Spend 30 years in the home-decor industry, and you develop a pretty defined set of design truths and tricks, not to mention an incredible eye for what works—not what’s trendy or what other designers are doing, but which elements combine to make a memorable room design. Joan Osofsky is one of these erudite experts. A former teacher and suburban New Jersey mom, she always loved antiques and decorating, but never thought about pursuing them as a profession. That changed once she and her husband bought a home in upstate New York, with a nearby old horse barn, complete with crumbling floors, rusty fixtures, and broken windows. “I looked around and thought, It’s perfect,” Joan recalls. I saw a vision.”
That vision blossomed into Hammertown Barn. Started on a shoestring, with little more than Joan’s concept of a modern country sensibility, Hammertown featured a finely edited selection of chic yet livable furniture, rugs, bedding, lighting, and kitchenware, and accessories. It turned out to be just what home owners in Joan’s little corner of the Hudson Valley, and the neighboring Berkshires and Litchfield County, were craving. Joan now owns three packed-with-design-candy Hammertown locations, where she and her knowledgeable staff consult on decorating projects big, small, and every size in between. It’s no wonder Hammertown has been selected by Cottage Living and House Beautiful as one of the country’s top design stores.
Joan is also the author of Love Where You Live: At Home in the Country (now in its fourth printing!), and is at work on a second book. We sat down with her to talk design, the objects and ideas that inspire her, and what she can’t live without.
Fresh American: What’s your earliest memory of being interested in design?
Joan Osofsky: As a young child, I had a dollhouse. I would play house and school, and I was always changing the arrangement of the furniture and accessories. Later on, I went to school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was kind of a design mecca back then—there were lots of people doing design research and architecture, and there were so many independent shops with beautiful things.
I moved to Maine for a bit, and that was the first time I got into antiques. I have always had a love of old things, but when I look back at these early days, at the design choices my friends and I were making, I can clearly see that I always had my own spirit, and antiques were part of it. I remember seeing photos of (author and designer) Mary Emmerling’s apartment in New York; I immediately thought, That’s what I love. That’s my style. It had white walls, slipcovered furniture with textiles hanging as art, and Shaker boxes. That was probably my first real design inspiration.
FA: What has been the biggest change in your design approach or aesthetic over the years?
JO: Curating. It’s not like I don’t want to have stuff; I just want to surround myself with the stuff that’s important to me. If you’re not connecting with something, it’s time to let it go and maybe bring something new in.
FA: What’s your greatest challenge as a designer?
JO: I don’t really think of myself as a designer. I like to work with other people, which is why I have a great team at each of the Hammertown stores. My stores are a collaboration—without all the wonderful people I work with, Hammertown wouldn’t be.
We have a very accessible design program. For a reasonable fee, you can have one of my designers come to your home for a two-hour consultation. People also come into the store and bring in photos and ask for advice. Sometimes what it comes down to is that we’re too close to our things. A fresh eye is really important. In the store, we try to create little vignettes so you can imagine, for instance, what that sofa would look like in your living room. I always tell people, “Don’t buy stuff just because it’s on sale.” Look at books, magazines, sites like Houzz. Discover who you are, and make considered choices.
FA: Which design “rule” or idea do you refer back to over and over? Which have you tossed out?
JO: I tend to think very carefully about bringing bold colors into a room. It should be very well thought out, because you’re going to live with it for a long time.
My best advice is, tap into your own spirit. Whether you have a design interest or not, you have things you like and don’t like. It might be a rug or a favorite quilt. Start there, and then think about the other things you have that might fit in with it. Bring in objects you’ll like as much in 20 years as you like today. For example, I have a tole tray collection that I love. I know I’ll always feel the same about it, so I can feel confident incorporating it into a new design.
I think people today are fed this idea of amassing more and more stuff from some of the big online flash-sale shops and retailers. Don’t get me wrong; they have great things, but you have to learn how to curate. You want a room to show your own stamp, not look like a catalog.
FA: What are your go-to sources for inspiration?
JO: I love the World of Interiors. And I love going to Maine every 6 weeks or so; the coast is always inspiring. I love the spirit, and there’s great antiquing. And Paris—I was there two years ago and everything about it was incredible. Travel is great, because you always find something inspiring. Galleries and museums are a source, as well. I especially like the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney in New York, and the Clark Art Institute and the Norman Rockwell Museum in the Berkshires.
FA: Describe a project that didn’t go quite as planned, and how you turned it around.
JO: I think and think and think about things before I do them—maybe that’s the business side of me—but it usually means I don’t end up with as many things I want to change. I’ve repainted rooms because I’ve realized once I’ve already painted them that they just don’t have depth. I’ve learned to paint a big scrap board and lean it against wall for a couple days; it gives you a much better sense of the color than painting a little swatch on the wall.
FA: Which design trend or idea do you wish would go away? Which design trend or idea are you loving right now?
JO: I think what happens sometimes with trends is that they’ll take an original—like Indian fabric—and then dumb it down. Then it loses its spirit. You just have to look a little harder to find the prints that still have the original quality. I love indigo and deep blues, but it’s probably a trend that’s close to being overdone. Decoupage was interesting in the beginning, but it’s become too mass. The same with grays and neutrals. I love them, but I don’t want to walk into a room that’s all grays, whites, and beiges anymore. I like to see some color, for example, on the pillows or the rugs. I’m bored of everything looking all the same.
I love a mix of global elements—vintage scarves, repurposed material for pillows—but I combine it with more modern elements. I advise people to go to the best shops, antique stores, and museum they can find. Even if you can’t afford those items, it will help you develop your eye. So when you walk into Target or Home Goods, you’ll still be able to find something special.
FA: Which designers, artists, or blogs can you not get enough of?
JO: Victor Mirabelli —I love his paintings. They often have barns or houses in them, but they have layers and layers, and send you down a road that’s very dreamy. For designers, I love Heide Hendricks. She’s very contemporary and fresh. I have several books that are compilations of great designers, as well. I get ideas from everybody.
FA: In your opinion, what’s one thing that will never go out of style?
JO: Old things. If it has patina—an old piece of wood, a tole tray, an English picnic basket from the 1950s that I just found—it has inherent interest.
FA: What’s the one item in your home you couldn’t live without?
JO: My New England original, gold step-back cupboard from the 1830s. It will go wherever I go. I also have an old indigo quilt that I love. And my family photographs, my dogs.
FA: If you were to chuck designing for another career, what would it be?
JO: Something with food. Maybe nutrition.
FA: Which book is on your nightstand, and which movie is tops in your Netflix queue right now?
JO: I just finished Being Mortal. But one of my favorite books of all time is Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister; it’s about Virginia Woolf’s sister and their life in the Bloomsbury Group in London.