbacken 7’s art space, where woven vinyl pioneers Bolon were presenting their new collection. A short film by choreographed by Alexander Ekman (who was in attendance) was presented.

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While loitering around on the sidewalk waiting to get on the bus, I noticed that seemingly all of the businesses in Stockholm had lit up lanterns on the ground outside their doorways at dusk. The effect was so beautiful and welcoming, and all I could think about was how having an open flame on the ground in public in NYC couldn’t possibly be legal, and how sad that is. Then I remembered a story my mother told me about a Christmas tree decorated with candles (!) catching on fire when she was a child, and I started to question whether Swedes are committed to fire safety. Then I realized it had been about 20 hours since I’d eaten anything, and went back to enjoying the lanterns.

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4:30pm — Visit to ICEBAR by ICEHOTEL, where Monica Förster introduced her new designs.

The ICEBAR is exactly what you think it is: a bar made out of ice. The walls are ice, the bar is ice, the chairs are ice, even the glasses are ice. The floor is not ice. Helpers drape you in very heavy, very warm, surprisingly flattering capes before you enter. Drinking out of a glass made of ice is unsurprisingly unpleasant, but the lingonberry and vodka cocktails are delicious.

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5:45pm — Visit the FÄRG & BLANCHE design studio for the release of an art/dance/design film by architect Erika Janunger and choreographer Oskar Frisk.

There were fresh oranges and hot tea at the FÄRG & BLANCHE event, so I was able to fuel up a bit and get my senses back in order! The film was really beautiful, and a nice (if abstract) way to introduce a furniture line. The designers behind the line, Fredrik Färg Emma Marga Blanche, were very charming and graciously showed us around not only their showroom, but also the workshop at the back of their studio where they produce all of their pieces. I’ll be keeping an eye on them in the future…

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7:15pm — Exhibition and dinner at Note Design Studio.

Note’s studio is a knockout. The whole thing is white and glass from floor to ceiling, with black dots marking the tops and bottoms of the stairwells. A bunch of their designs were on display, and I fell in love with the Silo lamps. I fell in love with everything, actually, including the chef who went out of his way to prepare a beautiful vegan meal for me (after I sneaked into the kitchen and did a little bit of begging). Shaved fennel, radishes, and cauliflower with slivers of toasted bread. I don’t know what he used as dressing, but the flavor was both delicate and full at the same time—very subtly vinegar-ish and a bit sweet. I could eat like that all the time.

11:30pm — Arrive back at hotel, crash, burn.

The final installment in my Stockholm adventure, Part Three, is coming soon! For real soon, too, not two weeks soon. That’s the most fun day, the Furniture Fair!

Here’s Part One, if you missed it.

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Something happened with the light this weekend. Despite the three feet of snow still piled up along the side streets in the City of Newburgh, it suddenly feels like spring is coming. The weather was beautiful yesterday, and the daylight pouring into the second floor of our house made want to do nothing but wander from room to room.

I don’t really take many pictures of the house anymore unless I’m working on a specific project, but after eight years, those projects are fewer and farther between—especially since the remaining ones are expensive and daunting, but not necessarily interesting to look at (like replacing our exterior window casings or buying a new boiler…snore + $$$ = no fun). I still love my house, though, and it still makes me happy to share it. So maybe it’s OK to just take some pictures without them being about a renovation project!

Here’s a walk through the oft-neglected second floor of the house, taken while admiring the almost-spring light.

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My fiddle-leaf fig tree is still alive! Miracles. The print is from Fieldguided—I bought it ages ago but just got around to framing it last month.

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Ah, it’s the rarely-seen east wall of the bedroom! I’m still unsure about the Heywood-Wakefield dresser. HAH. I’ve been thinking about either painting it (don’t bother with the hate mail, H-W protectionists, I already know) or getting rid of it since pretty much the day I bought it, but it’s kind of grown on me? I don’t know. It’s not hurting anyone, so it can stay for now. I promise not to paint it. Really. It is an amazingly well-built piece of furniture, I’ll say that much.

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I love you, Tom Dixon Offcut Bench. This is one of the best things I’ve ever bought. It really needs to be seen in person to be appreciated—the fluorescent orange is nearly blinding. I got a good deal on it because it was a floor model and it’s a little banged-up.

