Hubba Hubba

By staff October 1, 2006

You could call her the Martha Stewart of kitsch. She immerses herself in crafts projects, decorates, sews and gardens with equal competence and intensity. But Michele Mancini’s results are far more ingenuous than Stewart’s, her work endearingly imperfect and a tad off-center.

Trained at the Rhode Island School of Design, Mancini is a rogue decorator who riffs on mainstream notions of good taste. She cares little for current design conventions, opting instead for nostalgia in the extreme. Perhaps that’s why her Laurel Park cottage is so intriguing, its collections of kitsch from the 1940s and ’50s naive yet captivating counterparts to rare Deco classics from the ’20s and ’30s.

But Mancini’s democratic mélange of objects and styles is far more than an expression of one woman’s quirky design personality. It preserves bits of history that fashion’s whims (and political correctness) would have us forget—like Blackamoors, hula nodders, and plaster fruit plaques, to name a few.

If you were born after 1960, you might not recognize barkcloth, the nubby-textured drapery and upholstery fabric that was a staple in American homes from World War II through the ’50s. That’s because by the end of the baby boom, the once-ubiquitous fabric had fallen out of favor.

Mancini fashioned a career out of salvaged barkcloth. She started collecting bits of it while still in college, and it adorns every room of her home. From the moment you step onto her front porch, barkcloth stirs up memories, conjuring images of films like L.A. Confidential, Quiz Show, Mambo Kings and Radio Days—films her company, Full Swing Textiles, supplied with pitch-perfect fabrics and materials.

But before you’ve reached Mancini’s vintage heron-clad screen door (“Doors like this were all the rage in Miami in the ’30s,” she explains), you’re already consumed with the Little Shop of Horrors time warp that is decorating, Michele Mancini style.

A multicolored picket fence and arbor display a profusion of blossoms, the sweet scent of Confederate jasmine as enticing as the visual delight of purple queen’s wreath. But something’s amiss: The home’s exterior is painted aqua and cornflower blue; the garage a deep orchid; the front porch palm green with puce.

Mancini greets you wearing a floppy polka-dot headband and I Love Lucy housedress, her running shoes the only reference to the present century. “I love color, and I love paint,” she declares, pointing to the fresh coat of pale chartreuse on the concrete path to her front door.

While this riot of color is eminently photogenic, it’s the elliptical porch windows that elevated the tiny cottage to an iconic symbol for historic Laurel Park. “I can’t take credit for the ovals,” Mancini says. “Kitty Kelly, the previous owner, had them done, and they absolutely made the place. The house looks like it’s winking at you from the street, and from inside, the ovals make the porch feel like a real room.”

Still, Mancini herself is responsible for the home’s current supermodel status. She painted the entire house, designed the interiors and personally planted the gardens that have graced the pages of magazines like Mary Englebreit’s Home Companion, and several local newspaper articles promoting Laurel Park’s quest for national designation as a historic district.

“I did everything on this property: It was barren and dead when I moved in,” she explains. Touring the garden, she points out that every lush tropical plant was near seedling stage when planted. Since 1999, when she purchased the house sight unseen based on an image faxed by her real estate agent, the garden has been a work in progress—mostly attended at night.

“I’m out gardening from midnight till dawn by the light of the streetlamp,” Mancini confides. Come again? As she exclaims over the pink powder puffs blooming beneath her oval windows and expounds on the virtues of types of bamboo (“Buddha’s belly tops off at a manageable size; that damn black bamboo goes up to the sky and beyond”), night gardening suddenly becomes a sensible alternative to sweltering in the noonday sun.

Visions of barkcloth designs appear to her in the garden, Mancini says. She sees a layout of perennials under a tree as an unconscious attempt to create a textile repeat. And she loves her split-leaf philodendron because, she declares, it’s so 1950s. “The oversized leaves were used in a lot of ’50s textiles, holes and all,” she reports.

