NEW YORK —
Hilary Robertson and Alastair McCowan were recently entertaining some French friends in their apartment in Brooklyn, when one of the guests, glancing at the muslin stapled to a pair of ersatz French chairs, raised an eyebrow and said, “What is that, upholstery salvage?”
In fact, “upholstery salvage” is not a bad way to describe how Robertson, an interiors stylist, and McCowan, chief executive officer of Chesney’s, a company that sells custom and antique fireplace mantels, have been making themselves at home in their adopted country. Robertson, 48, and McCowan, 47, both of whom are British, have been doing astonishing things with staple guns, muslin and board paint in four Brooklyn rentals over the past six years, since McCowan was offered a job here and they left England.
New York City has many admirable qualities, but welcoming it is not, particularly if you are an émigré on a budget. Robertson wrote to rental brokers, introducing her family (their son, Gus, is now 9), describing their three-story house in Hastings and cheerfully outlining how she had allocated $2,500 a month for rent in New York.
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“I even sent them pictures of our house,” she said. “Of course, nobody gave a toss.” (Or even wrote her back.)
Craigslist was a more fruitful marketplace, through which she found a series of furnished rentals, after increasing her budget to $3,000, although one apartment was stripped of its furniture halfway through the lease by its owners, leaving the family to make do with air mattresses and little else.
But Robertson and McCowan share a unique skill set. As a stylist for Garnet Hill, Whole Living and the British furniture company Ocher (for whom she helped start the more affordable Canvas line), Robertson practices the sort of stagecraft that turns vintage paintbrushes, laboratory flasks and seashells into something much greater than the sum of their parts.
And McCowan, who collects things like Civil War-era hand mirrors and vintage tools, has a talent for rehabilitating all sorts of unlovely, awkward items. (A white wire chandelier is actually a trash can from the Brooklyn Flea, which he bought for $2 and spray painted.)
And so to their first unfurnished billet, in the bottom two floors of a Brooklyn brownstone. The parlor floor has all the wedding-cake details people prize in a 19th-century town house. And the basement floor has all the drawbacks, including two windowless interior rooms, the larger of which McCowan handled by covering the walls in chalkboard paint.
“It was already dark, so why not paint it black?” his wife said.
They moved in a few years ago with not much of their own furniture: a friend’s Crate & Barrel bed, a mirrored glass dressing table found at the Brimfield Antiques Show for $150, a chaise that sat just one. But they filled it quickly. For a project at Canvas, Robertson asked to be paid with a Chesterfield sofa instead of cash.
And as they collected for other people (Canvas also sells vintage items Robertson finds), they bought for themselves as well.
“It’s one for you and one for me, but you only keep the complete bargains,” she said.
Last month, Robertson opened her own store, adjoining that of Gabriela de la Vega, a jewelry designer, a few blocks away. Mrs. Robertson, the store, is immediately identifiable, once you are schooled in her particular taxonomy of decorative objects. There are antique shoe molds, dressing-table mirrors on delicate metal stands, alabaster urns.
Robertson and McCowan have made console tables out of antique metal pedestals topped with marble slabs or vintage wooden accordion shelves. And one wall is painted in chalkboard paint.
Robertson said her son has finally adjusted to spending his weekends scouring antiques stores. He has been drawing floor plans and recently asked for a subscription to Home and Land, the real-estate-listings magazine found in a lot of antiques stores and flea markets.
The other day he announced he wanted to be a stylist when he grew up.
“No, you don’t,” his mother said. “You want to be an architect. Styling is a silly job.”
Those of us who appreciate “upholstery salvage” beg to disagree.