Whoever said long-distance love affairs don’t work hasn’t stepped inside the jewel-box bungalow of Brad and Pat Ray. Perched near Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, the unassuming exterior of the 1915 clapboard house belies an interior bursting with color and passion—signs of the unmistakable vision of Los Angeles decorator Lynn Von Kersting. With little more than the phone and FedEx, the Rays and Von Kersting have cooked up a style that’s nothing short of exuberant. “It has been one of the most relaxing ways to decorate,” says Von Kersting, whose creative force is palpable in the collection-filled cottage, yet she has never been there.
Brad and Pat fell in love with Von Kersting’s work in 1992 as they were perusing design magazines. On a trip to Los Angeles, they visited her shop, Indigo Seas, after having lunch next door at her restaurant, The Ivy. Brad remembers, “The shop was filled with old textiles, beautiful plates, and exotic paintings. We knew we absolutely had to have everything ‘to go.’” Inspired by their discoveries, the Rays asked the shop manager if Von Kersting would consider decorating their Minnesota home. They struck a deal that hinged on just how far-reaching Von Kersting’s vision could be. Once she agreed to communicate via snapshots, a passionate collecting and decorating collaboration was forged—and it’s still going strong.
“The whole house was decorated by sending pictures, or as Lynn calls them, ‘snaps,’” explains Pat. “No bowl of lemons or stack of books went unnoticed. Somehow, she was able to take it all in and provide just the right direction. When we did the kitchen, she even counted out the tiles and told us exactly where to hang the stuff. ‘Go down 14 tiles and hang a cigar plate. Another 12 tiles and hang an old painting of St. Tropez.’ It was amazing.” Adds Brad, “The picture hangers thought we were crazy. But it worked.”
Instead of taking the usual room-by-room approach, the 1,100 square feet of opulence evolved piece by piece. This fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style of decorating gives the small space a freewheeling flamboyance that continues to reinvent itself as more pieces are delivered to the front porch. “When friends say our house is out of the box,” chuckles Brad, “we tell them it’s more like out of the crate. We’re crazy about this mail-order-bride style of decorating. It starts with a picture of a potential treasure. When we give the go-ahead and the piece itself arrives, Pat and I unveil it, ask each other if we love it, and then declare our ‘I do’s.’”
What might have been a nightmare of disjointedness comes together in a joyful blend. That’s because nearly every piece is from the 1800s is loved by owners and decorators alike, and settles into the space according to Von Kersting’s eagle eye for order and symmetry. A case in point is the Ray’s living room wall of prized 19th-century dog portraits. Bringing life to a dark rear wall, Von Kersting artfully arranged rows of sweet dog faces around a large shell-framed mirror that reflects the front window. Thanks to the mirror’s careful placement, the warm and orderly composition has the bonus of visually expanding the room. A true dog lover, Pat explains. “It’s one of our favorite parts of the house. We call it the ‘Woof Woof’ wall. We collected pooch by pooch, following strict criteria for adoption: loving eyes and absolutely no leashes.”
That same fearless approach to displaying art continues in the dining room, where an extra-large portrait of a chic 1930s sunbather hangs right over the wainscoting and down to the fainting couch below. The vignette not only encourages dinner conversation or lounging, but the sheer bravado of the scale also enlarges the dining room. Pat observes, “With Lynn, we’ve made the house bigger with mirrors and paintings that not only expand the space but also take your breath away.”
The kitchen, too, was converted from what the Rays remember as a loathed white-tiled subway station to an adored portrait-covered French bistro. “We hated the kitchen and wanted to demolish the floor-to-ceiling white tile,” Brad recalls. “Then Lynn said, ‘Why don’t you just leave it, and we’ll make it a bistro?’” Voila! After painting the ceiling and walls a rich red and hanging quirky French portraits—usually of people sporting cigarettes or pearls—their bistro was born. To complete the va-va-voom of the room, a huge mirror hangs proudly above the stove, bringing light, volume, and attitude with its ever-changing lipstick-written menu.
The same large-scale drama enhances the tiny blue bedroom. The soft blue walls bravely boast a three-dimensional wallpaper of exotic old Chinese reverse-glass paintings. And at the foot of their Porthault-covered bed rests an old Indian chartreuse bench that adds a solid punch to the peaceful blue.
“As writers, we appreciate pieces and paintings that have a story to tell,” observes Brad; Pat nods in agreement. Ever the wordsmith, he continues to wax poetic: “Whether it’s the bistro mirror with a menu scripted in shiny red lipstick, a hand-stitched symbol on a Moroccan pillow, or favorite words in our collection of first-edition books, we know everything is perfect. Letter perfect.”
And so, this long-distance decorating romance continues to this day, happily ever after. Its longevity (14 years) shows the characters involved have what it takes to make relationships last: a bit of bravado, a lot of humor, and a big dose of imagination.
Photography: Susan Gilmore