Reviving Merry England’s Knickknack Knack

Too many people think it’s a real chore to learn to decorate their homes like an English country house. It isn’t. It requires just one strategy: Go to half a dozen garage sales and buy everything. Then shove it all into your house.

To the English gentry in particular, everything is a potential knickknack, and there is absolutely nothing the countrified Brits love more than knickknacks. They would throw out their beds to make more room for knickknacks.

Ask about that lump of coal on the sideboard, and you’ll get a story of how eccentric Uncle Reggie used it to scrawl “Second Front” on the vicar’s old Austin in 1944. That bent hatpin was the very one used by Second Cousin Felicity to stab the milkman in the Great Devonshire Cream Riot of 1926. And that clump of lint on the mantle once dislodged itself from the Marchioness of Abergavenny’s saddle blanket when her horse kicked a hole in the bay window of the conservatory the year Grandmama Edith lost her mind.

One need go no further than the opening montage of “Masterpiece Theatre” to get the idea. The camera rolls and rolls over photographs here, books there, letter openers and magnifying glasses, trinkets and baubles and martini glasses and swizzle sticks.

Eclecticism among the out-of-towners, and many London folk as well, is absolute. The only items in the house that match are the plates, and you get the idea that even that makes the host vaguely uneasy. Too fussy. Smacks of fanaticism.


Mention that friends of yours have just furnished their house entirely in the Santa Fe style, right down to the bleached cow skulls on the windowsills, and you’ll get that tolerant but pained, oh-well-the-Yanks- would look.

British rat-holers are particularly fond of stocking their digs with at least one item that causes visitors to do a whiplash-inducing double take and blurt, “Good Lord! Where on earth did you get that ?”

It affords them the opportunity to effect mild surprise that the item was even noticed and say, “Oh, that. Little something old Dickie dragged home with him after the campaign against the Zulus. Keeps the hounds at bay, you know.”

It is for these sorts of people--who would put a stuffed alligator on the Chippendale highboy if it would fit--that Victoria MacKenzie-Childs and her husband, Richard, have designed a line of home furnishings, from plates to curtain pulls to furniture. The line was introduced last week at Neiman Marcus in Fashion Island (the sole distributor in Orange County), and it got the required double takes.

The stuff has been compared to items that might show up in an scene from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and the description is fairly apt. Every item is painted in soft yellows, greens, blues, pinks and reds, highlighted with painted crosshatches, polka dots, zigzags, geometric shapes and other designs that might show up in a child’s finger painting. The furniture--chests of drawers, sideboards, chairs--get similar treatment.

Each piece is handmade, and nothing is conventional. Take the tuffet, for example. It’s a very low stool on stubby round legs, and the cushion is covered with black-and-white fabric. It looks more like a mushroom than a piece of furniture. But just try to keep any child with imagination from sitting on it. (Be warned, however: The price is an un-juvenile $500.)

Then there’s the fish chair. Painted in the same bright colors and shapes as the rest of the MacKenzie-Childs line, the straight-backed chair is distinctive for having back slats formed in the shape of large fish. Plunking this chair down in the same room with a cherry-wood dining table and a set of matched chairs would be like the orchestra wearing white-tie and the conductor showing up in Day-Glo warm-ups. Still, Victoria MacKenzie-Childs says, some customers have bought entire sets of them and furnished their dining rooms. Price: $950.

The Neiman Marcus display also includes a MacKenzie-Childs lamp, which looks like a cross between a totem pole and a pastel candy cane, for $1,850.

Not that you have to pull out the checkbook to come away with a MacKenzie-Childs creation. Chowder bowls, for instance, go for $44, and ornate drawer pulls cost $20 (if it looks like a fish, it’s another $6). Ceramic and string tassels also seemed to be a big hit at $65.

Trained as ceramic sculptors, Victoria and Richard moved to the English county of Devon for a couple of years in the early 1980s and worked at a pottery. When they returned to the United States and set up housekeeping in New York, they found success as designers and purveyors of the sort of offbeat furnishings their English neighbors seemed to love so well.

“In Devon it wasn’t a contrived existence,” she says. “It was very homey and simple, not like a highly educated American culture would be. There were Christmas cards from way back on their mantles, and just every little trinket--whatever came into their lives. It was a collection of their experience.

“What’s fun about our things is that they kind of represent the court jester in today’s refined society. Somebody said it’s like the Shirley Temple of the ‘90s. We’ve thrown off all the rules. I’ve always liked the fact that in Shakespeare the most important points are brought forth by the clown.”

This is great news, of course, to anyone who owns a lava lamp, a wagon wheel coffee table, a Kit-Kat clock, Flintstone drinking glasses, a set of pillows from the Seattle World’s Fair or a stack of plastic milk crates that they’re using to hold their collection of old R&B; records.

Keep that stuff. Invent stories about it. Tell guests the Betty and Wilma tumbler went on a Space Shuttle mission and once contained Hoot Gibson’s Tang. Pretty soon, people will start calling you eccentric.

And as any English country gent worth his salt can tell you, eccentricity is always in style.