For the Improper Bostonian
The words "Boston" and "design," when used together, stir up images of antique shops spilling over with Brahmin relics and Pottery Barn proffering sleek reproductions of the same. Happily and successfully nestled among the faded and faux-faded splendor are three designers embracing elements of traditional New England while infusing invigorating jolts of hip.
John-Paul Kozicki is a floral designer combining a Thoreauvian thoughtfulness about nature with an artist’s flair. Home-furnishings expert Paul Niski redefines traditional concepts of “home store,” transforming a Puritan fear of excess into an aesthetic celebrating the beautifully spare. Natalia Szidon, who also sells home furnishings, has an approach to home design that mirrors Boston’s take on culture: Representatives from multiple corners of the world and various eras on the timeline convene to create a spectacular whole that is at once grounded in tradition and so eclectic that it resists definition.
To get inside the innovative minds of these three, we got nosy and explored the spaces to which each retires at the end of the day. At home the lines between personal and professional blur. The designing mind never stops churning; these three just can’t leave their work at the office.
As you progress down the line of Victorian row houses just off Tremont Street in the South End and enter John-Paul Kozicki’s handsomely maintained building, quiet descends.
An understated palette with splashes of deep but muted color and soft light created by scattered candles greet the visitor. Kozicki’s taste is exquisite without being effusive. In his Charles Street flower shop, this aesthetic results in a glorious organic clutter, where bunches of flowers reside in all manner of vessels and in great abundance. Home, however, is “a place I can rest. It’s interesting, with lots of textures and color variations, but is calmer than the store,” says Kozicki.
At one end of the living room sit two wicker chaise lounges found in the discard pile of a neighbor with a pool in LA. They have been repainted black and made comfortable with off-white cushions. Atop the cushions rest two pieces of ivory fabric decorated with delicate needlework in a gold cross and a floral pattern - actually priests’ vestments, commissioned in the 1950s. Behind the lounges are two huge windows, hung with curtains made from 80-year-old linens that Kozicki found at an estate sale in Maine. Underneath the curtains are blinds made of thin twigs. These items exemplify his at-home style: texturally lush items mingling with man-made and natural expressions.
Kozicki’s professional devotion to Mother Nature is evident throughout his home, but nature as he presents it never screams for attention. Dusty red-orange tulips loosely bound with black string rest in a large white bowl rimmed with ceramic antlers. Another bunch of tulips sits on a cart in the bathroom. You might expect more in the way of flowers in a florist's apartment, but right now Kozicki is “into twigs and logs.” Twiggy branches sit on a shelf aside a bust of Augustus. To the right of the bedroom fireplace, large chunks of birch bark occupy a thick glass vessel.
This return to the metaphorical woods is Kozicki’s current inspiration, carrying him from his apartment to his shop and back again. “I’ve been looking at these logs for several weeks,” he says, providing a perfect example of the aesthetic connection between his professional and personal lives. “Home is my training ground.”
No number is apparent on this brown house - one of a hodgepode of dwellings teetering on a hilltop in Jamaica Plain - but it’s in the right spot so you venture the bell. In a moment Natalia Szidon is opening the door, inviting you up the narrow staircase and into her apartment.
“Visiting Cocoon is a full experience,” Szidon says of her store on Tremont Street. "All of your senses are engaged.” The same is true of her apartment: Soft, funky music and subtly scented candles provide the sensory backdrop for an abundance of items that are visually rich and intellectually stimulating. A platter with triangles of cheese, fresh green grapes and briny olives sits on a sturdy trunk, complementing the more permanent elements and representing the immediate future in a room that frequently harkens back to the past.
Born in Argentina, Szidon’s ancestry lies in Russia. More recently, she immigrated to Boston from New Jersey, where she worked as a floral designer. Her history – professional and personal – is evidenced in every bit of space in her apartment. The Russian fairy tales that Szidon heard as a child are beautifully rendered by Russian and Georgian artists on plates that hang on the wall. Across the room in the dining area is another Russian memory, an oil painting of a farm scene by a Russian artist that once hung over her grandparents’ fireplace in Argentina.
