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A nine-foot-tall wooden African shield, an African bowl filled with chartreuse-dyed pods, and a woven-cord Bellini chair and ottoman continue the texture story.
Most people don’t buy a house for its garage. But one would never accuse Laura Soskin of being like most people, or most decorators. Her distinctive rustic-exotic interiors have earned her a loyal following of North Shore clients, but she’s not so much a decorator as simply an artist-one whose canvas can be anything from a tabletop to a mantel to a forgotten corner of a room. Her media are wooden balls, African milk jugs, bamboo baskets, and other “rusty natural things,” as she calls them, which she collects almost compulsively, then arranges and rearranges into layered vignettes before transferring them to their intended setting-where they appear, uncannily, to have been forever.
“I don’t like it when a home looks decorated,” she says. “I prefer to make it look like it happened over time, a natural assortment of personal items.” For such results, one needs vision, one needs passion, one needs a bottomless hunger for more stuff. And one needs a really big garage.
All Soskin lacked was the latter.
Which is what attracted this wife and mother of two teenagers to her current home in Wilmette, a large brick Colonial-style house built in the early 1900s. Thanks to the previous owner-a holiday decorating buff who needed extra storage space for his extensive collection of Santas, pumpkins, and Cupids-it came with a two-story detached garage. That the house itself had many virtues was a happy coincidence. With its original moldings and inviting spaces (including a vacant attic just waiting to be converted into offices for Soskin and her husband), it had great potential for rustic warmth.
The sunroom, with its many windows and abundant light, allowed Soskin the opportunity to accessorize her heart out without fearing that the room would look too crowded. “I tried to keep the rest of the house more sparse,” she says.
“I was thrilled to have a place to store all my treasures and no longer have to watch my very tolerant husband and children tripping over a coffee table every time they came into the house,” she says, referring to the always-jammed 1,600-square-foot space they lived in before purchasing this house in 2004. “I was immediately sold.”
That’s not to say the home was in move-in condition. It was a ramshackle puzzle of small spaces that needed to be taken apart and put together again. With help from architect Healy M. Rice, Soskin took the house down to its studs, saving only the original black-and-white checkered stone floor in the sunroom, the moldings on the walls in the living room, and the subway tiles in her kids’ bathroom. “We did whatever we could to maintain the original footprint of the house-the nooks, the Old World charm,” she explains. “But it had to fit our life.”
The most dramatic change took place in the back wing of the house, which once contained a “miniature kitchen with just a kitchen sink” flanked by maid’s quarters on one side and an attached garage on the other. Soskin turned part of the maid’s quarters into a powder room and used the rest of the space to expand her kitchen.
The result, though perfectly ample (and outfitted with professional-grade appliances, including Soskin’s prized Miele espresso machine), is still decidedly small by McMansion standards. That doesn’t bother Soskin. She likes how family activity revolves around the simple stainless steel island in the center of this room.
Soskin likes objects whose scale and heft make big statements. To keep her living room from feeling too heavy, she made its centerpiece an airy antique French garden table-complete with moss.
“Sometimes, sitting here is the only place where I get the chance to look at my 14-year-old son’s face for more than five minutes,” she says. “It’s intimate; it’s close. I don’t need one of those big great rooms-I need places where I can feel connected with my family.” The family room that Soskin created out of the former attached garage is another such place. The only thing big about it is the furniture inside.
“I like to push the limits of scale,” says the decorator, who, while aware that some people might think she pushes too far, is perfectly at peace with her vision. While her family room is filled to capacity with a Room & Board couch, two armchairs, a coffee table, a large goatskin ottoman from Jayson Home & Garden, and a nearly seven-foot-high armoire with an antique child’s boat resting defiantly on top of it, the space feels cozy and textured and pulled together, not crowded.
Unlike designers who use color to unite the elements in a room, Soskin uses “accessories that have impact"-large pieces, often ethnic, that might be anything from an old Japanese rice container to a taxidermied fish mounted on a metal stand-against earth tones, or what the designer likes to describe as “an absence of color.” Sometimes she’ll throw in a few punches of red, but when she shops (which she estimates she does more than 250 days out of the year), she’s more interested in simple lines, texture, patina, and dramatic scale.
Soskin jokes that she gave her daughter’s room a “rainbowectomy,” replacing loud colors with peaceful white, which the younger Soskin has grown to like. The painting is by Maine-based Corey Daniels.
What gets her most excited, though, is the stories the objects tell.
A tour of Soskin’s home might include a whiff of the fungus collection she has assembled in a British colonial cabinet or a hilarious account of how she drove her contractors crazy with the 11-foot-wide Chinese cabinet in her dining room (it took seven people to move it in-prior to construction, because she wanted to see how it would feel in the space). “They had to work around it and move it from place to place because there was no way I could move it in and out again,” she recalls. “I kept asking them to try not to get dust on it. They hated me.”
In Soskin’s hands, physical objects are more than mere filler-they’re personal, nuanced, almost like living things. She used to host weekend antiques sales in her home, but it pained her to see merchandise go out the door. “I would put my heart and soul into choosing the stuff, and I would anguish over it when it was gone,” she says. “Now I get to know the people I work with, I find the right things for their space, and I can visit.
“People who don’t mind giving stuff away will say to me, ‘There is always more,’” she observes later, while animatedly describing yet another one of her treasures. “But there isn’t always more! It gets sucked up-by dealers, by other people. You have to buy the good stuff when you see it.”
For information on resources, see Buyer’s Guide.
The inveterate shopper takes us on a tour of some of her favorite local haunts. . . .
An intimate kitchen with a stainless steel island is a hub of activity in the home.
Scout (5221 N. Clark St., 773-275-5700) is my first stop for unique, clean-lined pieces, from large-scale farm tables and one-of-a-kind lamps to fabulous framed art and the kind of massive old 56-drawer cabinet that can make a room.
The Golden Triangle (72 W. Hubbard St., 312-755-1266) is great for British colonial bookcases and cabinets, amazing ethnographic objects, unusual coffee tables, and giant vessels.
Heritage Trail Mall (410 Ridge Ave., Wilmette, 847-256-6208) is where I shop for “smalls.” They have an unusual assortment of well-priced books, baskets, pottery, and objets d’art.
Jayson Home & Garden (1885 N. Clybourn Ave., 773-248-8180) is great for basics like sofas and modern-style wing chairs, Tulu rugs, ottomans, and everything from pillows to plants.
Bleeker Street Antiques (1946 N. Leavitt St., 773-862-3185) has a fantastic array of European furniture, mirrors, lighting, art, and interesting collections, such as beautiful old crystal bottles in all different shapes and sizes.
Edgewater Antique Mall (6314 N. Broadway, 773-262-2525) is my favorite place for modern dressers, chairs, paintings, lamps, and books.
Three Friends Studio (5743 W. Howard St., Niles, 847-588-2409) is my Asian furniture and accessories choice in the suburbs; they offer wonderful cabinets, latticework, sculpture, and pottery.
Photography: Nathan Kirkman