A random purchase at an airport bookstore set children’s book illustrator Melissa Sweet on a course that ultimately brought her to Portland’s Munjoy Hill and a house full of light and color.
Afew years ago, award-winning children’s book illustrator Melissa Sweet was flying solo home to Maine from California after visiting family. She grabbed a book in the airport, devoured it on the flight and by 11 that night, was back in her home in Rockport, standing in her kitchen, surrounded by eight garbage bags full of clothing ready to be donated, sold—whatever it took to get them out of the house. As the author of the book Sweet had purchased would say, that clothing was no longer sparking joy.
“I was a house afire,” Sweet says. “I was like, ‘I am not living like this anymore.’” She kept purging until the house was clutter free—unless you count her geologist husband Mark Holden’s rock collection—but now the house itself, a tidy Cape perched on a knoll in the seaside town, felt wrong.
“I don’t know if this house feels like mine anymore,” Sweet told Holden. His children were grown and gone, “fully-fledged,” as she puts it. Sweet had recently finished writing and illustrating a new children’s biography, Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White which would land her on the New York Times bestseller list.
The couple, who have two dogs, Ruby and Nell, considered buying a small, second home in Portland. But the hot Portland real estate market convinced them owning two houses was impossible. “That was completely out of our league.” The Rockport house was in good shape. They’d done a lot of work on it. Thanks to that push from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and its author Marie Kondo, the house was also very market-ready. “It was kind of as nice as it was ever going to be,” Sweet says.
It sold 10 days after it went on the market that May and by July 2016, the couple was in possession of a single-family Victorian in Portland on the southeastern slope of Munjoy Hill, with glimpses of the waterfront from the upper stories. The sale price was contingent on taking it as is, run down and packed with the previous owner’s possessions (including 200 pairs of shoes, racks and racks of furs and many antiques, because the occupant’s mother had been an antiques dealer). “It was in rough shape,” Sweet says. The third floor attic was empty, but for a lone chair, positioned to look out on the city and waterscape. It was, Sweet says, a little creepy, although the view totally enticing.
These days the Portland house sparks joy, for visitors as well as its occupants. After a nine-month renovation, it is a blend of old and new, modern and clean without feeling sparse. It’s filled with artwork, including works by many Maine artists, including Harold Garde, Katherine Bradford, Gail Spaien and Cig Harvey. Sweet’s own gift for collage is represented here and there, most prominently on the alphabet wall on the kitchen, an A to Z swirl of fanciful found objects, artwork and a 1940 map of Portland (M is for map). Sweet has illustrated dozens of children’s books and won two Caldecott Honor Awards, including most recently for The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, a children’s biography about the creator of Roget’s thesaurus by Jen Bryant, who Sweet has collaborated with three times.
Then there are the splashes of color. In the kitchen, in the back of the house, is one of the most dramatic, a magenta Capital range, set against a lime green floor. “I look at it like a swipe of lipstick,” Sweet says, meaning it’s cheerful but ultimately almost unobtrusive. She picked the stove before deciding on the floor color; together they create almost the effect of a permanent installation of tulips. The stove comes in 160 shades, she says, and among the ones she was considering were orange and lime green. What did her husband say about these options? “He’s so patient,” Sweet says. “And it’s not like I am saying, ‘gray or black?’ But he said afterward, ‘I knew you were going to choose the pink stove.’”
“You tolerate the pink,” Sweet said to Holden as they stood in the kitchen together on a sunny April day. He smiled. “I have learned to appreciate pink,” Holden said.
And orange. There are odes to the two colors together throughout the house, more subtle than that sounds. Orange and pink on throw pillows together. A hot pink bookshelf built into a stairwell, filled with copies of the many books Sweet has illustrated. (Sweet’s star continues to rise; this fall she’ll be celebrated at the Carle Honors gala, an event put on by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, a recognition of creative vision and dedication in the field of picture books and children’s literature.) Upstairs in her third floor studio, which stretches the length of the house, hangs a collection of pink and orange heart ornaments. The downstairs bathroom has an orange countertop. More of it might make someone feel “like you were in a crazy place,” Sweet says, but used judiciously, she believes strong colors have a calming effect. “You want your eye to go there, and then you can relax.”
“I really love what Melissa has done,” Holden says. He credits her with working closely with their designer, Mike Maines, and builders. The process started with taking the house down to its studs. “Which in the end begs the question, would we have been better off just creating a new house?” Sweet says. “But we were so committed to the bones.” The old trim was filled with lead and had to be replaced. They exposed all the chimneys, which now serve only an aesthetic function, lending texture and color. “We took out walls because we wanted the light,” Sweet says. “But we also wanted rooms,” along with the sense of proportion from houses built in this era. Officially the house dates to 1880, but Sweet found a letter in the wall that indicated a ship’s captain was using the address in 1876.
The kitchen floor had multiple layers of formerly fashionable linoleum and buried underneath, the original wood floors. “You could see that there was a table here,” Holden says, gesturing to the dining table. There were worn tracks in the floor, leading past the table to the door. “You could see the whole history,” he says. They tried to preserve a gigantic cupboard that the former owners had brought from an English pub, but it reeked so much of mouse urine that they ended up using just its doors on a cupboard built from wood repurposed from other rooms. “Suddenly it felt like it was the right scale,” Sweet says.
The dining area opens into the living area, lined with built in bookshelves. Marie Kondo has, somewhat controversially, recommended that people keep their book collection to a minimum, but a children’s book illustrator gets a pass on adhering to that kind of advice. (She did however, give away a lot of books before the move, including Kondo’s). Sweet may have had a predisposition to embracing Kondo’s decluttering approach. “My people purge,” she says. Her parents owned an antiques store in Pound Ridge, New York. Items moved in and out of their house as the dealers made sales. “There was no such thing as an heirloom,” Sweet says. “My parents, they were ruthless. They didn’t save anything from our childhood.”
For Sweet, the Kondo book served as inspiration. But so does the Bauhaus movement, with its emphasis on the utilitarian. “What if we lived as if, if everything we had was beautifully crafted or functional in a way that we enjoyed?” she says. “Can I just show you this?” she adds, rolling out one of several clothing drawers built into the side of a new closet. She could have bought a dresser for the bedroom. Instead she worked with builder Ned Merrick on this hybrid of closet/drawers. Merrick bought pre-made maple boxes, then faced them and set them on rollers into the wall. “It’s way more streamlined,” Sweet says. Merrick did the same with the kitchen cabinets and storage units built into the knee wall in the studio upstairs. The pale green vanity in the bathroom is a repurposed work table bought from Blanche + Mimi in downtown Portland. “It was in response to my builder saying, ‘It’s time to go to Home Depot and figure out what you are going to do for your bathroom, because you can’t afford custom.’” She created her own form of custom, funky and unique, with objects placed just so, throughout the house, a natural extension of the collages and assemblages she makes for her books.
That spur of the moment airport purchase of the Kondo book changed Sweet’s address, and her approach to her life. Or maybe it sped up the process: “I think it brought home that a change was on the near horizon,” she says. She feels no compulsion to roll her socks anymore, Kondo style, but she’s very conscious now of what she brings into the house. “Suddenly everything feels of a piece and important.” Walking down the stairs from the studio to show a visitor out, Sweet says. “Knock wood, I couldn’t be happier.”
Mary Pols is the editor of Maine Women Magazine. She’s reduced her clutter but has miles to go before she hits Melissa Sweet level.