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Heirloomists Hollister and Porter Hovey’s Remembrance of Things Past

“I was basically Pinteresting before Pinterest,” Hollister Hovey tells me as she sits on a brown leather Chesterfield sofa wearing a (probably vintage, I guess 1970s) black, belted, muumuu-style dress with blouson sleeves.  She and her sister Porter, dressed in a sunny yellow draped shift dress, settle down after a few moments of rearranging things around their apartment. They tell me there had been a problem with the pipes in the building a week earlier, right before they were supposed to start showing off their living space, which has become well known since Hollister launched her blog in 2007, so there’s been a bit of shuffling around over the previous few days. Yet they seemed totally undaunted by any of it, and the place looks wonderful. But the timing of the plumbing problem coincides with the release of the sisters’ first book, Heirloom Modern, which tells their rich family history and explores how it influences their aesthetic, but also features the stories of other like-minded heirloomists.

It’s really hard to pinpoint exactly the first thing you notice when you enter the Hoveys’ Brooklyn apartment. There is the large (I guessed it at least five feet tall) painting of the mustachioed Edwardian-era gentleman, double-barreled shotgun in one arm, a cigarette held in the opposite hand, and his faithful gun dog by his side. Across from him is a collection of various taxidermy deer and antelope heads and horns and antlers. Hollister tells me about the time she transported one of the deer heads from her old East Village apartment by subway to the current location, and the looks of horror on the faces of fellow passengers. There are the tiny toy soldiers that stand guard in front of the most beautiful piece of taxidermy in the room: a red and brown scarlet ibis with a long beak; the chandelier over the dinner table, and other bits and pieces from time gone by is all out in the open, much of it sourced by Hollister and Porter. But after reading Heirloom Modern, I think back to the framed Hermès scarf that sits above the mantle of an out of commission fireplace, the one that looks and is displayed like a beautiful painting of a bouquet of wild flowers, which their mother Lena bought on a trip to Paris in 1975. In an apartment full of treasures, it stands out as the centerpiece of the Hovey home.

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The photo- and story-oriented book, dedicated to their mother, who passed away in 2002, is at its heart a story about family. There are the Hoveys and their extended family, who Hollister lists off the top of her head: “We go from us, to our mom’s sister in Maryland, and our grandmother on Park Avenue; then her daughter, and our dad’s half-sister, Carey Clark, who’s uptown in the South Bronx. Then her half-brother from our grandmother’s second husband’s first marriage, in England, and then our aunt Carrie’s great friend Alida, who lives in Spanish Harlem.” Then there are the other subjects, people from the Hoveys’ circle of friends whose homes reflect their personal style and history, from artist Trey Speegle’s upstate barn that acts as a pop art homage to friends he’s lost and to a lifetime spent, to the stately London apartment of Alexa Romanoff, who, yes, is an actual Romanov, with the Crimean war soldier lamps that look like statues, a red leather club chair, and things as varied as needlepoint pillows and brass bracelets with the family’s royal coat of arms. Each home profiled is filled with bits and pieces collected along the way, but as Hollister stresses, there are stories in every photograph, something which is critical to the interior decorating firm the sisters run together. “When we work with clients, even if they don’t have heirlooms, we want them to make their spaces highly personal, and we want them to decorate not just to make their space look pretty, but to have stories. So we have them fill out a questionnaire, about childhood memories and experiences, and they’re really tangential to decorating, but in the end we feel like they really do make a difference,” Hollister says.

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Family plays an important part in the way Hollister and Porter decorate for other people, and the living spaces they profile throughout Heirloom Modern, but I wonder how difficult it is for two siblings living together, both with such penchants for collecting, to decide on exactly what to buy and where it goes. Porter assures me that “we share such a similar aesthetic, it just sort of balances everything out perfectly,” and talks of the sisters’ closeness and time spent together growing up in Kansas (“our family had different tastes than our friends growing up there,” she tells me), but points out the very slight deviations in personal tastes, telling me, “Mine tends to be slightly more feminine, Hollister’s slightly more masculine.” But just one quick look around the apartment the two share (and a quick glance is hard to take since there is so much to look at) shows that things balance out perfectly; the wolves painted onto the cabinet shelves, art books by Walton Ford and Maira Kalman that sit on top of each other under the coffee table, and old copies of Monocle and hundreds of hardcover books that are all housed on the impressively large bookshelf that hides one of the beds. Plenty of brass, wood, glass, and silver is on display throughout. Despite the array of valuable items, there are no “Do not touch” signs on certain items, no plastic on the furniture, and the Hoveys aren’t trying to make the place feel like one specific period in time (although they both share a love of the 1920s). There is warmth to their apartment; something you can tell is of the utmost importance to them, a bit of Midwest brought to New York. You can feel at home, but all the interesting things awe you.

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You can’t help thinking about the past after spending a little bit of time with the Hovey sisters. As I walked away from their loft space in the heart of Williamsburg, I looked around to take note of all the things that had changed in the area that I lived in a decade ago: an apartment building where an old friend lived was now gone, in its place a boutique clothing store. There’s a grocery store where a laundromat used to be, and even newer bars have replaced new bars I always said I’d visit, but never had the chance. On the train back home I thought about how there are those of us that are able to let go of what was, and then there are the rest of us that prefer the way things used to be. Not necessarily forsaking the future, but rather embracing people, places, and things from the past, and embedding them into the here and now. The past can be a very personal thing, and the Hovey sisters understand that; it is what makes them more than just mere collectors, bloggers, or proponents of some new mode of antiquing. Theirs is a philosophy that stresses family, history, and good style; and Heirloom Modern is the textbook for all those interested in learning.

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All photos by Jackie Roman.