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The guest bedroom gets such nice light. It’s in the middle of the house, directly above the dining room. It’s a little shadowy, but the sun that comes in the huge window is beautifully filtered. It’s such a nice place to be. I wish we had more guests. (Sadface.)

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Frames. Everywhere. Always. I’ve been making a big effort lately to get artwork I’ve collected over the years out of storage and into frames, and, hopefully, onto the wall. It never ends! One of these days I need to sit down and make a master list of frame sizes, what I want matted, and what I can frame myself versus having to send to a shop. It’s overwhelming.

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And finally, the studio. I never get tired of this white floor—it’s the best room. It looks bright and clean even at midnight, and even when there are guitars and amps and cables all over the place. Yes, that section of molding is still missing. And yes, that’s OK—it’s good enough.

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I swear I’m getting closer to having my second Stockholm post finished up (I edited my photos down from 2000+ to 66! Progress!), but in the mean time, here are some really stupid boots I bought! OK, they’re actually not stupid at all, but since I can hear the creak of eyeballs rolling out of their sockets right now, I might as well acknowledge that they do appear to be the footwear choice of complete idiots.

If you (a) live in New York, (b) following someone who lives in New York on any form of social media, or (c) live in the US and own a computer or a television, then you are probably aware that we’ve had a whole lot of snowstorms here this winter. None of them have been devastatingly huge individually, but the sum total has been…well, it’s been exhausting, even for an avowed snow-lover like myself. Sanitation trucks can’t fit down the streets with alternate side parking suspended, so there are trash bags frozen to the sidewalk layered with snow and ice and more trash bags and snow with cigarettes and coffee cups on top (for garnish). Trash bag parfaits, if you will. It’s disgusting. It’s also tough to navigate the massive slush puddles* at every corner and the ice-encrusted streets, especially with wind and snow whipping at your cheeks and eyes.

*Bill Cunningham’s photo essay of men attempting to jump slush puddles is fantastic.

Anyway, yesterday it hit 51°F, and all of these giant hills of snow started melting with a vengeance, creating rivers of salt-brine and filth. And you know what? I was PREPARED. I was prepared because last weekend, in a fit of madness after discovering that my decade-old, much-loved brown Frye boots were apparently starting to dissolve from constant exposure to salt and snow, I ordered a pair of rain boots. Super-ridiculous high-heeled rain boots, mind you—Sorel Medina Rain Heels, to be precise. Short review: They are AWESOME.

I have a pair of serious snow boots that I wear when I’m upstate, but wearing them in the city is kind of silly. They’re overkill, and I wind up avoiding wearing them because my feet get hot and I don’t feel like dealing with changing in and out of them at the office (and carrying shoes with me, etc.). I don’t find regular rain boots comfortable enough to walk in for long distances, and again, I don’t really want to sit around in them at work all day long. Basically, if I can’t wear a pair of shoes from the time I leave my apartment to when I come home at night, they’re just going to sit in the closet.

The difference with these Sorel boots is they look like regular footwear, yet are totally waterproof (aside from the gusset, they’re completely rubber—even the heel is rubber-wrapped) and have excellent traction on the soles. I walked across patches of ice, went down slushy subway stairs, and stepped in deep puddles, and my feet and ankles felt steady and stable the whole time. No sliding, no slipping. (Funnily enough, the only time I had an issue was in my office, where the rubber soles skidded on the flat carpet and I almost tripped.) Because the shoe has a hidden platform, the heel height doesn’t actually feel very high—it’s comparable to walking around in my favorite boots in the whole world.* I’ve only walked about two sidewalk miles in them so far, but I don’t doubt that I could spend a whole day on my feet in them, just like I can in my Leslies.

*For some horrible reason, Frye has discontinued the Leslie Zip Booties! Tragic. They are the best boots. You can still get them on sale in a few sizes on Amazon, though. Sigh.

I have no doubt that these guys are going to become my go-to footwear every time it’s wet outside, regardless of the season. We get a lot of rain in New York, and I’ve gotta stop killing my leather boots—which I expect to have and wear for decades—by constantly subjecting them weather conditions they’re not designed for. High-heeled rubber rain boots, welcome to my world. Let the people laugh at us, I don’t care. I hope to get many years of use out of you!

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YAY, I’m finally writing my first Stockholm post! I got back from my trip a week ago, but I’ve been scrambling to recuperate/catch up since then. If you follow me on Instagram then you’ve seen a bunch of snapshots, but holy mackerel (holy lutfisk?)…I took a lot of photos with my camera-camera. I kind of don’t even know where to start.

