The Home Observer: Go Fishs

The eccentric collections of Julie Gaines and David Lenovitz, the New Yorkers behind iconic dishware emporium Fishs Eddy.

SLIDESHOW: Fishs Eddy at home.

Serendipity: luck, or good fortune, in finding something good accidentally.

“After I graduated college in 1984, with a not-so-useful art degree,” recalls Julie Gaines, “I moved into a small walk-up building on West 15th Street. The landlord gave me a break on the rent to sweep the floors and maintain the hallways. I was making small, folksy paintings to sell on the street, but other than that I was pretty lost. The Wooden Indian (a shop that sold vintage stuff) was only a few doors away from my home. The young man behind the counter, who was wrapping up my purchase of drinking glasses (who was working there because he was also pretty losthe had dropped out of high school), quietly asked me to a movie.”

Ms. Gaines, now 47, married the young man, David Lenovitz, now 51, about two years after that movie date. A year before the wedding, they opened a small store together and called it Fishs Eddy. The rest is history, serendipity even.

“In those days you could snag a lease even if you didn’t have money,” Ms. Gaines says of the days before Union Square was home to a Best Buy and a Nordstrom’s Rack. The couple scrounged together $3,000, which got their foot in the door on a store on East 17th Street near Gramercy Park. They stocked the place with “junk from our mothers’ homes-my mother even unloaded some of her wedding gifts that by then were vintage,” loot from hours of dumpster diving and salvaged throwaways from garbage piles left outside other peoples’ stores (one shopkeeper’s garbage is another shopkeeper’s treasure, or merchandise). Ms. Gaines said they were also aggressive about calling places like the 21 Club and the Plaza Hotel offering to pay for and cart away whatever old tableware was idling in storage spaces. Their vision never wavered, and over the past 25 years, the vintage dishware and kitchen accouterments they sold have become highly sought after by all sorts of New Yorkers, including Julian Schnabel who, according to Ms. Gaines and Mr. Lenovitz, not only bought plates but smashed them to pieces to glue onto his well-known paintings.

At one point occupying five retail locations, the store currently stands as a single emporium on Broadway and 19th Street, where Ms. Gaines aand Mr. Lenovitz also offer newly made merchandise they design and manufacture in similar style and comparable quality to their vintage wares.

The walk-up apartment on 15th Street is long gone. For the past dozen or so years Ms. Gaines and Mr. Lenovitz have lived with their two now teenage children in a three-bedroom duplex on the top floor of a riverfront high-rise in Battery Park City (Ms. Gaines does not sweep the hallways here). The apartment, which has a splendid panorama of the Hudson and an unobstructed view of Ellis Island, might be referred to as cookie-cutter in style, except that Ms. Gaines and Mr. Lenovitz have transformed it into a highly personal and idiosyncratic space that could just as well be in a Victorian mansion or a turn-of-the-century brownstone. The interior is true to their personal, very quirky aesthetic. “I hate a ‘decorated’ space’,” said Ms. Gaines blithely, while giving a tour of her home and attempting to tidy up along the way. “I’m rebelling,” she said, adding that she grew up across the river on Staten Island, where her relatives were the only Jews in the neighborhood amid Gambinos and Bonnanos. “My mother’s home was highly decorated in ‘Staten Island Provincial.’ Everything had a place. Her home didn’t evolve like ours has. I love things with a history, and I hate new.”

Ms. Gaines describes their home décor as “authentic, eclectic and curated.” In fact at first one hardly notices furniture. Rather, eyes are instantly drawn to the walls that are covered from floor to ceiling with a massive collection of “thrift shop paintings.” The couple’s collection of about 1,200 paintings includes 800 nudes that Mr. Lenovitz recently bought from an unknown artist in Philadelphia (those are in a gigantic warehouse due to lack of space at home). Ms. Gaines claims the thrift-shop painting genre has become popular and more expensive over the years (although she never paid more that $100 for any one piece, and most were in the $20 range). Every surface in the apartment is home to collections of interesting tchotchkes, also collected over decades. “There’s no system in our home,” said Ms. Gaines, and even though there is so much diversity in the place, it all hangs together since the “decorators” are true to their aesthetic and never deviate; sleek and modern does not sneak in. Nothing looks out of place here, yet at first glance it appears to be a bit unruly (as does Fishs Eddy, in fact).

“Our house reflects our crazy lifestyle,” said Ms. Gaines. “We’re scheduling challenged; when the doorbell rings all four of us run to the door hoping there’s a food delivery.” “We are successful in spite of ourselves. We trust our instincts and ourselves. When we create stuff, it works.”

SLIDESHOW: Fishs Eddy at home.