The side of the 120-year-old farmhouse slanted toward the muddy ground, the skinny staircase creaked painfully and there was a goat living in the back room. This house — smack in the middle of Ashland — needed to be saved.
Enter Judy Alexander, a retired interior designer who is a self-described "antiquer and treasure seeker."
When you've got as many collections as retired interior designer Judy Alexander, it's good to know how to best display them.
"Group your collections so it becomes a statement," Judy says, indicating a hutch filled with Japanese art deco vases. "If you put just one someplace, people would say, 'What a pretty vase.' But in a grouping, it's dramatic."
Choosing a theme for a room is another way to make the most of collections. All Judy's carved and painted animals live in the grandkids' playroom. Whimsical painted boxes—some found, others decorated by Judy—sit atop shelves, giving the room even more of a Noah's Ark-meets-toy-box feeling.
Also, think about what sort of space is available for your collection.
"If you have a limited amount of space, either show off only your favorite pieces or rotate them annually or by the season," counsels Annie McIntyre, owner of McIntyre Interiors in Ashland. "That way, you get to enjoy them and your eye doesn't get tired of them."
Look for curio shelves, lighted shelving, shadow boxes or other creative surfaces for your collectibles. "For little things, have a shelf that's eye level, out of the reach of small children and where you can see them in good light," McIntyre says.
Group mementos by color and display them in odd numbers for more impact. Three is a favorite of designers; five is great, too. "When they're in groups, vary the sizes for added visual interest," advises McIntyre.
Finally, if you're starting a collection, be very choosy. "It's easy to get carried away and before you know it, you've got cats coming out of your ears," says McIntyre. "Be absolutely sure it's something you care about and love and reflects who are."
"It was a nightmare," says the hip, bespectacled mother of three adult boys. "But I love old houses and the wood floors and wood ceiling sold me."
That was in 2001. For a year, Judy lived in the home while she and an ever-rotating crew of tradespeople transformed the dilapidated building into a three bedroom, two bath farmhouse that seems uniquely suited to its owner's signature taste for all things old and odd.
The main renovation was opening up the L-shaped front rooms. Once smothered by a rickety staircase, the dining and living areas now glow with diffused light from the original chandeliers and fixtures, which Judy updated with paint.
A vast blue and white china collection borders the dining room. Against one wall stands an 1840 hourglass-shaped, wooden grandfather clock fitted by a folk artist with a Victorian face, workings and pendulum. Against another is the wood-burning fireplace Judy installed and uses as her main heat source.
To extend the farmhouse theme, Judy chose a color palette of red, gray-blue and hunter green. Used differently in every room, the trio of shades provides an old-fashioned, yet stylish, backdrop to the homeowner's artwork, Persian rugs and eclectic furniture. Door casings, bull's-eyes and trim are painted white for contrast.
"It's my personal decision to have a limited number of colors," says Judy. "This way, I can move things around from room to room and everything still works together."
Tucked in back of the dining room is a rustic white kitchen with a tiny breakfast nook paneled in knotty pine. New appliances and a splashboard fashioned by Judy from broken blue and white pottery are the only new things.
It's hard to say what the weirdest piece is in Judy's farmhouse full of folk art—is it the vintage South American mosaics made of butterfly wings in the master bedroom or the 1940s Guyanese "Downtown Hair Salon" sandwich board sign that hangs in the upstairs loft and features a neatly coiffed island woman?
"It's the stuff that falls through the cracks of mainstream society that draws my eye," she says. "I like weird and, honestly, I think I sort of like the challenge of bringing these things through customs."
Like the huge, parrot-shaped-wicker lamp she hauled back from Mexico last year that now lights up the wee library nook off the living room. Here, Judy is kept company by walls of books, family photos and several ethnic renditions of the Virgin Mary.
In the living room is one of Judy's two door paintings she bought from a homeless street artist in Key West, Florida. "He got doors from the trash, then painted these Modigliani-type images on them," she recalls.
Off the living room is a charming space Judy manufactured from what was a dangerously sloping, open porch. She closed off three exterior windows, lifted the sagging floor and enclosed the whole thing.
"I've always lived in larger houses and I have lots of large antiques," Judy explains. "And although I wanted a little playroom for my grandkids, a lot of the reason I built this on was to have a place for my furniture."
Up a new set of stairs is a cozy den with television and cushy seating. What was a tiny room drooping over the side of the old porch became a fresh, white master bath and laundry area featuring an old dresser re-purposed as a vanity.
Two small guest rooms fit neatly off the other side of the loft, with Judy's master bedroom sitting above the living room. The latter is dressed in exotic Tibetan bed linens, a hanging kimono and understated South American folk art.
"I finally get to have all my things in one place and it's all jammed in here with me."
And so, this weird little world of folk objects spins around its curator—everything happy in its cozy farmhouse setting. Finally at home.