WHAT A TRIP. I left for Stockholm the evening of Saturday the 1st, lost an entire night of sleep to the 6-hour time change and the 9 hours of traveling, then arrived at noon-ish local time on Sunday. I can’t sleep on planes no matter how hard I try or don’t try, so I was a mess by the time I got to the hotel. I pulled myself together and met up with my aunt and cousin (who was at work 5 minutes from my hotel) for lunch, though, which was really fun! I’d never spent time with my aunt apart from my mother before, and in her absence I felt very moved by how similar they are. They may live thousands of miles apart, but they are sisters to the bone—and I love knowing that there’s another person in the world who reminds me of my mother. (I feel more than a little choked up writing this…)

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From there I met up with Emma, who very kindly took me around to some of her favorite shops in the area despite the icy rain that was falling. Unfortunately a lot of stores are closed on Sunday (or because it gets dark at 4:00 in the afternoon!), so we were a bit limited, but I still managed to take in some of the city and squeeze in fika time at Snickarbacken 7. Mostly it was just so nice to spend time with Emma! We’ve known each other through blogging for years now, but we’d never met in person before. I felt instantly comfortable being with her.

Side note: I love saying “snickarbacken.” Google translate tells me it means “carpenter hill,” but I prefer to imagine it having something to do with peanuts and caramel and maybe a graham cracker crust.

I stayed at the incredibly fancy Nobis Hotel (more on that later), which is in what travelers call an “ideal” location, but it’s really a very touristy/business-y part of the city. I still don’t really have a great sense of Stockholm geography, but I’ve learned that next time I probably want to stay in Södermalm, which I repeatedly heard referred to as “the Brooklyn of Stockholm” and “the Williamsburg of Stockholm.” As a transplanted Brooklynite, I understand what that means (nope, I’m not going to use the H-word)…so, noted!

Anyway, despite being a bit restricted by location, Emma and I had an amazing dinner out at Riche. Their menu is decidedly un-vegan, but the chef was MORE than happy (I’d say he was excited, even) to prepare a special vegan meal on the fly for me. I don’t even remember everything that was on my plate because I was so tired and I wasn’t thinking about foodstagrams, but I do know that there was a vegan risotto, a fennel salad and something with hazelnuts. Whatever it all was, it was DELICIOUS. Such a nice place to sit and talk, too.

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Even though my photos of it aren’t great, I need to mention the Nobis Hotel, who put me up for the three nights I was in Stockholm. The Nobis is by far the fanciest hotel I’ve ever stayed in (though to be fair, it’s competing mostly with fleabag roadside joints—I don’t have much fancy hotel experience). It’s located in a former bank—a very famous bank, in fact—the one where the Norrmalmstorg robbery took place in 1973, and where the term “Stockholm syndrome” comes from. It’s a gorgeous building, with its protected late-1800s interior layout and architecture preserved yet made contemporary by the Swedish firm Claesson Koivisto Rune in 2010. The picture above is of the ceiling over the atrium that houses a lounge area.

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Orla Kiely toiletries, Scandinavian design everywhere, and a collection of great lamps from all over the world in the lobby. I wish I’d taken more photos, but I didn’t have much time at the Nobis during daylight hours. Here’s a really nice collection of both the common areas and the rooms, if you’re interested to see more. So. Damn. Fancy. (Also, the mattress and pillows? They’re making me rethink my entire approach to sleeping at home, where my bed now feels like a pile of rocks in comparison.)

After that first afternoon in Stockholm, I basically had NO free time whatsoever to do anything on my own. There were media events (and the Furniture Fair, of course) scheduled from early morning until late at night, so no time to go to shops or museums or restaurants that weren’t part of the Design Week tour. So Monday and Tuesday were jam-packed, and then I left for New York very early Wednesday morning. Talk about a whirlwind! My sleep schedule was completely crushed, and I brought home a nasty cold and a whole lot of exhaustion with me. It was a amazing trip, yes, but I really wish I could have added on a couple of extra days just to be able to breathe a little and get out to explore Stockholm. Next time.

I have SO MUCH MORE to talk about and share from my trip, but it’s too much for one post—I think it might be more like a dozen posts! Next up, lots of studio visits. For now, I leave you with a collection of Instagrams from Stocklhom…a little taste of what’s to come.

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