Today I am interviewing one of my favorite people, my friend Elizabeth Kirkpatrick, a native Californian who lives life with joie de vivre in a home unlike anyone else’s. She grew up in Northern California, met her Italian husband here while working at Gucci, and raised her young sons for several years outside of Florence, Italy. She and the family moved back here to the Bay Area to create a gorgeous and original home and gardens filled with animals, antiques, flowers, and mementos from her travels.
Elizabeth sold antiques for 12 years and had her own shop, The Hen House. She began her blog The Vintage Contessa in 2009. Contessa was her email name and it seemed to fit her, and many of her friends call her that. She kindly opened her home to me and we safely took photos with masks and some distance and she gave some wonderful answers to my questions about what makes her a unique Californian. Meet the closest thing we have to a California Contessa..
Elizabeth you are a native Californian, grew up in Northern Cal. What makes living in California special and do you think it influences the way you entertain?
As a CALIFORNIAN we have it ALL……….OCEAN, MOUNTAINS, and The DESERT all within a few hours’ drive! Besides it’s ALL I KNOW……..I am a 4th Generation Californian. I was born in a little farming community called Modesto in 1960. The housing community was called “Sherwood Forest”. My parents moved to Marin County when I was six months old. I had the best of all seasons as the snow (Lake Tahoe) was three hours away. The desert was an hour and 20 away by plane and my Mother had sisters in Southern California with beautiful homes. We would spend SPRING breaks and summer vacations with them. I ABSOLUTELY LOVED my time there.I would say YES, MY SURROUNDINGS INFLUENCED THE WAY I ENTERTAIN.
Any great memories of growing up here in California? Summers?
Summers were spent in Newport Beach, Catalina Island, and Palm Springs. My Aunt and Uncle had a yacht which we would cruise to Catalina for long weekends. We also had good family friends who I would stay with on Lido Isle. We walked everywhere. They (MY COUSINS) were always barefoot and I being “THE TOURIST” would always stub my big toe! From lunches, at THE BLUE DOLPHIN to swimming in the CHANNEL(which was a BIG NO NO!!), we were always busy bees!I experienced my First Spin the Bottle with a boy named JOHN ~JOHN!At home my house was on a hill where CELESTE and I would cardboard slide and dig to CHINA with gardening spades!I was always building a BARN or RABBIT HUTCH trying to con my FATHER into more pets!Or putting on PLAYS in our basement!I should have been in THEATER!
You are an amazing entertainer do you come by that through your mother or did you learn as you went?
My Parents did entertain while I was growing up.Especially during THE HOLIDAYS. My father would wear a red smoking jacket and my Mother would be in a long ……….wait FOR IT……..CAN YOU GUESS?………..CAFTAN! I knew when we moved back to CALIFORNIA from Florence, Italy I wanted to have GARDEN PARTIES! However, in the beginning we did not have much of a GARDEN! The Italian had the vision to terrace the backyard. My vision was a YELLOW AND WHITE GARDEN! I learned as I went as far as the garden. My husband loves to have people around and entertain. He would have people over every night if I said, “OKAY!” For him it means nothing of whipping up a dinner for 12 spur of the moment! SO, to answer your question I would say MY MOTHER and MY ITALIAN!
Has spending years in Italy improved the way you entertain and live? Or has being married to an Italian ?? Or both?
Living in Italy started for us in 1991 ~ 1994. Three years, four months, and 7 days………I stayed behind in Italy with the SONS when it was time to go back to the USA so MY FIRST BORN could finish FIRST GRADE. We arrived in Italy due to a death in the family so we were there to help out. We arrived in Italy just the four of us. Myself, husband and two little boys. We left Italy with two black Labs, two pound cats, one Italian woman named Gilda who had never been to the STATES and 18 pieces of luggage. It took THREE cars to get us to ROME and THREE WONDERFUL FRIENDS saying GOOD-BYE. A side note……….I PAID NOTHING FOR THE EXTRA LUGGAGE.NEVER MIND OUR BELONGINGS had left three months earlier in a container! Whats the saying,”When the cats away the mice will play!” I went shopping once THE ITALIAN had left! AND I was not buying clothes but plates and pottery!
