Looking like Sean Connery cut from an old Bond film, a man rides a motorcycle in a framed, black-and-white photograph that hangs on the wall. It’s retro and cool in an “Easy Rider”-meets-the-Andrews Sisters sort of way.
“That’s my father on the motorcycle, in 1966, on Normandy Beach,” explains designer Samantha Thomas, before pointing to another framed picture hanging nearby, “and he took that Eiffel Tower photo.”
The vintage photos, like most everything else in Thomas’ New Hartford design and home goods store, Samantha Gale Designs, are deeply personal.
“This is me, this is me on the inside; you’re walking into my head and my heart,” she said.
From pillows made with rich textiles to painted, reupholstered wingback chairs and the eclectic art hanging on the walls, almost everything in the store has been created, rebuilt, refinished, repurposed or refashioned by Thomas from something else, in one way or another, creating a look that she loosely calls, “Vintage Farmhouse.”
“There’s a nostalgic thing about it,” she said. “I’m really drawn to the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. That just seems like a great age, and I’m pulled to that.”
Her affinity for days gone by comes, in part, from spending a part of her childhood living on a remote mountain in Falls Village, a tiny hamlet in Litchfield County.
“It was awful for a preteen girl, but we had an old cabin up there, and it just made me feel a certain way.”
She used that feeling for inspiration as an art major at Western Maryland College, where she often drew on fond recollections for her work.
“I would always paint vintage cars. My grandfather had an old car and it just stuck with me. I remembered the image, and I loved it. It made me feel good,” she explained. “It’s like a movie you watch 100 times because it makes you feel good. And I encountered that in old things.”
For a time Thomas parlayed her art and passion for vintage items into occasional decorating projects for herself and friends, but as she puts it, “life happened,” and she ended up in Boston working in finance.
“I hated what I did for a living for so long. It was so not creative, and it sucked the life out of me. I felt like I was playing a part.”
Eventually, a series of circumstances brought her back to the New Hartford area, where she came to the realization that she’d been stifling her true calling.
“I had time to let my mind settle and see what really inspired me and made me happy, and it was being an interior decorator and home designer.”
She started small, doing various projects with furniture and textiles for four years before wandering into a store one day and asking, off-the-cuff, if she could rent some space. The owner agreed and Thomas filled it with her designs.
“Within three weeks, I sold out of everything,” she said. “I filled it up again, and four weeks later, I sold out of everything again.”
Less than a year later she opened her shop.
Decorating To Billie Holiday
Housed in an old, red, dairy barn, the charming space looks a lot like the “after” result of an HGTV makeover. And since Thomas’s husband, Christopher, does much of the carpentry and furniture building for the business, it’s not surprising that people often compare the couple to the stars of one of the network’s most popular shows.
“Like the program ‘Fixer Upper,’ she’s very much like a Jojo Gaines,” said Daphne Roberson, one of Thomas’s design clients and a regular customer at her store. “She has a really eclectic, bohemian style but she also has that old farmhouse feel.”
Thomas laughs at the comparison, but said she can see the similarities, minus the Texas accent and team of workers assisting with the transformations.
“We are, my husband and I, a two-person show; there’s nobody else,” she said before adding, “If we did have our own show, there’d be a lot of bleeps.”
Inside her shop, it’s eye candy for anyone who appreciates bold pops of color blended with original-concept furniture and accessories.
And the “certain” feeling Thomas refers to is evident in everything from the Billie Holiday tunes playing softly from the speakers to the cabin-feeling textiles and art, which includes an old, framed gunny sack along and an enlarged image of vintage Volkswagen mini buses.
By way of explanation, Thomas explains that as a kid, she spent a lot of time riding in the back of her family’s VW bus, which she fondly recalls, was “puke green,” with a table in back, but no seatbelts.
Also hanging on the walls are framed patent drawing of things like acoustic guitars and motorcycles. The latter is a specific nod to her father, with whom she was close.
“My father owned biker bars my whole life, real roadhouses,” she recalls. “He was like the Sam Elliott character; he even looked like him, so I kind of grew up with that sort of machismo, but fun, guy.”
When he passed away, Thomas said the loss left her reeling, but she found consolation in creating.
“I was feeling so awful when I lost my father, it was under circumstances that were really difficult, and I just wanted to heal. When I walked by furniture and fabric, it really made me feel better, safe and comforted, and I thought, I can bring this feeling to other people.”
Lynn Palmer, a Morris resident, is one of them. She’s had Thomas do design work in her home and owns several of her original furniture designs.
According to Palmer, Thomas has a gift. “She has a very unique eye and she’s able to come up with designs that are robust, beautiful and unique. I have several pieces of her furniture and they are one-of-a-kind; they make a statement, but they’re warm and inviting.”
And that’s exactly what Thomas hopes people will feel about her work.
“I want people to walk in and say, ‘This is something totally different,’ and not be like anything anyone’s ever seen. Every little thing in here I’ve thought about, and you get a little piece of me in all of it.”
A tag with her logo, the tree of life, is affixed to all her items. She said it signifies healing and the idea that all things in life come from somewhere. It also represents her dream, which isn’t necessarily to have her own show on HGTV.
“I’m not looking to take over the world,” she laughs, “If that happens, that’d be great, but I’d just like to make an impact as I go. I want someone to walk into a room and say, ‘That’s a Samantha Gale original,’ and then they pull the seat up and see the tag.”
For the time being, she’s happy with what she’s accomplished so far and thinks that it’s all headed in a good direction.
“I love making the past come back. That is therapeutic. You can’t change the past, but you can in a way in the store. This is like a second chance for a lot of things, me included.”
Samantha Gale Designs is located at 377 Main St., New Hartford. For more information samanthagaledesign.com or 860-909-1234.