Confessions of a Parkite kitsch collector |

Confessions of a Parkite kitsch collector

Vintage items go a long way in adding character to the home

Robin Whitney found this candy machine in a corner of the basement in a house a friend bought in Salt Lake City. It weighs a ton, but Whitney actually uses it — keeping it stocked with items she buys from
Photo courtesy of Grace Whitbey

Some call it thrift shopping. Based on reactions of visitors to my home, I’m certain some call it junk collecting. I think of it as being on the hunt. And what I’m on the hunt for is a specific genre of mid- century de?cor referred to as “kitsch.”

You know what I’m talking about. Bright, bright colors. Plastics. Naugahyde. Fiberglass. Poodles. Atoms. Bark cloth. Venetian-blind lampshades. Marilyn — oh, Marilyn! Flamingos. The playfulness. The whimsy. It’s as if the word “fabulous” was invented just for this.

When we moved to Park City 20-something years ago, we were already hooked, and brought a moving van of colorful treasures with us to a town where log-pole pine, antlers and “mountain elegance” was the style of the day.

Home buying was a challenge. First, we wanted light-colored wood in our home, ideally “blonde wood.” We desired minimum stonework: nothing rugged or lodge-like. We searched for a long time before we found a blue house with white trim on a hill with only mildly irritating interior woodwork.

Contrary to what one might think, Whitney’s home isn’t cluttered, but rather stylishly accented with kitchy items — and uncomfortable furniture. (Photo courtesy of Grace Whitney)

Little did we know that Utah, at that time, was the mothership of kitsch. We quickly increased our collection fivefold, partly because it was so plentiful and cheap. And partly because when you’re decorating with found items, you have to buy it when you find it. The day you go hunting for a table, there may be no tables. But there may be an amazing cerulean bench sofa, a mint- condition Raymond Loewy desk, winking cat salt and pepper shakers, and a silver bowling ball cordial set. When you’re on the hunt and you find something marvelous, you ooh and aah, and you buy it all on the spot. You simply have no choice. You may never find it again.

You’re not decorating with a plan. You make it up as you go along. If you’re committed enough, you end up like us with exactly five pieces of furniture in your home that were bought new, and only because, while vintage upholstered pieces look fantastic, they are ridiculously uncomfortable to settle into for a good read or a movie.

It takes years to put together enough pieces to fill a house, and in our case, an office, as well. Our closets are stuffed with unused pieces, waiting for their day in the sun when something breaks or falls out of favor. We rearrange the furniture constantly, to mix and match for new looks. Collecting at this level is not a design scheme; it’s a lifestyle.

Is it thrifty? Sure — but not necessarily. We have scores of pieces we paid $20 to $75 for. We also have numerous pieces we paid $1,000 to $2,000 for. They all share the same thing: They are virtually irreplaceable. We literally wouldn’t know where to begin, and it could take years, if ever, to find a suitable substitute, even on eBay.

Robin Whitney bought the orange phone online from South America. “A few years ago, it called 911 on its own at 2 a.m., and we were awakened by Summit County Sheriff’s office deputies pounding on our door. ‘The call is coming from inside your house,’ they said. We freaked out. It is now unplugged, but last week, out of nowhere, it started ringing. Sometimes old stuff holds mysteries.” (Photo courtesy of Grace Whitney)

So what have we learned over all these years?

Kitschy collecting is impractical and addictive

We could have probably launched two companies with the time we’ve spent trolling around for finds. I have often wondered what it would be like to have a desk with drawers that easily open, with the latest technology designed to fit standard office supplies.

Storeowners are delighted to remain on the lookout for you

Once you’ve visited a store a few times and made several purchases so they know you’re serious, give them a wish list and phone number, and you’ll likely get a call before a
coveted item hits the show- room floor.

This blue poodle was one of the first things Whitney bought. “It’s very PeeWee’s Playhouse,” she says. “Twenty years ago, things like that were every- where, including the average church thrift shop. Now you don’t see this type of thing as much.” (Photo courtesy of Grace Whitney)

Display items marked “not for sale” are sometimes for sale

Maybe they were having a slow week. Maybe it was a moment of weakness. Whatever the reason, owners who had previously refused sold us four of our very best pieces suddenly and unexpectedly. But then, some have second thoughts: One storeowner called us back the next day and offered twice what we paid for it.

You may become a dumping ground for friends and acquaintances

Everyone has some “hideous” item in their home (usually passed down from a great-aunt) that they think fits your decor and that they are eager to part with. It makes them so happy to give it to you, knowing it will be loved, and they will not have to feel guilty about trashing it.

Prepare yourself for the fact that your children don’t want to inherit it

I know, how can that be? I’m shocked, too. A lifetime of passionate, zealous hunting and gathering yields a mountain of amazing stuff that the next generation doesn’t salivate over? I keep saying to my daughters, “You’re going to want this someday for your own house, right?” So far, no takers.

So, go ahead. Give collecting your favorite theme a try. Whatever look you seek, good luck on the hunt. No one else’s house will ever look like yours when you do it your way.