Decorating Tips For Under $100

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Having rented summer houses from Montauk to Westhampton Beach for 25 years, and before finally settling for good (I think) in bucolic Remsenburg, I used to tell all realtors who helped me, “Here is what I want: I want to be in a little guest cottage on a beautiful estate, preferably one with a shared driveway so my delusions of grandeur will be pre-disclosed to arriving guests.”

Turns out that rentals like that don’t just fall from the sky. So it was with a sense of jealousy and awe that I turned into the driveway of Gary and Meg Smeal’s home in Westhampton Beach.

You see, they live across the street from 66 Seafield Lane—to which their property was originally attached—the massive, Henry Bacon-designed (he did the Lincoln Memorial) summer cottage built for the robber baron George C. Atwater, which can now be yours for $17.75 million. (Sounds steep, I know, but a steal when you consider that in 2009 they wanted $39 million for the pile.)

The Smeals’ original property consisted of three structures built around 1905 to 1906: a worker’s cottage, a carriage house and a barn. In the 1970s, the barn was moved across the property and attached to the cottage, and in 1999, the Smeals took possession of the property.

Meg, a working potter/craft artist, knew the super-rustic barn needed a little taming, and turned to her fellow potter, dear friend and architect Pamela Watt McBride of William G. Brown Architects of Wyckoff, New Jersey.

“Most of it was circulation, getting in more natural light, making sense of the spaces,” Pam tells me by phone. “The staircase, for example, was wonderful but dark, with a tiny star-shaped window. I put working double-hungs [windows] in the stairwell. In addition to natural light, you get air. It was as easy as breathing,” she said.

So now, with a new, unfurnished 3,000-square-foot home, with some barn-height open living space, and with a depleted budget, the craftswoman in Meg Smeal made a commitment to herself—and, one assumes, a relieved husband, Gary—to furnish the entire home with only found objects, self-made decor, original art (no prints), furniture, bedspreads, rugs—okay, you get the picture—everything under $100.

The self-made decor came from half of the former Atwater Estate carriage house, which became her working potter’s studio.

Meg was trained in art/pottery with a bachelor’s degree in arts from Ohio Wesleyan University, followed by a Certification for Art Education at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. And since 2001, Meg has attended about a dozen two-week workshops at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine. Designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, “it is one of the architectural wonders of the United States,” she assures me.

Mais bien sur.

But everything else for $100?

“eBay,” she explains.

I looked around at the hundreds of framed pieces, objets d’art and old-looking furniture (in what is yet an overall austere space, no less). “But how could you afford to spend so much time on eBay?” I asked, thinking how long it takes me to buy the fancy vacuum cleaner bags I use.

“How could you afford not to?”

But then in minutes comes a dizzying list of items acquired that shows an artisan of shopping at work. The two dark, old, unfancy, unmatching bedroom bureaus that fill in as sideboards in the dining room? “One was on the street. I didn’t even refinish it,” Meg explains offhandedly. “The other one I bought at a yard sale for $60. And a nice lady who visited the other day during the Westhampton Garden Club House and Garden Tour told me she thought she had sold it to me.”

On a wall in the back of the room is an assuredly signed RH acrylic on paper, pale tones, 15 by 18 inches, 1964, contemporary. “I bought it for, well, probably $25, because I was attracted to it. I keep meaning to look him up.”

I do it for her: Raymond Hendler (1923-1988) was a Philly-born “action” painter. (It’s a movement I had never heard of either.) The artist’s creds at RaymondHendler.com explain: He was a post-war G.I. Bill-supported soldier who stayed in France and studied at L’Academie de la Grande Chaumiére, and his work was contemporaneously shown at the Musee D’Art Moderne. Finally, he was a comrade and collaborator with surrealist André Bretôn. (Even I have heard of him.)

Pas mal for a backyard bargain.

Okay, where to look next?

Depends what you are into. Miniature chairs? Near the fireplace … or up in the clay-shoe vanity display?

Destination collector plates? They’re nestled, dozens, under the kitchen cupboard eaves. “New Orleans …?”

“I’m a genealogy nut, so it turns out my great-great-grandfather was a judge there. He’s buried in the Lafayette Cemetery.”

My eye is caught by a red earthenware plate with white slip lettering: “Home plate.” Meg made it as part of a series for the gift shop while working on the “The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball” show, which Meg assistant-curated at the American Museum of Folk Art. “I think it was 2002. There’s a book you can buy on Amazon.”

In the entry hallway, a local, antique-postcard collection can’t be ignored. Thirty are framed on the first landing, with quad groupings on the next landings, each one showing the Quogue/Westhampton, et al., world a century ago. “[The frames] are $1.99 each at Ikea, and they come with pre-matting. Anyone can do this, and people spend so much time looking at them.”

Upstairs, she combines fine arts with bedding. A little double guest room has rickety and irresistible painted brass and iron beds. “They’re very sturdy—people sleep on them all the time.” The total bill? ”One was expensive: $95. The other was being gotten rid of by my girlfriend.”

Quilts? “Yard sales, eBay. I bought a bunch … all less than $50.”

Still up in the eaves of the barn, I admire a soulful still-life oil painting. “I’m guessing, gladiolas,” Meg ventures, signed de’ Pazzi. As I’m laboriously writing down the artist’s info, Meg whispers, “Oh, that is so funny …” and disappears, bustling, then emerging with a bright color drawing, an architectural “acrylic-and-ink … maybe watercolor—it is just a mishmash,” Meg continues, by the same artist. “She’s a local gal.”

We agree the oil painting is better … the drawing need not be hung in tandem … but it gets whisked away meaningfully for a future purpose.

“But wasn’t that fun?”

’Twas.

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