Blogging queen of kitsch Claire Smyth tells JOANNE SAVAGE about her collection of outlandish treasures
THERE are pieces of taxidermy - a flamingo, a fox and a two-headed duckling; doll’s houses; a retro cabinet filled with cacti - some natural, some knitted; birdcages; snow globes; bad paintings; lego models; plastic flowers; a pineapple punch bowl; fans with lace trimming; intricately patterned crockery; Russian dolls; robot figures; vintage style radios and clocks.
Claire Smyth’s Bangor home is just like a curiosity shop.
“My 1960s boat bar is one of my favourite things I’ve collected,” says the effortlessly original 32-year-old. “It’s a cocktail bar shaped like the front portion of a ship. It’s horrendously wonderful. I was searching for one for years and finally got mine on eBay, paid for by my parents’ for my 30th birthday.”
The mum-of-one, who launched her award-winning blog theworldofkitsch.com in 2009, has been a fan of the brilliantly weird since a childhood trip to Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum in Florida.
“Ripley’s was a museum featuring curiosities and bizarre world record-breaking displays,” says Claire. “The taxidermied Fiji mermaid, the optical illusion room and the fur covered trout I saw there definitely awakened my weirdness - I knew this was my kind of world - although the signs were there since I was a toddler.
“My favourite haunt when I was young was Delany’s Restaurant in Lombard Street. I adored their sky high pavlova and walls of taxidermy which led me to call it the Dead Face Shop.
“I’d always been the funny peculiar one growing up.”
Claire trawls charity shops and the most far-flung corners of cyberspace for pieces of kitsch and then showcases them on her blog, posting photographs of found objects or pinning links to kitsch-cool furniture or art that has attracted her eagle-eye, thereby inspiring others in their search for kitsch, and attracting advertisers who want to be associated with the generally weird and ironically cool aesthetic sensibility privileged here.
“I have a long suffering husband who is used to coming home to find some new, weird functionless item cluttering up the living room,” she laughs.
“I’d say about 10 per cent of my blog posts of each week are items I’ve bought for myself. That’s how The World of Kitsch started, with me sharing my weekly buys. That part is still there, but now I also write about cool products I’ve hunted down that my readers would be interested in buying or owning.
“Some of my most popular posts are those where I hunt down unusual lego models that fans of various TV shows or movies have made. In the past I’ve featured Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones lego.
“But I’m really into taxidermy,” she adds, holding a flamingo. “I have a fox head, a stoat, a vampire duckling, two piranhas, a duck, a partridge, a two-headed duckling, the flamingo and a koala made from goat’s fur. My most unusual piece, and I suppose another one of my favourites, is my jackalope. That’s a bunny rabbit with antlers to you and me.
“Taxidermy is hard to come across as it’s not the sort of thing you can usually pick up at Oxfam.”
The blog has attracted a lot of attention with Claire winning an accolade from Cosmopolitan Magazine in 2010; blogging for the publication on vintage fashion, accessories, tattoos; and attending their bloggers awards ceremony again this year. She has even been interviewed live on air by another queen of cool, Lauren Laverne.
Claire was also invited by Ikea to customise a piece of their furniture in order to let customers see the wonders creativity can achieve in transforming a simple piece into something unique. “I got one of their basic black coffee tables and covered the top of it with pages from Ladybird Learn to Read books from the 1980s,” she explains.
Kitsch, Claire agrees, is difficult to define.
“Kitsch is something over the top, like ornamental pillars outside a council house. It’s souvenir, tacky ornaments, straw donkeys, the poor purchase decisions of gaudy flamenco dancers. It’s also the novel and unusual.”
She has a thing for cheap, retro cabinets - sometimes found in charity shops in Newtownards or on the Cregagh Road - which she then fills with weird items; one is labelled a ‘bad taste grotto’ on her blog and has a dizzying mishmash of figures, clashing colours, lights and plastic flowers. She describes it as “quite an assault on the eyes” and sees it as referencing the style era she loves the most - “mass produced, overly ornate, cheap 1960s furniture”.
“I would have whole rooms of cabinets filled with weird objects if I could,” she adds. “But I just can’t fit anything more in. There’s so much in my living room already.”
She continues: “I love my bright pink cuckoo clock. I think it was a grand starting place for what’s become an insane collection of knick knacks including starburst clocks and a plastic stag head.
“I went through a phase of collecting Dallas Simpson art, creepy prints from the 1960s. They aren’t hanging on my walls these days, but I’m unable to give my gypsy children up for adoption. I know how rare it is to find one, so instead of selling them on eBay, I’ve packed them away like some sort of gypsy rose Dorian Grey.”
How did she become this self-confessed “agony aunt of the weird”, the go-to girl on kitsch style?
“It all happened by accident really. I used to work in the clothes shop Liberty Blue in Belfast and the manager there knew a lot about kitsch. I just started blogging about the things I bought and loved. Then places would send me kitsch things to review. Lately I’ve been sent, for example, a SodaStream machine and products from Jelly Belly.
“I’ve worked with Sainsburys and Marks & Spencer on blog posts, and I’m currently working with Schuh to look at their new kid’s launches for super cool wee dudes.”
Last month Claire met with the social media team from Next for their new store opening in Ipswich to tour their homeware and let them know which items were in a ‘kitsch and fabulous’ style.
“The best thing about my blog is opportunities like this. There’s no way in the world these brands would have found me without the popularity of my website’s content.”
And now Claire’s son Michael seems to want copy his collector mother.
“My son has been obsessed with vacuum cleaners since he was one-and-a-half. He has a collection of almost a dozen that includes both toys and real hoovers. He got a Henry Hoover shaped cake for his fourth birthday.”
This curator of the outlandish is wonderfully unabashed about her kookiness.
“I am an oddbod and luckily I’ve found a way to do well from it rather than become one of those hoarders you see on Channel 4.”
But her ultimate ambition would be to one day open a mini museum of kitsch. She imagines it “filled with taxidermy, retro toys, ugly paintings and a tea room serving green jelly and ice cream,” as only she could imagine it.