Photography by Mr Bill Gentle | Styling by Mr Grant Woolhead
Words by Mr Freddie Campion
The idea of a forward-thinking antiques shop might sound like an oxymoron. Especially in sleepy New England, with its doily-clad boutiques, known for their quaint "French country meets colonial New England" style. Or so says 26-year-old Mr Luke Kelly, the co-owner and proprietor of Mill Goods, a New Hampshire-based showroom and website offering a 21st-century take on the traditional rural antiquing experience. "When I first arrived I went to a lot of antique shops, and they were a bit uniform," says British-raised Mr Kelly. "You have a lot of stuff that is very beautiful, but totally replaceable. You might say to yourself, 'What a lovely armoire', or whatever; but go to the other 10 shops in that town and you'll find exactly the same thing."
Mill Goods, which opened last year in a converted boiler house in the small historic mill town of Harrisville, hopes to offer an antidote in the form of large-scale industrial pieces and locally made homeware mixed with offbeat collectables and one-of-a-kind peculiarities.
We had a deck of cards from the 1930s, printed blank on one side. Someone -
a sailor, we think - had drawn pornographic pictures on each card
"My family were all collectors of strange things," says Mr Kelly, the grandson of Mr Roald Dahl, and a soon-to-be-published children's book author himself when his first book is released this summer. "My grandmother's house had things such as William Blake's paintbrush next to some fossilised whalebone. When I came here it kind of led me to thinking there was a bit of a gap for quirky, interesting elements."
Speaking over eggs in a diner in Peterborough, New Hampshire - near the 1930s hunter's cabin he's been living in and refurbishing since 2008, while also completing an MA in creative writing at Dartmouth College - we started off by talking about why he chose to set up shop in New Hampshire, as opposed to the more fashionable (not to mention lucrative) East Coast hubs such as Boston or New York.
So what brought you here?
My father's first wife is from New Hampshire. I came here occasionally as a kid, and I used to think it was like a paradise. I guess I come from a slightly strange and all-over-the-place kind of family in England - we moved something like 18 times in 16 years. So when I saw my two half-sisters had been in this one place all their lives I thought, "I really want a small town life too."
Had you always been interested in antiques?
I was interested in taking photographs initially. I moved to New York to start working for photographers when I left school. That taught me I was more interested in other people's photographs than my own, so I started collecting them: specifically work by 20th-century American photographers. That broadened into contemporary art, which broadened into antiques.
Did being in New York help your design sensibility at all?
Absolutely. I arrived in New York as a sort of dumpy, totally unknowing teenager, and being immersed in a world like that had an interesting effect.
In what way?
My family's houses in England had a very classic English style, which I really love, but as a kid you don't think of it as being malleable - it feels as if it has always been that way, and always will be. New Yorkers are happy for things to be in flux, and they're open to different styles. I fell in love with that.
Mr Kelly: "On the wall is an 1894 topographic map and two 1726 botanical prints, and on the table a miniature diorama from a children's museum."
Were there similar moments once you arrived in New England?
Yes. Early on I came across a shop called Seaver & McLellan in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. It's basically a wholesale dealer filled with weird kinds of Natural History Museum-like objects. It's very unassuming from the outside, but then you go in and it's room after room of beautiful things. We're a little bit different: our look is cleaner, more modern, but it was still a huge influence on me.
You said your family is full of collectors. Were you a collector growing up?
Yeah, as a kid I collected Victorian writing boxes, like ship captains' cases that had secret drawers for love letters. They were all empty though - like I said, I was a bit of a geek, and I didn't have a single secret thing to hide in my secret drawer collection. Collecting is definitely a family trait. My grandfather had an antiques shop with my uncle called Dahl & Son, and apparently they had really lovely things. His sisters were like that too, in a very Scandinavian-English smorgasbord kind of way, and my grandmother's house holds a really unusual mix of things. It's a Georgian cottage but you've got little bits of masonry from the Houses of Parliament next to a Chinese plate that was pulled out of a shipwreck next to a Malevich Suprematist ink piece.
What would be the one thing that informed your taste the most growing up?
It's a boring answer, but The World of Interiors. My grandmother has every copy since it was founded, and I would just pore over it.
How did the idea of mixing industrialism and minimalism in the shop come about?
We're in an industrial building, which is already pared down in its purpose, so keeping it somewhat stripped back suits it. It helps you notice the actual pieces. We seek things out very carefully - often going on three-hour drives to get one thing - so we want to focus on having great individual stuff, not necessarily a massive back stock.
Is there a common thread that everything in the shop shares?
There is a slightly masculine aesthetic that runs through a lot of it. Emily, my girlfriend, who I run the shop with, tempers that, but there is still a lot of character in the pieces. It works particularly well in Harrisville, which has been kept very close to the way it originally looked when it was a working mill, and it's a beautiful place to begin with.
mr kelly's curiosities
large sign and bridge model
"In the cabin there is a large vintage Humble Oil sign, as well as an antique architectural model of a Parisian bridge on the table."
"A collection of vintage Penguin titles."
Taxidermy and other items
"An 1890 case of grouse taxidermy, an antique folding ship captain's mirror, an ivory chess set made up of individually found 'orphan' pieces, a 19th-century still life and other items."
How did you find Harrisville?
Mill number six is this amazing lead window mill that has been converted into studios, and I had a writing studio there.
How did the idea for a shop come about?
Laura Carden, who runs the amazing Harrisville General Store, had wanted to do a homeware shop, but she didn't have the time to run it. She asked me if I'd be interested. I said I'd love to, but that I'd want it to be more antiques, because that's my area. It's a little heavier on antiques now than when it was envisioned, but we're mixing in local homeware as our collaborations with local craftsmen pan out.
What have been some of your favourite pieces up until now?
There was a folk painting that was torn and the figure's eyes were hanging out the back, so I hung it backwards. It was really dramatic looking, until our dog Otis jumped through it. Right now I'm really excited about a group of taxidermied bats, which we just found.
It seems as if everything in the shop tells its own story. Have there been any particularly interesting ones?
We had a deck of cards from the 1930s that were printed blank on one side, and someone - a sailor, we think - had drawn incredibly detailed pornographic pictures on each card. They were really beautiful and striking, but also total smut. We had them in a drawer in the back of the shop, and if someone came in and looked like the kind of person who'd be into 1930s hand-drawn porn we would get them out.
Is there a holy grail for you?
I think it's more about getting the overall look and collection how we like it. My favourite antique shops are just put together really well.
So it's more about getting everything looking good enough to one day make it in to The World of Interiors?
It sounds shallow, but yes!