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Creativity in the Treetops

Designer Valerie Reese transformed what could have been just another garage apartment into an inviting, artistic home and studio.

The wooden stairway leading up to the second-story hideaway of Valerie Reese overlooks carefully tended little gardens of herbs, tomatoes, and flowers. At the porch landing by her front door, homemade cushions rest atop vintage patio furniture that has been lovingly restored. An antique ship’s bell replaces a traditional doorbell. A full-length mirror trimmed with a border of twigs hangs horizontally.

Inside, it could have been just another garage apartment. Instead, this multi-media artist-craftsperson transformed her year-round rental into a delightful tree house that has served as her home and office for nearly thirty-five years. Tucked between Lagoon Pond and a thick blanket of trees in Vineyard Haven, this cozy nest reflects her eclectic but clean and utilitarian style.

At first glance, it’s almost impossible to appreciate all of her decorative touches – like trying to enjoy fine cuisine while guessing the recipe. Not surprisingly, everything inside her loft apartment tells a tale. In the kitchen, she used skills her mother taught her to replace old orange Formica counter tops with bright white tiles and a patterned backsplash. She employed oil-painting techniques passed down from her father to create the landscape that hangs near her dining table. Her lighting scheme includes two handmade paper lamps, and every one of the pillows and white linen Roman shades has been sewn by Valerie herself. An antique rotary phone rests on the stairs because “I love the ring,” she says. Thirty windows keep her perspective fresh, while fir floors anchor her artistic fantasies. Off-white painted knotty pine walls encircle all 675 square feet of her treasures.

One of Valerie’s prized creations is her miniature dream studio. She designed the model room loosely after the art studio she occupied in the late 1980s while running her former company – Terra Firma: A Gallery of Original and Transformed Furniture – located upstairs from the current Green Room store in Vineyard Haven. For the doll-house-style studio, she handcrafted tiny furnishings, including hanging lamps, books, and even a feather duster. Its unexpected water view, along with a minuscule oil painting of a pear, create a serene atmos-phere within the little room. Although she purchased a few miniature objects, like the dark wooden bookcase and desk, Valerie completed the wiring, painting, and tiling herself. An artificial crow made with dyed chicken feathers (an eBay purchase) rests atop the live moss covering the studio roof, while natural vines hang below, giving it a familiar tree house feel.

Despite Valerie’s mix of antiques and contemporary pieces within her own home, it is decidedly uncluttered. As with a classic sailboat, the space is used practically and beautifully. To execute her warm but spare style, Valerie considers what objects have meaning or can be repurposed. Her couch was once too low and without back cushions – not exactly a comfortable place to curl up – so she raised it five inches and sewed new slipcovers and cushions. It now sits in a nook, feeling almost like a built-in bunk and much more inviting.

Valerie encourages design clients to follow her lead: “Simplify,” she says. “Clutter gets in the way of a home’s ability to be a haven. Get rid of everything that doesn’t work.” Once their belongings are pared down, she guides clients in reinventing what they already have. For example, she says, “Artwork your child made in a nice frame becomes a piece of art.” She also enjoys helping clients acquire one-of-a-kind pieces that finish a room, such as a lamp from eBay, one of her favorite websites. Her eye can appreciate subtleties, like the shape of a lamp, and her hands can craft a new shade, refinish its stem, and create a new base. These changes are eco-friendly too. “I like to make things out of nothing. That’s sort of my passion,” Valerie says.

“I have a hard time putting myself into a frame,” she admits. Although Valerie has mostly worked on her own, helping clients like Clarissa Allen of Allen Farm in Chilmark to design and furnish an addition, she also worked as an interior decorator for about twelve years for South Mountain Company of West Tisbury. In the 1980s Island stores such as Claudia carried a line of delicate snakeskin sandals for women she crafted under the name of Cakewalk.

Now under the umbrella of V Reese Design and Interiors, her current work mainly involves interior decorating, custom upholstery, and furniture restoration (www.valeriereese.com). This spring, she will also be selling her handcrafted shoes again, along with her original paintings and lamps. Valerie says, “My creativity never runs out. If I finish something, I know I’ll have another idea.” Valerie says she hopes one day to design a restaurant, noting she loves creating atmosphere.

As for the future of her home, she wonders how long she’ll be able to stay. “As my landlords get on...I don’t know that I can afford to stay on the Vineyard. That’s a disadvantage to having a cheap place for so long,” she says, acknowledging, “It has allowed me the luxury of trying to be an artist.”

One day, she may head back to her southern roots in New Orleans or Savannah. But for now, she is dreaming of her next home project, designing something eclectic and interesting to hide her flat-screen television – maybe an old-fashioned suitcase.

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