Eye on the Prize
Saun Ellis knew what she was getting into when she married Francisco Drohojowska. Pancho, as everyone calls him, has been collecting indigenous Mexican dance masks for nearly 50 years. Hundreds of them are displayed on the walls of the couple’s vintage colonial house and renovated barn in New Milford. And, there are many more stored away.
“When I first met Pancho, he had a polite collection of about 65 masks. Then he just went wild.” says Ellis. “We’ve been thinking of downsizing the collection,” she concedes. Recently, she asked her grown children if they were interested in the collection, but none of them were prepared to take more than a few. So, the masks continue to accumulate.
Collections, whether large or small, can be the focal point in a home, a design element that dominates a room. They also reveal the personalities of the people who acquire them. For Drohojowska, a portfolio manager, his Mexican mask collection represents the deeply personal connection he has to the culture and history of the country where he was born. These treasured objects provide a sense of security and comfort, connecting his past with the present. “It tears me apart to think about getting rid of any of them because they’ve been such an integral part of my life,” says Drohojowska.
That kind of collector’s passion dates back to our hunting and gathering days, according to archaeologists. Unusual pebbles found in 80,000-year-old Cro-Magnon caves in France suggest that collecting may have begun at the same time in human history as art.
“Having things around you that you’ve collected over the years and that have meaning is very important psychologically, otherwise you might as well live in a hotel room,” says architect Donald Billinkoff. To display the 250-plus teacups and saucers he has collected, Billinkoff designed special shelving in his mid-century modern house in New Milford.
“One of my most valuable pieces is the Shelley china cup and saucer my mother served me warm milk in as a child whenever I was ill. But it also happens to be my favorite because of its geometric patterns,” says Billinkoff. His collection originated from pieces both his mother and mother-in-law collected in Canada. “In the 1950s, at least in Canada, when you went to someone’s house for dinner, you didn’t bring a bottle of wine; you brought a teacup and saucer as a gift,” he says.
From a design perspective, Billinkoff notes that it is important to display a collection so it has density and impact. If the items are all spread out, with a few here and there, it looks like a lot of clutter. That holds true regardless of the style of house or the size of the collection or what it is composed of.
Robert Barnett, artistic director and co-founder of Pilobolus dance troupe, wasn’t trying to make a design statement when he began collecting hornet nests some 30 years ago. Over the years, his efforts netted him several dozen gray, papery, dome-shaped nests. They dangle like piñatas from the kitchen and living-room beams, blending with the rustic interior of the Adirondack house he shares with his wife, Susan Mandler, in Washington. The fireplace mantel doubles as a specimen shelf, holding deer antlers, pinecones, a desiccated mushroom, a stuffed owl, driftwood, and a bird’s nest. The walls are hung with glass-framed insects, scientific drawings, and vintage maps of the Northeast.
“I just think they’re cool looking,” says Barnett of the hornets’ nests. Each has its own characteristics, including his favorite, which has chestnuts embedded in it. “They have interesting aspects. They’re made out of wood that’s chewed by hornets, then spat out and made into paper. And they’re intricately constructed so they’re light, durable, and waterproof.”
Collecting hornet nests can get a bit dicey, though. “I’ve scaled some rickety timber over the years to get to these things. Put step ladders on the top of my truck cab and cut them down with a pole saw,” Barnett says.
That’s not the only danger. Nests are usually found in fall after the hornets have evacuated. “It can be like having a Trojan horse in your house,” cautions Barnett. “If they’re still in there, the next thing your know there’s a bunch of angry hornets swarming you. And a white-faced hornet can deliver a really mean sting.”