Walking into James Kivior’s dark and moody apartment in Brooklyn, New York is a maximalist’s dream. Among the collection of taxidermied animals, wall of framed Hermѐs scarves and luxury designer goodies that fill his space, it’s no wonder that James started an Instagram account cheekily named “The Pretentious Home.”
An educational manager for a French cosmetics company, James invited us into his home for a conversation as lively as his surroundings. For the full unfiltered recording, check it out on my IGTV series.
It’s AAPI Heritage Month, tell me about your Asian background and experience growing up as the son of an immigrant.
I’m half Asian – my mother is from Thailand and has been living in the US now for about 50 years. I’ve always been fascinated with her life growing up in Thailand because she talks about owning and riding elephants as a child.
Things didn’t work out with my parents and my father remarried a Korean woman. I’ve always lived my whole life in an Asian household. I was living in Southern California with my father and stepmother. She was the oldest, and when her siblings were moving here from South Korea, our home was their starting point in the US. Over the years, I never had a typical Thanksgiving or Christmas: we didn’t have turkey, we had kimchi!
I moved back to New York with my mom. My apartment is technically in Brooklyn, but I’m on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. I’m very proud to say I live in Queens, it’s a burrough that’s become a cultural melting pot, especially for the Asian community.
How did you become The Pretentious Home? As a little boy, were you into fanciful things?
Definitely not. When I lived in California, my father would not appreciate me being fanciful! He was very strict and had me in martial arts at a very young age. If I had stayed in Southern California instead of moving back to New York (where I was born), I probably would have had a totally different life. I probably would have been a lawyer, I probably would have been closeted. But returning to New York to live with my mom, it really changed my life and my path.
The Pretentious Home started when I was talking to one of my best friends and showing her these ridiculous Gucci ice cube trays that I bought. She agreed that they were ridiculous and that I should start an Instagram account called “The Pretentious Home” to show all the stupid stuff that I would buy for my home like black toilet paper from Portugal.
Interiors was always what I loved to do although I’m not an interior decorator by profession. I have a specific love of certain things: I like things that are more luxurious and sometimes out of my price range. But that’s where secondhand comes in.
What was your first secondhand purchase and how did you start leaning into using more secondhand finds?
In high school, I was an alternative and goth kid, I was shopping at a lot of vintage and thrift stores in Orange County. One of the first things I bought, I was probably about ten years old. It was a vest made of old ties and cost fifty cents. In the last year living in California, I let my fancy side out and didn’t care what my father thought.
I got my first apartment when I was 20 and moved to Astoria, Queens. I still dream about that apartment: it was a beautiful pre-war one-bedroom. I would go to all the thrift and vintage stores in the neighborhood, including a Salvation Army. I would buy vintage, but I would reupholster stuff.
There was a tuxedo sofa with a great shape, and I’m surprisingly handy with a sewing machine. I completely reupholstered it myself, including the piping, and I did it in one weekend. I have always been repulsed by big box stores. I like finding old pieces and redoing them, especially upholstered pieces and making them custom.
What is one design rule that you abide by when you’re curating, especially living in New York where spaces are smaller?
Being a maximalist, I love beautiful things and I want everything to be shown. It kills me to put something in a closet or a cabinet where I can’t appreciate it everyday. There is a part of me that wants to say “learn to edit,” because if you are a maximalist, you can easily go overboard when you are layering. Sometimes I see that I have gone too far.
My general rule is: I see it, I buy it. If you don’t, it will be gone and you will regret it. I don’t ever want to feel that way. So that’s my rule: you see it, you like it, you buy it. If you’re going to be poor for a little bit, that’s okay, you will just appreciate it more.
As a maximalist, what is your editing process like? Do you get tired of things? When is it time to let something go?
I have no problem letting something go. As much as I love something, if I’m over it, I’m over it. If I bought something for $1,000, I will sell it for $100 just to get rid of it, I don’t care.
When I was living in Astoria, there was a fire in the apartment while I was gone, and I lost everything in the fire. Everything was destroyed by the fire, the firefighters or the smoke. I returned home from the weekend and I couldn’t take anything.
At that point, I learned that these things are not important to my life, no matter how much I spent or how much I love them. I’m able to walk through a store or website and know within five minutes whether there’s something I like. My friends could be at a flea market for half a day digging through things, and I’m the worst person to do that.
I edit before it even gets into my home. I’m at a point where I like everything the way it is, so it’s really hard for me to bring something in. If I do, I try to take something out. Otherwise it gets to a point where there’s too much going on.
My rule lately has been “one in, one out.”
Exactly. Fortunately I have a storage unit, which I highly recommend especially if you have a small apartment. Spend the extra $100 a month for storage, and the furniture will eventually go when I buy a home or move into a bigger space. I have a beautiful set of dining chairs in there – I’m a chair hoarder.
Tell me about your treasures. What’s one of your favorite secondhand finds?
Right now, because it’s a new purchase for me, it’s the Tony Duquette chandelier. It’s a $20,000 chandelier that I bought from an interior designer for a lot less obviously. I drove out to Philadelphia to get it, I’ve known the designer for a while. She’s had that chandelier for sale forever and was closing her studio.
The crazy thing with this chandelier is that it has all these gems and stuff coming out of it. I didn’t properly prepare to pick up a chandelier like that with my SUV. It was so heavy, and I didn’t know what to put it on to secure it. Driving home for two hours, every bump I hit would set the chandelier off! But it made it home in one piece. It’s sitting in my hallway outside waiting for me to finish some projects before I hang it.
Tell me about “the one that got away.”
Sometimes you see an entire china collection listed for sale, but that takes the fun away from collecting and curating. I collect Jasperware from Wedgwood, and specifically look for the crimson color which is very rare and hard to find. When you do find it, it’s very expensive. Someone listed a large planter for like $400 or $500 on Chairish. I liked it and didn’t buy it right away, and it sold immediately. I haven’t seen anything like that listed ever since. That’s the one that got away.
Is there anything crazy you’ve had to do to get something into your house, especially living in New York?
Two things: I have this beautiful ebonized Louis desk and it was actually much bigger than anticipated. I knew it would fit in my apartment, I didn’t plan on it not fitting through the front door. We actually had to take the door off of its hinges.
My building is three floors and I’m on the top floor. The first floor to the second floor is a weird stairway and has a sharp turn, and there’s a bit of an overhanging so you have to be careful. I would love to have a giant bookcase, but that would never fit up the stairs.
Even my sofa wouldn’t fit through the front door: the delivery man had to pop it from its hinges to get it in.
Aside from the Salvation Army or the Goodwill stores, what are boutiques where you like to shop?
You’re not going to find an amazing score in New York City, you have to go outside of the city. I like to go up to Connecticut, there’s a lot of great antique stores up there as well as in Westchester, New York.
In New Jersey, one of my favorite places to go is Lambertville. The whole town is an antiquing town, so every store is an antique store or an antique mall. They have a huge flea market there called the Golden Nugget Flea Market.
On Long Island, one of my favorite places is a consignment store called Valley Attic in Lotus Valley. I’ve been going there since back in the day, but now it’s full with a lot of interior designers because a lot of rich people drop things off there.
Tell us one thing you’re proud of about being an Asian American.
One of my favorite things about being Asian is that we age slower and better than most people.
I can’t disagree with that, James – thank you so much and we’re looking forward to seeing more of your Pretentious Home!