Small Spaces

Junk is your friend: Ralph Lauren's Mary Randolph Carter on collecting in a small space

By Sharon Krum  | June 19, 2014 - 8:59AM

“Once upon a time there was a girl who loved too many things,” begins Mary Randolph Carter’s new coffee table book “Never Stop to Think ... Do I Have a Place for This?," a celebration of eclectic collectors and their homes. Carter is knowingly talking about herself, and her lifelong passion for thrift store paintings and religious icons, among other items. A senior vice president and creative director for Ralph Lauren, Carter is also the author of "A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life," and the Junk books, a series of how-to guides for junk lovers.

Mary Randolph Carter, a long-time collector and creative director at Ralph Lauren, shows off her finds in the studio of her country home in Millerton, N.Y. 

She lives with her husband in a two-bedroom pre-war apartment on the Upper East Side, where the couple has been for 40 years, and has a country house in Millerton, N.Y. In the book, she profiles collectors from across the U.S. who see beauty and sentiment in everything from flea market finds to antiques.

Here, she explains what collecting says about you, how she rarely pays more than $25 for paintings, and strategies to be a collector even in a small apartment.

What makes us want to collect?

One thing is having a home of your own, whether it’s a college dorm room or an apartment. You have an opportunity to create your environment. The collectors in the book all have this need to find things that give their homes creativity and unique style. ... Memory and nostalgia for things often drive a collection. I collect “Infants of Prague,” [see below] an icon from my Catholic childhood. My grandmother made chocolate pudding in Pyrex dishes, and I see them and can’t resist them. I think those collections that evoke childhood make us feel good and grounded, and our homes unique. 

These make up part of Carter's collection of Infants of Prague religious icons, which remind her of her Catholic childhood.

What does a collection add to a home?

Personality. In this day and age of cookie cutter home stores and everyone has the same sofa, you really want to have pieces that make your home distinctive. New Yorkers by nature are characters, and you want your home to reflect this.
Do you really think if you love it, buy it? What about cost?
Cost is always a nagging consideration, and I think part of the fun of the hunt is the haggle. Most dealers at flea markets or tag sales are in it for the game and fun, as well as profit. If you love something say to them, ‘I really love this, can you do any better?’ Usually they will give you a break. When I buy my paintings I rarely go over $25.
What's the best way to display a collection in a small apartment?

I believe if you find something that speaks to you, find a place for it. If paintings and photographs fill up your walls, use the backs of doors. Use bookshelves for more than books, include your treasures on them. And don’t stash small things away, put them out and enjoy them.
How did your love of collecting start?

When I was small I loved playing with dolls and started collecting things for my dollhouse to decorate it. My parents were an inspiration also. We grew up in a old house in Richmond, Va., and after a fire we lost everything. They started recreating our home with pieces collected. Then I moved to New York after college, and while I brought pieces from home, I discovered the plethora of thrift shops here.
What was your best find? 

Recently in New Orleans I saw an Infant of Prague icon that must have come from an old church. It was 2.5 feet tall and must have weighed 50 pounds. I wrapped it in a towel and carried it [on the plane]. It’s now the hulk of my Prague collection!

Carter's latest book celebrates the pack rat in all of us by looking at collectors from across the U.S.

How would you describe your apartment’s aesthetic? 
It is filled with memories and layers of things we have collected [like thrift store paintings]. I love furniture that has an old patina, things that are worn and weathered. I want it to feel warm and comfortable. People come to our apartment and say they thought they were in a country cottage. 
What are your picks for best flea market or antique shop in the city? And upstate?
The Antiques Garage on 25th Street—there are some great dealers there. The Hell's Kitchen market is very good and the Brooklyn Flea. If you go upstate, take a train to Hudson. Warren Street is packed with an eclectic mix of shops. In Millerton, there is Hunter Bee and an amazing antique mall there.
Favorite restaurant in your neighborhood?
Nectar, on 82nd Street, has  the best coffee. We love it because it’s a real classic New York coffee shop. 
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