This dining area exemplifies Szidon’s dedication to cultural eclecticism: a constant mixing of pieces from many countries in an attempt to expand one's life view to include the world. "We are all part of a global village," she explains. “We should be comfortable around each other’s art.” Next to the Russian painting hangs a Brazilian woodcarving; underneath that is a delicate, brown-hued watercolor of a wheat field. The French cabinet below supports a Qing dynasty horse as well as a 200-year-old brass pot sporting two elephant head handles and housing one perfect orchid.
Many of Szidon’s pieces are valuable, both financially and historically. What makes her apartment a home and not a museum are the personal items. Reading material is everywhere - a precarious tower of tomes occupies space next to the bed. Atop the glass-and-wood bookcases and scattered around the room are pictures of Szidon’s family, including her son and daughter-in-law, with whom she opened the store. The entry hall features two paintings done by her then-5-year-old-son, as crucial as more expensive items to the overall effect.
What’s amazing is not that Szidon proudly displays childhood artwork alongside collector’s pieces, or even that she has an exceptional eye for gorgeous furniture and accessories. What’s amazing is the artistry with which she melds disparate elements so successfully that they appear designed only for each other, and only for her. Her apartment – “my cocoon,” as she calls it – perfectly summarizes her all-embracing aesthetic: “Your home should be a reflection of your relationship with the world.”
Leaving Good behind, tramp by neighboring Charles Street stores and head up a cobbled side street past Louisburg Square. Soon you arrive at a typical row of brick houses, one more heavily ensconced in ivy than the rest. Once behind the orange front door, complete with lion’s head knocker, you climb several flights of stairs to get to Paul Niski’s light-infused apartment.
While Kozicki’s apartment encourages the eye to luxuriate before exploring, Niski’s space remains whole for only a moment before exploding into enticing bits competing for your attention. None of Niski’s objects are loud; he is drawn to the spare and streamlined. What attracts you to his pieces is the sense that each has a particular reason for existing in Niski’s universe.
All of Niski’s items have a story, some connection to his life or some interesting bit of history. The 1930s table in his dining space exemplifies his relationship to objects, the meat of his profession and the joy of his personal life. “My mom came over soon after I bought this and proceeded to put a glass down on it. I asked her to take the glass off, to which she replied ‘If you can’t afford to enjoy it, you can’t afford it.’ She was exactly right. Things can get too precious. I want pure, but I don’t want precious.”
In the same room, near the fireplace, an off-white, very sculptural Japanese lantern stands, stretching simply and geometrically over several feet from top to bottom. Not only does the lamp echo a professional tendency towards things Asian, but it also hints at a primary source of artistic inspiration: the Romanian abstractionist Constantin Brancusi. The sculptor was, as Niski is, possessing of an eye for beauty in simplicity.
Niski especially puts the simple to work in his kitchen. When he moved in, he stripped the linoleum away to reveal basic white hexagonal tile. This remains untouched, perfectly imperfect and complemented by original wood and glass cabinets, painted white and adorned with basic silver metal knobs. With a background in spatial design (he was formerly creative director for both the Gap and Crabtree & Evelyn) and his passion for appealing objects, he might be expected to transform each room into a glossy showpiece. Instead, he has refused to impose a sheen on anything, thereby allowing each object to remain pure.
Purity manifests itself in the hack marks on the butcher’s table, found in the NYC meatpacking district. Similarly unaffected is the corner housing two black Charles Eames chairs, coveted items which other owners might showcase in a grander fashion. Above the chairs hangs a “found object,” a crowded, black and white montage of Parisian edifices that is art when hanging on Niski’s wall, but was discarded wallpaper when he discovered it in someone’s trash heap. Above the fireplace in the bedroom rests another find –grass samples from the New York Botanical Garden. Designed as scientific specimens, the framed grasses have been transformed into abstract art simply by Niski’s recognition of their visual value.
Niski’s ability to locate superior items lurking in corners – from junk shops to designer showrooms – sets him apart, making him both a preservationist and a visionary. He is unafraid: to let textures remain raw, to mix valuable vintage with less-precious reproductions, to promote items from the status of everyday to the level of art. The result is simple and extraordinary: visually, intellectually, and emotionally engaging objects that interact to create a home that stimulates and satisfies.