While life as an expat in far away lands does bring some decorating joys, i.e. exotic accessories, much of the time basic goods, such as upholstered pieces and quality furniture for reasonable prices, are just not on the agenda. Invariably there are technical difficulties with the technical stuff, voltage variances and possibly language barriers for sourcing parts and hardware, let alone explaining the details of tufted buttons on a headboard. Designing interiors as an expat is much like being on a budget, without the great vintage shopping, thrift stores and Target that are such key resources in America. The best and most reliable places for shopping are often other folks houses – all expats know the best way to get stuff is to hone in on anyone moving back home the moment they announce it. Opportunities need to be grabbed as they tend to be one of a kind and won’t come around again. And the suitcases of all visitors and guests should always be maximized to one’s benefit. My mantra over the years has always been “get lucky and make do” because it has to be, and while it has definitely brought out my creativity, I occasionally wish I had a few other options on the table.
You’ve already heard some of my best stories – certainly nothing will beat the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat that was the free chairs and desk. The colorful scheme of Mally Skok and Raoul Textiles for the kitchen was born out of necessity from the inability to make any changes in our rental. And while I really did want the Saarinen Tulip table for the dining room, it emerged as the absolute front-runner of the three possible schemes simply because it could be had – although perhaps shipping from Malaysia isn’t exactly just had! The IKEA Tobias chairs around it are a classic case of making do with a very happy ending and my living room has a DIY coffee table coming. In the course of this year I’ve had to be resourceful, I’ve had to compromise but the stars have aligned for me at times too.
One of my earliest stories here in Doha is a typical tale of triumph against newcomer odds. Long boxed up in storage in Japan, waiting for its imaginary future, this massive pierced brass karakusa (scrolling arabesque) globe chandelier was one of my favorite shrine sale finds ever.
Of course in Japan I couldn’t hang it, the ceilings being so low that even basically flush mounted it would have hit the top of my sweet husband’s head (and he is about 6 feet tall). With the high ceilings here in Doha it was time for it to emerge and be hung. Enter said expat challenge, better known as chandelier chain. In America, you can walk into any hardware store and there are rolls of chain in different sizes and finishes. Of course here in Doha there is a single strip of lighting stores, which happens to be tucked behind the largest and most complicated building project in the city, making it almost impossible to get to even after you find it (if you find it!). But in my first weeks here, I managed to get there before closing time (all small businesses close between roughly 12:30 and 4:00pm every day – add that to the planning mix), double parked bravely and illegally (no other way to do it) and ran in. The first shop had only bright brass chain in a single size. As did the second, the third and so on. It seems there is only one size and one color finish of shiny brass chandelier chain to be had here in this country and it simply wouldn’t do for my antique fixture. What I did notice was that one small shop had a display chandelier hanging from old chain that was nicely patinated in that dark brass/bronze color even though there was none of it for sale. So I put on my best negotiating skills (all of this at 12:15 while double parked illegally) and managed to convince the owner to let me buy him a length of shiny new chain from another shop to exchange with him (and a little bonus) for his length of old chain. I think he thought I was absolutely nuts, but so be it, mission accomplished! Now it hangs in all its loveliness, casting mysterious shadows at night, and even my 6’7″ friend has no fears of hitting his head on it.
Another favorite story has the longest expat legs of all. When we lived in Hong Kong from 1997-1998, I had a pair of gray and white silk curtains made – much like a ticking stripe – to hang in my chartreuse dining room. (As an aside, best dining room color ever – with gorgeous old Indonesian rosewood floors, Chinese table, painted Tibetan chest and lots of blue & white porcelain!) Upon moving back to New York City, I repurposed them in my gray bedroom, which had only one window so a single set was very useful. As the window was awkwardly placed near the ceiling, I needed to make a valance, so I asked a friend back in Hong Kong to go buy a bit more of the same silk and send it to me. This was all within the first year of leaving so it was easily done. Dug up some old snapshots (!) to give a sense of the curtains in both spaces.
Fast forward five and half years and off we go to Tokyo where our bedroom had three large windows. Better yet, they were all different sizes – not width wise, but height wise – and the ceiling heights were different in each part of the room. I know it is impossible to imagine or even believe that the Japanese would build this way, but I tell you it’s true – it looked like they sourced the windows willy nilly from a sale. I wanted to use the curtains again because I loved them and nothing beats a classic stripe – it just can’t be improved upon. So I tracked down the shop with the silk (I always keep my samples/orders/receipts from every project in neat little Ziploc bags) and they actually still had some. I bought the rest of their final roll as obviously the decorating gods meant me to and had it delivered to my original curtain lady (she of the obi quilt block pillows). Soon after, I visited some friends in Hong Kong and brought the original pair of curtain panels with me. I had her copy the originals – and here is the kicker – make them all the same original long length. Then I had her hem each set to the random length of the windows in my Tokyo bedroom. One set was hemmed about 2 or 3 feet even. But my instincts told me that there was no purpose to having a bunch of odd size and short curtains in the long run.
So now for the moment of triumph. We arrive here in Doha, shake the curtains out from their box and hang them on the existing curtain tracks. They are all way too short, some as much as two feet plus!
I carefully pick out the secondary hem stitches and (drum roll please) they are exactly, yes exactly, the right length. Cosmic decorating karma. A steamer takes out any creases effortlessly. To top it all off, I wanted deep valances, filling the space between the arch of the windows and the ceilings and had just enough fabric from that final roll to make them. I think I will leave you in suspense until my very next post for you to see how it all turned out…
One last story about the kindness of friends and strangers in an expat decorating world. After much deliberation I decided I needed that Pier One/Craig’s List staple the Papasan Chair for my teenage daughter’s room. How can you keep the “no boys sitting on the bed” rule when there isn’t anywhere else to sit? Add in that the room was veering in the slightly too formal direction and that a request for somewhere to “sack out” had been made. Her new desk (our giant antique French partners desk moved from the study) created a perfect deep corner that needed to be filled by something round. I searched the internet for proof that a Papasan could look chic – even Apartment Therapy seemed to be giving them credence – and came up with a few examples, including this one in a similarly colored room. With all things wicker and rattan being back “in” can the Papasan be far behind? Well maybe not, but its just the perfect thing for a teen!
All that said, what would be one of the easiest and most budget friendly options to get ahold of in the USA doesn’t exist here in Doha. And the oversized scale of them makes it prohibitively expensive to ship. So I mentioned to a few friends that I was looking for one or something similar. Within a week, my friend LL (come to think of it – she of the lost desk and chairs!) brings me to the house of another woman in her compound, leaving to move back to Canada. LL had been in her house casing the goods when she noticed a Papasan in the living room, that was not for sale. In classic style, she convinced the woman to sell it to me and just buy a new one when she gets home. Such an expat moment! This is the best I could get my model to give, but you can see it is already being well used. And the cranberry colored cushion has just been sent out to be recovered in white cotton duck.
Now much of my experience is only true in the places I have lived, namely Asia and the Middle East. Those lucky enough to live in Europe with its hundreds of years of furniture making its way to market might have a different story to tell. And there will be more on this topic in my next post, as I explore the challenge of updating a bedroom straight out of the Paris flea markets. But in the meantime, what have been your biggest challenges finding and creating your home, wherever you may live?