The Handmade’s Tale: An interview with CatHouse Modern

In the fifth installment of The Handmade’s Tale, Natasha chats to Kate Smith who creates mid-century modern inspired furniture for the discerning feline.

Ever noticed how fugly most cat furniture is? Every time I go shopping for my precious Puss Puss I find myself recoiling at the sheer hideousness of most cat scratchers and cat beds. Occasionally I find a cute little mouse or a catnip-infused toy which has some aesthetic merit, but this is few and far between.

As a mid-century kitsch fan I have a hankering for atomic symbols and retro styling but until now, have found it nigh on impossible to source anything decent for my beloved fur baby.

That is until I stumbled across the wonderful Kate from CatHouse Modern when she posted in one of my favourite global Facebook groups, Mid-Century Modern Cats (yes, there’s a group for every taste, no matter how niche!)

CatHouse Modern’s raison d’être is to craft one-of-a-kind furniture with a Mid Century Modern bent for you and your favorite cat or kitten.

Made with new and reclaimed materials, her products combine rescued vintage and durable fabrics in colors and patterns which blend in with and accent your retro lifestyle.

She also designs toys and furniture that keep in mind the need for comfort, and the innate curiosity and playfulness of cats.

Kate’s artistic muse is Roy, her 8- year-old silver tabby who has a penchant for 3am wake-up calls, attacking his food bowl, devouring cheese and nestling in the warm lap of his humans.

Read on to find out more about this unique business and how to source some sweet MCM flavoured pieces for your favourite feline!

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CatHouse Modern Logo – That’s not Roy in the photo, but it looks just like him. The ‘H’ in catHouse is a take on a shape you see in some Mid-Century-Modern architecture. 

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CatHouse Modern creator Kate Smith. “Me in Palm Springs – This is me being sassy at the Caliente Tropics Hotel in Palm Springs. The entire hotel is Tiki themed. Being photographed in front of “don’t be doing this” signs is a tradition with me...because I’m a rebel.”

How many cats do you have?

Currently I have one cat, Roy. I guess you would say he’s an American shorthair-type silver tabby. He came from a no-kill shelter five years ago as a kitten, and he’s a real imp.

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Roy & Cat House prototype –made from Bamboo, wool felt, aluminum legs. 

Were you always creative/ crafty as a youngster?

Yes, all my life. I come from a family of creative, artistic people. My sister is an exceptionally talented mosaic artist and other family members include a ceramicist and two professional dancers.

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Roy modeling my Starburst Collar Charm. Laser cut & etched Lucite. 

My mother taught me how to sew at a young age and she and my dad were always big do-it-yourselfers, mostly out of financial necessity but they both had artistic talent. I majored in art in school and eventually got a degree in Commercial Art.

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Starburst Earrings – Same as the collar charm. I plan on doing more of these with different designs. Matching jewelry for the cat and their human companion

How long have you been making things?

I’ve been making things forever. When I had my Etsy shop I did a lot of ‘upcycling’ of vintage pieces that either wouldn’t sell as is or needed a facelift.

If I find a vintage piece that has any chance of being revived, I can’t help but be inspired to give it a new life or purpose.

 The vintage boxes available on catHousemodern.com reflect my artistic vision applied to objects that were popular in the past and have lost their appeal but can still serve a useful purpose. My parents and grandparents were Depression Era folk and their frugality has rubbed off.

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Witco Box: My take on a vintage Witco wall art design. Rescued cedar box. 

How did the idea for your business come about?

The idea started after I remodeled my living room. When it was finished, I just couldn’t live with the cat tower I had. It was all sisal rope and beige carpeting. It didn’t suit the design or color scheme of the room and I realized that I could make a better one with a mid-century vibe.

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Nelson Ball Clock Box – Vinyl graphic based on the iconic ball clock design by George Nelson. 

The design and construction took me out of my comfort zone as I had to learn about metal bending and a bit of engineering, and the best materials and hardware to use. It was a long process, and I knew it would require some capital to make more to sell. In the interim I realized that I already had what I needed to start making pet beds, and that provides the funds I need to produce other pieces.

How long have you been in business?

I started last year, and I launched cathousemodern.com web in 2018.

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Tiki Toys – Felt toys with vinyl graphics, stuffed with catnip and either polyester fiberfill or crackly mylar. 

Do you trial your products on your own cat?

I do. Although Roy is not a big fan of catnip and he’s kind of lazy, he likes the felt toys because he can get his claws in them and really flip them around the way a cat will do with prey. I send sample toys to friends who have cats, so I can get feedback.

Roy loves the prototype cat house, it’s one of his favorite places to sleep and it’s positioned to give him a good view of the backyard.

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Yorktown Lanes – The bowling alley where I grew up. Googie architecture. Believe it or not, the building is still there and still a bowling alley.

Why the fascination with Mid-Century Modern?

 It’s more of an obsession than a fascination! I was born in 1956 and grew up with that style of architecture and design so it’s something I was exposed to and found appealing. 

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Congo Room – Vintage Neon at Caliente Tropics Hotel

There are plenty of examples of Mid Century architecture in Cleveland, OH, where I grew up.

I appreciate the uncluttered, sleek lines, minimal ornamentation and the juxtaposition of traditional and non-traditional materials. The “form follows function” principle (another nod to frugality) which I try to adhere to in my designs.

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Sears Middleburg Hts., OH – This is the Sears department store where I grew up. Classic Mid-Century roof line. Believe it or not, I went to charm school there. I am a VERY charming person.

How would you describe your aesthetic?

Organic, no frills, practical, authentic.

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Caliente Tropics: Example of Tiki Art in Palm Springs, CA – Caliente Tropics Hotel 

What are your creative inspirations?

