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Talent Show

Talent Show
November 2011
Renaissance gal Ann Ladson Stafford fills her North Central rental with smart DIY pieces, from redesigned lighting to refurbished furniture

"All this ‘nesting,’ this house thing? It began with a little screened porch in North Charleston,” says Ann Ladson Stafford, of a modest place she rented ages ago. “It was the first time I’d stayed put in awhile, and I loved that porch. I began making my home out of just that room. I hung some shades, found a good rug, brought in some plants… I made it work.”

Of course she did. Dreaming up ideas and making them work is her thing, her stock and trade. She’s Charleston’s modern-day Renaissance gal, born and bred here, with a skill set that ranges from pastry baker to chandelier maker, all-purpose engineer to seamstress extraordinaire. Her two-story on Cypress Street on the northern end of downtown is like a well-dressed workshop, buzzing with projects past and present but without the mismatched tools and bad lighting. Rather, everything here has its place, like long-collected artwork (i.e., vintage prints of sleek Airstream trailers), handcrafted fixtures (think Anthropologie meets 1stdibs), and rescued and rehabbed furniture (like the pair of end tables she dragged out of the Sunday trash on Sullivan’s Island to polish up and paint).

And like any self-respecting craftsman—ahem, craftswoman—she’s as comfortable talking shop as she is combing through a bin of eyebolts, a bottle of beer and a folder full of new projects and ideas at her side. Still, at a quarter to four on a Wednesday afternoon, she feels she needs to explain the Miller High Life in her hand. “I’m already on vacation,” she laughs. In just hours, she and live-in boyfriend John Shaffer are flitting off to Amsterdam for a bit of houseboat dwelling, then to a flat in the Raval area of Barcelona, and finally to Ibiza, a Spanish island off the coast of Valencia. That’s a lot of trip for just two weeks, but that’s Ann Ladson. Adventures, both at home and abroad, are her thing.

She grew up on the streets of Mount Pleasant’s Old Village, “back when the town hall was at the corner of King and Pitt streets; that was right across from my house,” she says. After that came a little bit of everything: engineering and art classes at the University of Tennessee, sound engineering in Arizona and Oregon (which scored her gigs with rocker Michael Schenker of the Scorpions and one-hit wonder band Cherry Poppin’ Daddies), then down to St. John in the Virgin Islands to learn—of all things—how to cook. “I started assisting a chef down there, cooking with him in restaurants and on chartered boats,” she says. “That was enough to get me interested.” So she headed back to the West Coast to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, where she forged new connections that sent her back East to join the pastry team at Craft, chef Tom Collichio’s famed kitchen in Manhattan. After a year there, he added her to his Kiawah team for Tides at the Beach Club. And just like that, she was back home.

But Ann Ladson’s since traded in her (pastry) chef hat for “a day job,” she laughs, touting the better hours and lower stress of nine-to-five office work. And in the meantime, she’s settled in, dug in, and nested back in her hometown, starting with that little porch in North Charleston. Then it was on to a slightly bigger place, an old 1920s cottage on Sullivan’s Island.
“This was a new creative outlet for me,” she says of the house projects that sprang up once she slowed down. “I started sewing curtains and next it was slipcovers to revive old sofas or chairs. Then I made my first lamp out of a piece of steel,” she says. “I just started making what I needed.”

If that North Charleston porch and Sullivan’s one-bedroom were apprenticeships— spots to hone her newfound flair—then her current 1940s number is where she landed her dream job. “This was what I needed,” she says, sitting in the dining room, leaning her elbows on a mod butternut dining table. “All this light, the tall ceilings, the white walls... It’s a big, blank canvas that I could make mine, completely.”

In came pieces she’d found, made, or spiffed up over the past few years, plus some new stuff—a low-slung sofa from CB2, a pair of blue, fiberglass Eames reproduction chairs, a stainless-steel kitchen island from an online restaurant supply shop—mixed in to shake and shine things up. But mostly, the trappings are Ann Ladson’s made-over versions: a pair of plain-Jane benches decoupaged with canvas paintings, a trunk John’s grandmother took with her to boarding school now outfitted with metal casters and put to use as a coffee table, a poster from a 1950s schoolroom mounted on a plastic pull-down shade in the dining room.

“I’ve never been okay with standard anything,” she says. “For me, things need to be custom. Not ‘expensive custom,’ just ‘different custom.’”

In Her Words
On Big Ideas vs. Not-So-Big Budget: “Just like anybody else, I spot things that I love, but they don’t fit my budget. So I study them, I research them, and more times than not, I decide I can make them. Sometimes the project turns out great, sometimes it’s a dog. Really, it’s split. And I may trash a project because it’s not working, but next time I pick something, I’ll do it with a more scrutinizing eye. So even the failed attempts get me closer.

“Plus, let’s face it, DIY projects aren’t free. Whether it’s the parts I need to build something or a gem I’ve found on eBay, I buy when I have the money. And if that means I don’t dine out for two weeks, that’s okay. I like tuna fish.”

On Building From Scratch: “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been certain I can do things myself. If you tell me something can’t be done, I’ll push until it can be done. I find ideas everywhere, and if there’s something I like that requires technical know-how that I don’t have, I’ll keep following that thread until I figure it out. I know someone by name in every department at Lowe’s! You do enough of these projects—successfully and not-so-successfully—and you start to know instinctively what you need.”

On Striking a Balance: “Sometimes, I buy pieces that are exactly how I want them. Other times I buy things because I know what they can be, like the brass fixture in the hall. It was nothing special, just an ugly architectural remnant for $20, but I knew if I changed out the sockets, stripped the paint, and made it into five separate pendants, it was exactly what I needed. The important part is having a plan—otherwise you’re just bringing home junk. And even your good stuff doesn’t look good next to junk.”