(photography by Peter Murdock)
When you walk into the home of fashion-turned-homeware designer and boutique owner Michele Varian and husband Brad Roberts, one thing can be expected: You won’t know where to look first. Your eye may dart to the glass fly catchers hanging from the kitchen ceiling or to one of the many taxidermy animals framed beautifully on the wall, including an impala named Aristotle and a pheasant called Elizabeth. “My husband and I like to name them,” Varian says with a smile. “We’ll look at them together and come up with names, and he’ll say, ‘No, this one doesn’t look like a George.’”
Her husband, Crash Test Dummies lead singer and songwriter Roberts, rests his eyes on a favorite recliner: a battered Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams leather piece with its back cushions burst open. “This is the second one,” Varian says of the chair. “We tried replacing it a third time, but the design had changed too much.” The couple ordered the replacement, but after the delivery guys left and Roberts sat in the chair, “He made a face,” Varian explains. “I got on the phone with the delivery company and asked if they could bring our garbage back. They promised it hadn’t gone to the dumpster yet.”
Every piece in her home tells a story, sparking a childlike curiosity to point at things and ask, “What about this?” or “How about that?” For example, the large bucket that hangs against the kitchen wall: “This might be TMI,” Varian warns. “There are two stories behind it. When we host dinner parties, I don’t like to work once guests have arrived. So I put a lot of ice in the bucket and keep drinks there.” The other story? Since the couple doesn’t have a tub, she recounts a time that her husband would soak in the bucket after a botched vasectomy. He doesn’t mind the story, Varian assures me, as he used to tell it on stage.
The loft space is divided into the “big room,” the kitchen and the bedroom. We first stop into the couple’s bedroom so that her husband can retire there. “He is being such a sport,” Varian says fondly of the sleepy Roberts, who went to bed at 6 a.m. that day. Some mornings she wakes up, and he will have written three poems or song lyrics during the night. “This one’s about you,” he’ll say. “He’s a real creative,” Varian gushes. “There are some people who take a long time to write a song, but he can do it in minutes, and it will be really good.”
The couple’s bedroom is the only room in the house that isn’t drenched with natural light, but it is still nothing short of bright. Treasures from her travels to Asia and Europe adorn the walls, one covered in beautiful wallpaper and another exposed brick painted white, while the rest are metallic to reflect as much natural light in the room as possible. The four-post bed is vintage and from India, though she purchased the piece from ABC Carpet & Home, where she once had a shop. Tiny piñatas hang from one of the bedposts. “[They] are from a party Brad and I had that we called “the everything party.” It was a couple of years after he and I got married, and a lot of our friends still didn’t know that we were married. We figured we would have a party and let them know we got married, but my birthday is on Christmas, so it was right before Christmas,” Varian explains. “So we just made it every holiday of the year that we could think of: Cinco de Mayo, Mardi Gras, Happy New Year, Saint Paddy’s Day, Fourth of July. I ordered string lights (a couple thousand dollars worth), which covered the ceilings like the Indian restaurants on Sixth Street. We also had hats from different holidays. It was really, really fun, so whenever we do that, I usually keep a couple of things.”
Since opening her namesake boutique in December 2001, Varian has not had the time to host many dinner parties. But she has great advice for those who do. She cautions to tidy but not clean before a party, because it will be neccessary to clean up after, especially if the party was fun. Varian also suggests a candlelit party since it will hide the dust.
We leave Roberts behind and make our way over to the “big room.” Varian confesses that the rugs hide a very large hole that was made by a man in a hazmat suit while doing asbestos abatement on the floor below. The couple is the only resident in the building. They’ve had to deal with pressure to leave, but because they’re in a rent-stabilized space, they’re pretty well protected, and people will have to work around them. And since both of their families live in their childhood homes, it’s likely they won’t want to leave the one home they have shared since marriage almost 10 years ago.
In the big and final room, Varian and Roberts each have their own workspace, a sort of masculine versus feminine. Their trinkets merge harmoniously. Guitars, ukuleles and vintage toy pianos (which Roberts used to compose and record songs on the album Oooh La La) adorn much of the space along with Varian’s own designs—pillows, wallpapers, furniture and a one-of-a-kind Native American-inspired wall textile—as well as designer offerings from her eponymous shop. She admits that she had to create a rule for herself: If she thinks about a piece purchased for the store for more than six months, she can bring it home. Thankfully, Varian’s boutique, just a stone’s throw away on Howard and Crosby Streets, is an extension of her home. “Everything I buy [for the store] I love,” she says.