James Herriot said, “Cats are connoisseurs of comfort,” which is a phrase I keep in mind when I’m working on a project.

For capturing the mid mod style, I look to the designers of the period; Charles & Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, George Nelson, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Poulson, Donald Wexler, Hans Wegner to name a few. I’m also inspired by the playfulness of Googie architecture, Tiki style and Witco wall art and other décor pieces from the ‘50s and ‘60s.

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Gift it forward: This vintage Kromex ice bucket is an example of a piece that was a mess when I found it. Not sellable as it was, I took it apart for a clean and polish. The outer surface was scratched so I repainted and added a mod vinyl graphic. It hadn’t sold when I closed my Etsy shop so I decided to give it away as a social media promo. The ‘gift it forward’ part, I had Facebook followers tag a friend they thought would like to have the ice bucket and then did a random drawing to pick the winner. It was fun, and I plan to do another gift it forward promo again soon. 

How has your taste and work evolved over time?

I’ve learned that simple is better. Projects that are abandoned have usually become too complex or they just don’t feel right.

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Googie Cat Toys – These are fairly large (6”) felt toys in a space age/Googie style. Stuffed with either polyester fiberfill or crackly mylar and organic catnip, the graphics are die cut vinyl. (Googie is a form of modern architecture, a subdivision of futurist architecture influenced by car culture, jets, the Space Age, and the Atomic Age. Originated in California, popular from the 1940s to 1960s. )

What’s the first piece you remember making?

If you mean for catHouse, it would be the prototype. One of the first arty objects I ever made was a Valentine’s card box for my daughter when she was in elementary school. It had fabulous 3-dimensional artwork on the box that I made using clip art.

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Kohala Cat Lounger & Roy – This is another rescued piece of vintage furniture. Has a storage area and the fabric is also from Spoonflower. 

Can you talk us through your range of products?

The cat toys are my original designs with retro themes and fun details you don’t find on commercially produced toys. The felt is die-cut and I do the stuffing and sewing myself. Collar charms (kitty bling) are laser etched Lucite I design and are made by a company that’s based in New Zealand.

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Minimalist Fish – Felt & vinyl cat toys based on Mid Century metal wall art. Stuffed with catnip and polyester fiberfill with a little bell between the back fins. 

The cat beds, or loungers as I call them, are a combination of vintage furniture parts and reclaimed wood. I sew the cushion covers using period themed, durable fabrics. Some of the loungers have die-cut vinyl accents that are also my original designs. Another section in my shop offers vintage pieces that I’ve updated to give them a modern appeal.  Currently I have a selection of cedar boxes embellished with vinyl graphics that are fun décor items.

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Tiki Lounger – Reclaimed wood, vintage tapered wood legs, fabric from Spoonflower. 

Are the majority of orders custom made/ one offs?

Yes, one of a kind, apart from the cat toys and collar charms. I’ve been using reclaimed materials and vintage parts for furniture so each one is unique. Future plans are to produce original loungers and towers in small quantities that may have customizable options.

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Tell me about the process involved in making catHouse Modern pieces. What materials do you use? And how long does each piece take to make?

The process of designing can take minutes or hours or weeks depending on how inspired I am and what I have to work with. Sometimes designs get put aside because it’s not working for me on an artistic level or there are engineering issues to work out, or I can’t find the exact materials I want to use. When it does work, it takes about a week to make a cat lounger, toys can be produced in a matter of hours.

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Mid Mod Fish Lounger – Not vintage furniture but rescued. Storage under the top, fabric from Spoonflower. The framed art is a real favorite of mine, Roy looks over his shoulder in the exact same way. 

When deciding on materials, I first take into consideration that my products are going to be used by cats. I want to make sure they are durable and non-toxic to felines (or people for that matter). I like to use wood because it has intrinsic beauty and it can be sustainably sourced. Bamboo is a favorite of mine.

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Starburst Collar – Roy modeling my Starburst Collar Charm. Laser cut & etched Lucite. 

I like the color and grain and the durability. As you’ve seen, I am a big fan of Spoonflower fabric products. Their fabric choices are great, and I like supporting the artists who offer their designs on the site because they’re small business owners too. I also like Spoonflower’s option of creating custom fabrics which is part of the grander plan for catHouse modern.

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Gusdorf Cat Lounger – The wood base was previously the bottom of either a stereo or TV stand, made by the Gusdorf Company. I found it at an estate sale (in the garage under a bunch of junk). The Gusdorf logo is really neat so I recreated it in vinyl and put it on the base under the cushion. You can see it on the website. The fabric is from Spoonflower. 

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

As with most of the creative people I know, being ‘in’ the process is a completely happy and satisfying space for me. Finishing a project and loving the results is exhilarating, and positive feedback is great too.

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Star Diamond Box – Rescued cedar box with vinyl graphics and felt lined drawers.

What do you do when you’re not making things?

I handle all the non-creative aspects of the business and do research for my designs.

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Rescued Lane Furniture Co. cedar box with brushed nickel tapered legs and vinyl graphic based on Mid Century starburst clock designs. These boxes were given to graduating high school girls. They are miniature versions of Lane cedar chests. Supposed to inspire the girl to dream about her future as a good wife and homemaker and think about her dowry. I guess the men at Lane didn’t imagine a woman could be something other than a housewife. My sister had one of these, but she’s a feminist! 

Finish this sentence: Handmade is best because………..

It contains the mojo of the person who made it.

Where can people learn more about your work and purchase their own pieces?

Visit my website www.cathousemodern.com

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Everything but the kitsch-en sink: Rebecca Smith from Timaru

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.

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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.

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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’! 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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!

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