Welcome to part one of a new series about vintage collectors:
Rebecca Smith shares her passion for playful objects d’art and tongue-in-cheek decoration with Natasha Francois.
The 37-year-old mother-of-three describes her style as “colourful, nostalgic, tacky and a little bit saucy”. So its no surprise her Timaru house is awash with whimsical Siamese cat figurines, saucer-eyed children, flying seagulls, pink flamingos, cigar lamps, boomerang coffee tables, mid-century kitchen canisters, touches of exotica and lashings of yesteryear.
I first encountered Rebecca about 20 years ago when we were both living in Palmerston North. We were both teenagers into the punk scene then and lapped up the abundance of cheap op shops in the town where we lived. I only recently reconnected again with her via one of my favourite Facebook groups NZ Lovers of True Vintage.
Read on to find out more about her quirky collection!
You seem to have quite a few different collections on the go. Can you give us a rundown?
At the moment I’m collecting vintage Pyrex, patterned drinking glasses, kitsch art, cute ceramic figurines, Gayware kitchen canisters, Kewpie dolls, Barsony style black lamps, 1960s deckchairs and umbrellas.
How did these collections start?
I’ve always been a collector. When I was a child I collected rubber erasers, at 9 it was Babysitter’s Club books, around 11 I collected troll dolls, then at 13 I had rather an impressive collection of Bob Marley memorabilia – haha – I was obsessed with him! When I was in my mid teens I started collecting vintage homeware/decor and it’s just stuck.
How would you describe your particular aesthetic?
Colourful, nostalgic, tacky and a little bit saucy. My cousin recently described it as ‘looking like our nana’s house had vomited’!
You seem to penchant for mid-century and kitsch: why is this? Does it remind you of childhood?
I think it is mostly nostalgic; although I grew up in the 80s and 90s and loathe anything from that era! I always preferred the things in my grandparent’s houses. Growing up we had a bach at Pleasant Point which had fantastic barkcloth curtains, vinyl armchairs and cupboards full of Crown Lynn colour glaze. I remember my cousins and I each had one of those sad-eyed children pictures hanging on the bedroom wall – I’ve got a collection of those now.
How long have you been collecting retro and vintage?
I started about age 14. My mum worked for a law firm at the time and they were dealing with the estate of an elderly hoarder who’d passed away. He had no family and it would have cost a fortune to clean out the house. The museum came and took quite a few pieces first then my mum and I cleaned the rest. It was absolutely filthy – cobwebs thick from the ceiling down to head height, mouse poop everywhere. There was no payment involved but we were allowed to keep whatever we wanted. So much of it was damaged beyond repair but I did start a collection of Vernon Ward prints from there! When I was 16, I went flatting in Palmerston North and starting collecting the retro glassware and furniture. At the time (mid 90s) there was an abundance of great op shops around and mid-century stuff was cheap and relatively easy to come by.
Favourite time period and why?
I love the shapes and lines of 1950s furniture especially Atomic designs but I think the 1960s would be my favourite era because of the bold patterns and clashing colours.
Does your fascination for collecting vintage extend into your wardrobe and overall appearance?
My wardrobe is mostly vintage or vintage inspired. Lots of colour, lots of frocks. I don’t collect anything per se but there is definitely a theme going on there. The only pants I own are two pairs of jeans – I wear dresses or skirts all the time. A 50s or 60s dress with boots or tights and heels is probably my ‘go to’ look. I struggle for work because our dress code is ‘current in-season’ fashion which I mostly despise. It means I have to keep two wardrobes going which gets expensive but I try to give my work outfits a retro twist where I can. Last winter was great as there was a 70s revival in women’s fashion with lots of corduroy, pinafores and pussybow shirts.
Fave places to source bargains and treasure?
I love scouring the op shops of Oamaru. It’s an hour south of here but I always find great stuff at cheap prices and there are so many. I often take the kids for weekend a day trip.
I’m also a big fan of the local ‘dump shop’ the Crows Nest here in Timaru which is a great place to find cheap crockery and project furniture.
If I’m in the North Island: Savemart in Wanganui is hands down the best place to find vintage clothing. Their retro section is huge.
What are some of your favourite pieces in your collection and why?
My favourite pieces are the ones I inherited from my grandparents- purely for a sentimental reasons: a gorgeous African black lady lamp, three ceramic flying seagulls that were always on their lounge room wall and a green apple-shaped ice bucket that my brother tries to steal every time he comes over!
Is your partner a collector too?
He collects bicycles and surfboards – thankfully his passions are more outdoorsy – there’s no room in the house for another collector.
What do your kids think of your decorating style?
The little ones love their vintage-inspired bedroom. My cabinets of ceramic nicknacks are a source of constant frustration for them though. They want to play with all the cute little cats and elves but they’re not allowed to. It can be awkward when parents of their friends visit us for the first time because some of the artwork around the place is a bit risque and I’m never sure how they’re going to react.
Tell us about your retro caravan. I understand it’s kitsch/ tiki inspired. And how did you decorate it?
Our caravan is a 1964 Zephyr. The theme started with the wallpaper which I found on the amazing Spoonflower site. It’s a tiki, surf and hula-girl print. The colour scheme for the interior and exterior draws upon colours from that. I made all of the curtains and blinds and most of the cushions. My husband painted the interior and built the table. He had to sew the covers for the squabs because I was pretty over the sewing by that point! The guy at the bench top company freaked out when I requested bright orange bench tops – people are pretty conservative down here.
Any pieces you dream of finding? What are they?
I’d love to find an atomic lamp with one of those double-tier fibre glass shades! Never gonna happen in New Zealand but dreams are free right?
Who has a collection that you envy?
My ex-boyfriend Brian (you might remember him from Cuba Street Records in Palmerston North) has an absolutely huge collection of 50s-70s TV shows, game shows, b-movies, sci-fi and general obscura. Much of it is still on VHS but he’s got everything catalogued in little notebooks. There are shelves and shelves of videos right up & down his hallway. He’s never embraced the digital age but host the best video nights!
Do you have any general thoughts on op shopping/ treasure hunting in New Zealand to share with our readers?
There’s still plenty of places to find great things at good prices if you look often enough. Wellington had all but dried up three years ago when we left there and I find Christchurch to be overpriced. Levin, Wanganui, Hawera and New Plymouth would be among my favourite places to op shop.
What do you think of Rebecca’s sweet retro digs? Please let me know in the comments!