Did Italy leave an IMPRESSION on me? Most definitely that would be a YES! Food and Family come FIRST in the ITALIAN culture. I have a good story about flying home with my sons to visit my family and I had two Italian business men FIGHTING over who would hold MY BABY! On the reverse flight I had two women in front of me rolling their eyes DISGUSTED that two kids were behind their seats! Guess what NATIONALITY THEY WERE? That trip I had my first big AHAAA Moment! What matters is FAMILY and being KIND. I ADORED ITALY…….I being the AMERICAN did not want TO LEAVE!
Did you grow up living in a house like yours with many cool objects and collected treasures?
My first response is NO! HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A HOUSE LIKE MINE? But in all honesty a few of the things I grew up with are with me today! Mostly furniture and prints, silverware,cooking utensils, and clothing that all belonged to MY MOTHER. My Mother loved to antique or thrift shop. She volunteered for an organization called SUNNY HILLS. I LOVED GOING TO WORK WITH HER AS IT WAS ONE BIG GOODWILL PILE! I was always finding “TREASURE!” I believe my look came into BEING as I had a VINTAGE/ANTIQUE shop for 12 years and my philosophy was, “BUY WHAT YOU LOVE”. That way if I ever closed; I could bring it all home with me! Well, that worked in reverse for me as some of “THE STUFF” I bought for the shop never made it to THE SHOP!
My Aunts and Cousin had BEAUTIFUL HOMES and ANTIQUES which I have always been exposed too. So,“THE EYE” was trained at an early age. Also,In the library in the Palm Springs house were back issues of COUNTRY LIFE from ENGLAND. I adored looking at these magazines, especially the last few pages where the real estate was listed! I would PICK my favorite old house abroad! Nothing has changed I still do that when I see real estate in Europe!
You are a huge animal person and have had an array of dogs, chickens, doves, a cat and even a pig as roommates. How does this work with all your beautiful objects? Most people with all your gorgeous glassware and chandeliers wouldn’t have a pig wandering about, but you make it seem like the happiest spot for them!
The same way it worked without having the baby proofing items! I think all that baby proofing design stuff was just coming out on the market after we had our FIRST BORN! We did NOT use any of that. ALL EYES ON BABY and if we were invited to dinner without kids we did not accept the invitation!
The word NO was used and still is with THE TEA CUP PIGGY! THEY ARE VERY SMART ANIMALS…….unfortunately they are kept in mud and muck and get a BAD WRAP! He actually RUNS THROUGH THE HOUSE from one end to the other. Makes a U-TURN under the kitchen table! We call this SPRINTING! I MUST GET A VIDEO OF THIS FABULOUS FLYING PIG !He has never hit or run into any person or object! He puts himself to sleep every night and you will not hear a peep out of him until you get up in the morning! HE JUST KNOWS WHAT IS OFF LIMITS and understands the word NO very well. He also knows where he can PUSH the LIMITS!!
What’s your favorite dish or go-to for easy entertaining?
I would have to say PESTO for pasta as THE ITALIAN makes it once a year and we freeze jars of it. However, that is just a starter here…..We then serve a main course ~ you know THE ITALIAN WAY! Which for me is “CHASES MEAT” (A neighborhood boy loved this dish so we named it after him!) The real name is Cotoletta which calls for veal but I use thin sliced beef. Last night I made yellow peppers as a side dish……..EASY! Slice 4 bell peppers and take the seeds out. Put three tablespoons olive oil in frying pan and put peppers in and cover for 8 minutes. After 8 minutes add 2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar and 1 Tablespoon of sugar. Put lid on and cook for another three minutes. Serve at room temperature. Recipe hails from CUCINA FRESCA which was given to me on my 28th birthday by MY MOTHER! “Elizabeth on your 28th B-DAY to improve the Italian cooking. With Love,Mother “
Is there a cookbook you love?
When we were first married I used THE SILVER PALATE cookbook. My Mother collected cookbooks and she loved GOURMET MAGAZINE. My Grandmother was a food and wine editor for THE OAKLAND TIMES newspaper she even had a RADIO TALK SHOW on KNBR. She had her own column. GO GRANNY!!!!!!! I have enjoyed MIMI THORISSON cookbooks and SKYE MCALPINE cookbook A TABLE FOR FRIENDS.
