To say Lisa Martensen is a collector is an understatement.
She lists her various obsessions as Indian miniatures, neoclassical creamware, Wedgwood basalt, all things plaster, and, well, she could go on. She says her daughter India once told her, “Mommy, you collect furniture, and I collect toys.” And it’s true: treasure hunting comes as naturally to her as her 4-foot-9 stature or blue-green eyes. You could even say it’s hereditary. Martensen credits her mother for introducing her to great style, and her grandmother was a somewhat prolific accumulator. (“She was practically a hoarder,” she says with a laugh.)
Nearly everyone hits estate sales these days, but few have the eye—or the patience—to accomplish what Martensen has. The airy and stylish “funky” Federal home she shares with India and husband Don Skipper is filled with treasures acquired at estate sales, flea markets, live auctions, and garage sales that she has mixed with high-end showroom pieces. She knows the good stuff.
That’s because Martensen is just as passionate about collecting information as she is about collecting pieces. She can discern the collectible from the crap. She stresses that education is the key to collecting, and one of the roles of her design firm Martensen Jones Interiors is to teach clients how to buy to keep. Martensen co-owns the firm with Jan Jones, whom she worked with when they were both stylists at Neiman Marcus.
Martensen’s hunting experiences began in her early days as an interior design student at the University of North Texas, when she didn’t have the pocketbook to shop at antiques stores or showrooms. She began looking in unlikely places for high-end bargains. It’s a practice that continues to this day. “I will stop anywhere—it could be a truck on the side of the road selling junk. I stop at every garage sale I run across, and I check out all the weekly estate sales. Nothing is too modest or remote,” she says.
She travels often to New York, Los Angeles, and Miami for the catalog work she does as a makeup artist and hairstylist. Those trips afford her with opportunity to pop into favorite haunts such as the Lincoln Park Antique Show in Miami, the 26th Street Flea Market in New York, and the Brimfield Antique Show in Massachusetts. More long-distance loves include the Porte de Clignancourt in Paris and the Bermondsey Market in London. She gets there at 4 a.m. when the dealers set out their wares. “They’re packed up and out of there by 10 a.m.,” she says.
Martensen’s inspiration comes from a number of places. In college, she began collecting books about the designers who were shaping a new age–John Dickinson, Michael Taylor, and David Hicks. One of her favorite books, San Francisco–A Certain Style, is literally falling apart from years of loving use. And she counts The Tailored Designer by Thad Hayes as a current favorite.
Museums are also a valuable source of inspiration and education. A Pompeii exhibit in 1979 so captured her attention that she had to find out everything about the style of artifacts that had been uncovered. “I fell in love with that beautiful weathered green patina and adored the animal feet on everything,” Martensen says. A Napoleonic show in Memphis in 1993 also left a lasting impression. “That was a big light bulb moment,” she says. “I fell in love with neoclassical.”
When it came time to set the stage for all of her finds, Martensen and Skipper chose pale gray walls and silk draperies to create a soft, unobtrusive backdrop. All the better to showcase her many collections.“I love anything white—creamware, alabaster, plaster busts, anything by John Dickinson,” she says. Martensen also loves black-and-white photography—“I try to buy one good piece a year,” she says, adding that Photographs Do Not Bend is a favorite place to look. She’s drawn to everything from wood pottery and Yua rings from New Guinea to Santos crowns and mirrors. “I go through different phases,” she explains. “I saw the Wendy Reves exhibit at the DMA, and I became obsessed with mirrors of all sizes and shapes,” she says. “I keep everything, but I’m not always an active collector of everything I own. That would be impossible.”
Her advice to budding collectors? “The first thing I would tell someone who wants to start a collection is to buy a book about it,” Martensen says. She’s always reading. She buys exhibit catalogs on museum visits. She devours every magazine she can get her hands on. She knows the web sites dedicated to midcentury collections and checks them out daily. She finds out about every estate sale in the area and, if possible, checks out the merchandise beforehand to see if there promises to be anything of value. If it looks like a good hunting ground, she gets to the sale as early as possible—although she’s not always first. Even when she’s not at the head of the queue, her true weapons are knowledge, imagination, and an eye for quality. She knows a vintage Karl Springer piece by the quality of the snakeskin, and she can spot a Paul Evans piece by the trademark patchwork steel. “You have to look under the piece,” she says. “That’s where you’ll see how it’s constructed.”
Most of all, she advises being decisive. “If you have to think more than five seconds about a piece, pass,” she says.
In other hands, having such varied collections under one roof could become cause for concern. But thanks to Martensen’s taste, her house looks anything but haphazard. Somehow, it’s well edited, impeccably chic, and very warm. And part of the fun of the Martensen-Skipper household is that nearly everything has an interesting story behind it. Point to an item and you might get a short history lesson. Also, her joy for every item remains intact—no matter how long ago she bought it. Take her first purchase of value: a small porcupine table from India. “It was love at first sight,” she says. “It was my first major purchase—it cost $850—and I thought it would just add wonderful texture in any room.” Notice the Fazal Sheikh photograph, and Martensen can barely contain herself. “I’ve been collecting photographs for the last 15 years,” she says. “This is a really beautiful, classic Madonna and Child-style photograph. It’s in Somalia, and the mother had to walk 10 miles for food for her son. You can really see the beauty and peace in her face.” Surrounded by her prized possessions, the same could be said about Martensen.