Mancini should know. In addition to founding the Newport, R.I.-based Full Swing Textiles, which she sold to a former employee last year, Mancini co-authored a book called Fabulous Fabrics of the ’50s. Her textiles have been photographed in Cosmopolitan, House & Garden and Metropolitan HomeNew York magazine featured our fabric on the cover,” she says. “That’s when movie stylists and celebrity designers came to call.”

The dining-room wall of Mancini’s modest Sarasota cottage displays a framed collection of her barkcloth patterns, and she can tell you which have been purchased by designers for Barbra Streisand, Bruce Springstein, Bruce Willis and Bette Midler.

But Mancini’s house is more than an ode to the first half of the 20th century. It’s a classic study in decorating with collections, albeit funky ones. In contrast to the wildly painted exterior, she chose neutral khaki inside as a serene background for myriad over-the-top displays. The calming tone coordinates with a sand-colored sofa, grasscloth-wallpapered ceiling and pickled oak floor stained a pale pistachio shade.

The living room’s wall of hand-colored photographs all feature Old Florida tropical scenes. “They were collected one at a time when antiquing was affordable. I would never buy a ready-made collection on eBay. It takes away from the fun,” Mancini says.

A mantel display of hula-nodders—they actually wiggle—elicits a double-take. “I didn’t mean to start a collection, but I bought a few, and then it grew from there,” Mancini says. The collection has over-spilled into her Newport summer home as well. “It’s kitschy Honolulu-tourist stuff.”

Alongside the hula girls are a beloved Josephine Baker figurine and a series of Bermudians. Mancini varies items in the mantel display; they don’t have to be identical if balance and scale are in synch.

That’s why she was able to create a kitchen-wall frieze of plaster fruit plaques. Each was a birthday or Christmas gift from an obliging sister. Mancini hoarded them for years until they were ready for display en masse.

A collection of sand pails and carnival chalkware lines the shelves of the back porch, providing an inexpensive screen from the neighboring house and dramatic color that reflects Sarasota’s beachy flair.

Perhaps the most memorable of Mancini’s collectibles are her infamous tacky lamps. From a Blackamoor salvaged from the Breakers in Palm Beach to a castanet dancer, a Nubian and a chartreuse seahorse (“Isn’t it horrible? It’s is so awful, I just had to have it”), the collection epitomizes Mancini’s taste for bad taste.

Amazingly, the lamps are housed under the same Craftsman-style roof as the designer’s prized Gilbert Rohde chair, Heywood-Wakefield desk and McCoy pottery. Perhaps that’s why her unique personality shines through every room—and why the once-nondescript 1920s cottage formally known as the Grace and Effie Bills house has become a local celebrity with a vintage kitschy moniker: Michele Mancini’s Hubba-Hubba Hut.


Michele Mancini’s display tips.

Sense of place. Collections become important decorative devices when placed in the appropriate room. Mancini’s angels grace a bedroom wall; plaster fruit adorns the kitchen in a frieze.

Group by theme. Pull together individual items with a common theme display en masse. Repetition makes a statement, whether it’s photos of old Florida, framed ’50s fabrics or a chorus line of hula dancers.

Neutralize backgrounds. While Mancini is fearless with her home’s exterior colors, she uses neutral tones indoors and simple furniture to calm clutter and give collections center stage.

Balance and scale. There are formulaic approaches to display (pyramid, M-shape, cascade), but Mancini simply has fun playing with arrangements until she gets them just right.

Create focal points. Place collections on pedestals to create interest in dull corners or to draw attention to architectural highlights like a mantel or bay window; or mass them dramatically on a feature wall.

Express yourself. Collections give a home personality and instantly communicate individual style. Whether you collect fine art or kitsch, the same two rules apply: Choose what you like and buy the best you can afford.

Take your time. While collections can be amassed in mere hours on the Internet, Mancini adores the thrill of the hunt. She stockpiles her finds as she fills in, but experts say a collection may be displayed as soon as you have three of a kind.

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