The other CONTESSA does a FINE JOB TOO! I ADORE HER ONE PAGE RECIPES…………..THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA is always a WINNER! I do her baked SALMON with mustard and breadcrumbs when it needs to be impressive but simple and can be made ahead!
You always have the most inspiring kitchen. How did you get that look.. collected pieces?
Most were FREE or FOUND objects! The Kitchen is the HEART of the HOME. That is where we all hang out. The cat, pig and me. My vision for the kitchen NEVER HAPPENED! I have a page from a magazine DREAMING of a big center island three level table. With a lamp on it! I had found old balustrades to make the table! We still have them. I still have the photo! This vision I had 29 years ago ~ it never happened. SO, I created a SITTING ROOM with my FOUND objects. Everything has a story with me!
The pine cupboard was being TOSSED OUT BY MACYS DISPLAY PEOPLE! (Seems the new Senior V.P. of merchandising did not like pine for the displays!) I also scored THREE TABLES one of which is my desk now and another is our KITCHEN TABLE and the third one I sold. The old dish rack my COUSIN GIFTED ME. The big Flowered chair another cousin was tossing. Second chair was MY dear friends Mother’s kitchen chair……..she was dumping as she moved back to South Africa and I said NO! She has since passed of Cancer. The loveseat belonged to a department store Family in Los Angeles. ORBACH’s I think. The feet are LIONS FEET!
The brick floors were laid by MY ITALIAN one summer; he sent the three of us to ITALY to SUMMER at the beach! The Chandelier I found at a Flea Market. The carpet was a wedding gift from a family member in ROME.(I would love to change that but the sentimental WINS over the NEED!) The FRENCH clock I worked for by sitting in an ANTIQUE SHOP. THE rams head was GIFTED TO ME by a little BOY who lost his MOTHER to cancer. His mother was my dear friend. The feeding trough I found at a Flea Market with my SON for $3.50!!! The cabinet pulls I found in MODESTO at a JUNKYARD!
I think if ONE had to NAME MY LOOK it would be More of an ENGLISH COUNTRY HOME with a TOUCH of THEATER………Cecil Beaton and I SHOULD HAVE MET!
Is there a house drink you like to serve?
WINE or PROSECCO! My husband does not make cocktails nor does he drink them. With one EXCEPTION that would be a CAMPARI. That is his GO TO DRINK on the weekends. My Italian grew up in ITALY were there is no drinking age. Kids start early with water and a splash of wine! So, it is not forbidden when they become teenagers. It has always been there. If we go out I will indulge in a LEMON DROP or a COSMO!I feel like such a GROWN UP when I DO!
Alfresco entertaining is another thing you are a master at. I love how you set up your yard as another space. Any tips for gorgeous plants and creating an outside oasis?
READ those magazines! STUDY THOSE CATALOGS that come in the MAIL! TURN CORNERS DOWN of things that interest you. I am a self taught GARDENER. I read years ago in a British magazine that TWO COLORS in a GARDEN make more of an IMPACT than an assortment of colors. So, I decided to stick with YELLOW & WHITE flowers. Over the years a bit of purple and pale pink have slipped in. Only because I couldn’t WAIT for the white lavender to arrive! The purple grows better for me than the white lavender. When I purchased the PENNY ROYAL I did not realize it gave me a purple flower! I love that plant and BANKSY loves it too…….THE FRAGRANCE when one steps on it is OUT OF THIS WORLD!It likes SHADE and will SELF-SEED.
I used an old antique door for our outside table I found in ITALY………..Again it was FREE!I am still NOT THERE with the Outdoor Look as cushions get eaten by the squirrels! They love to pull the stuffing OUT and make HOLES in my yellow cushions! SO furniture is NOT big on my list which I would Love it be!
I have a fountain for the noise as we back up to a busy street! WE planted six fruit trees last SPRING so I look forward to seeing the BLOSSOMS and BANKSY the tea cup piggy will be HANGING OUT THERE! Catching any fruit that drops!I t will also make another wall to the busy road! ADD A MIRROR if possible!
Favorite candle or home scent?
I do not use candles as the one time I did the candle had dried flowers melted into it and they caught FIRE!!! The candle was in my living room and above the candle hangs DRY HOPS!! The flames were two feet……..high.I grabbed a blanket near by and yelled for The ITALIAN!! The whole experience put me off on CANDLES and that was years ago! My favorite scent is TUBEROSE.
