This spring, design historian Amy Azzarito released her second book. The Elements of a Home: Curious Histories Behind Everyday Objects, from Pillows to Forks is exactly that—a collection of the stories behind ordinary, functional items that might have you wondering, Who first thought of that?
Amy has utilized her design and research backgrounds as managing editor of the blog Design*Sponge and as a contributor to Architectural Digest, Design Milk, and Apartment Therapy. While she now lives in California with her husband, Mark, and daughter, Stella (whose nursery was recently featured on Architectural Digest’s website Clever), she once called Arkansas home.
Read on to learn more about how she was inspired to discover the histories behind tassels, teapots, mirrors, candles, playing cards, and more.
At Home in Arkansas: Do you remember when you first became interested in home design?
Amy Azzarito: I grew up in a house where the aesthetics of a space were very important. Even though my parents were working with a limited budget, they put a lot of time and thought into making our home look and feel special. I remember my mom stenciling the dining room of our house in Siloam Springs, and I got to decorate my room: pale pink with a floral border. I’m not sure I realized that the history of design was a field until I was living in New York City. When I learned that Parsons [School of Design] had a program where students studied the history of objects, it was a light bulb moment.
AHIA: Tell us a little about your Arkansas connection. Did you grow up in Siloam Springs?
AA: My family moved to Siloam Springs when I was 10 years old, and I stayed until I was about 20. I went to college for two years at John Brown University and then transferred my junior year to Columbia College in Chicago. I acted in our school plays both my junior and senior years at Siloam Springs High School, and I played basketball and volleyball. It was a great place to grow up. I also went to my first auction in Arkansas! I still remember being obsessed with a Venetian mirror that was for sale, and my mom bought a Hoosier cabinet that she spent weeks stripping the paint off of.
AHIA: Your first book, Past & Present, started out as a column on Design*Sponge. Where did the concept for Elements of a Home begin?
AA: The real ah-ha moment for me was when I found my master’s program in the History of Decorative Arts and Design—a collaboration between Parsons and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. It was there that I learned how to look at history through the lens of understanding objects. Then when I was invited to do a column for Design*Sponge in 2009, I knew that I wanted to write about the history of things—taking it out of academia and making more of a connection to modern lives.
I think the mix is the way to go—too much new and you might look like a catalog; too much vintage and things look like a garage sale.
AHIA: When you were in the throes of researching and writing this book, where and how did you spend your time?
AA: I also have a master’s degree in library science, which was certainly helpful in navigating the vast research needed for this project. I did spend a chunk of time researching in libraries. I spent a couple of weeks in New York City using the New York Public Library’s collection, and I also heavily used interlibrary loan. Many of the books that I consulted were out-of-print and so would have been cost-prohibitive to buy them all—I am so grateful for the wonderful libraries we have access to. I also used subscription databases, some of which were only available at libraries. I ended up consulting some 500 sources.
AHIA: Were there histories behind any particular household items that most surprised you?
AA: Every object in this book was chosen because there was some surprising fact about it. I love that the first napkins were in fact lumps of dough used by the ancient Greeks, and that the ancient Egyptians had keys so large they could be carried slung over one’s shoulder!
AHIA: With a love of the history behind objects, I’m sure you have a few vintage finds sprinkled throughout your own home decor! Do you have any tricks for mixing the old with the new?
AA: I have lots and lots of vintage pieces in my home. I have things that are personally sentimental, like a salesman’s sample shoe that was designed by my Italian immigrant great-grandfather. I also have lots of things found at flea markets and thrift stores. I think the mix is the way to go—too much new and you might look like a catalog; too much vintage and things look like a garage sale. I usually try to keep the colors fairly muted so that things feel cohesive.
Follow Amy on Instagram (@amyazzarito) and find out more at amyazzarito.com.
Images courtesy of Amy Azzarito and Chronicle Books