Can we see a peek at your closet? You have an amazing wardrobe of caftans. I think just walking into your closet would make me happy every day. Any advice for someone renovating or creating a special space for their clothes?
I have zero advice as I have a husband who can do it all. Meaning construction, electrical and plumbing.However,he goes SUPER FAST so there is no time to think! Decisions have to be made LICKTY-SPLIT! Like the NIGHT BEFORE the next work DAY! I did have the vision to put my MOTHER’s bedroom lamps in the closet up high they add a little TA-DAH moment when you hit that switch. I have my veil and wedding invitation with my wedding shoes under lucite above the doorway.I always wanted to frame my bugle beaded wedding dress too but to give up THAT WALL SPACE WAS OUT OF THE QUESTION!!!
I share the closet with THE ITALIAN as I like to refer to him on the BLOG, so it’s NOT ALL FOR ME! It is a DREAM come true but I still have baskets full of clothing that need to find a home soon! We are debating a center island! I DO LOVE THE SPACE when I enter so I think there will be NO center island for now!Instead of a chest of drawers I have an 18th century chest in my bedroom! Practical I am NOT! SENTIMENTAL I AM in saving the OLD PIECES! Let’s just say I’m a GOOD RECYCLER! Chandelier’s are ALWAYS a GOOD IDEA in A CLOSET or PANTRY or a GARAGE!
A California shop you love for home goods or clothes?
CHATEAU BEL AGE
1578 W. LEWIS STREET
WEB SITE: CHATEAUBELAGE.COM TEXT for INFO: 619-518-1181
This is MY FAVORITE clothing shop I have found EVER! It is located in an old house and the living room has become the main salon with a fireplace. Water and refreshments are served. Opinions given if asked. A patio for outside chatting, eating and laughing. It’s a WONDERFUL SPOT TO JUST HANG OUT! I had my BIRTHDAY party there a couple of years ago! The owner has a FABULOUS sense of STYLE and a GREAT STORY! SHE grew up in an ICONIC CALIFORNIA HOTEL AS A LITTLE GIRL!
Favorite spot in California and one you hope to get to?
MONTECITO, CALIFORNIA.Close to Santa Barbara. I adore LOTUSLAND, a private estate open to the public. For years I missed OUT as their ADS in Santa Barbara magazine were always succulents! OH MY GOSH what a mistake I made ASSUMING what COULD BE! Ganna Walska created LOTUSLAND – Botanic Garden. Let’s just say Money was NO PROBLEM and FIVE husbands LATER you too can visit but reservations MUST BE MADE. Call 805-969-9990 or link here. A book on her LIFE is worth reading called, A ROOM AT THE TOP. She wanted to be an OPERA SINGER, but was told she was not GOOD enough so what does she do? She buys herself a THEATRE in PARIS!
I took so many photos at Elizabeth’s. There were just little vignettes of loveliness everywhere…Including the yards and gardens and patios..and so many beautiful flowers!
I also loved this wall in her husband’s office of photos of her and her two sons through the years..
I wish I had done something like this with my sons.
You can see she has a talent for photo styling among other things!
Love these so much!
Follow Elizabeth on her blog The Vintage Contessa where besides her regular posts, features people with fabulous gardens each month and partners with Cindy Hattersley for Ageless Style. She is on Instagram as Contessa and Her Pig which is in her words : ‘Her musings and passions. What Inspires and Dazzles. Loving all things Worn and Rusted. AGE.The Grandeur of The Past. Bottom line Contessa Chatter!!’
Thank you Elizabeth! I could chat with you all day. I love all your wisdom and style and the way you wrap your day to day life in beauty. It’s truly an inspiration!
Get Elizabeth’s look and style. A few things she loves..and some similar looks.
Hope you enjoyed this glimpse of Elizabeth’s California home as much as I did!
Sorry it’s been a while since my last Californians at Home post. Hopefully more soon! It’s not been easy doing this during the pandemic as you can imagine. If you missed them, you might also enjoy my other posts on Californians at Home – designer Cindy Hattersley, artist Heidi Woodmansee, and blogger Kristin Maxwell.
Have a great weekend!