Daniel Mathis (@notaminimalist) has an immense talent of collecting secondhand treasures scoured from flea markets and vintage shops, and then displaying them museum-like in an apartment in downtown Oklahoma City.
Months before this lawyer by trade upgraded to home ownership and moved out of his meticulous space, we sat down with Daniel to talk about how he became “not a minimalist,” the difference between hoarding and collecting, and his tips and tricks on displaying a collection with careful intention, including an inadvertent master class on creating a gallery wall.
The unfiltered, hour-long conversation is available on my IGTV Series here.
Were you always Not a Minimalist? What was Young Daniel like? Why are you like this? When did you start collecting things?
I was always a collector. I started collecting things in the second and third grade. It was fossils and rocks, and I had a key ring collection. Anywhere we went on vacation, I would buy a key ring. I still have all those key chains.
The collecting came before the styling of the collections. That is just in my genes. It was just an inclination that was natural.
How did you decide to start displaying things in your home?
I started buying vintage in college but I didn’t start collecting until after college. My grandmother gave me some pottery, and I started adding to it. Friends and I would go to flea markets, and then it naturally happened that I wanted to gather things en masse.
I started forming collections, and I’ve been doing this for a long time, but I initially moved jobs a lot and then I went back to attend law school. I was in a 300-square foot apartment so it wasn’t conducive to displaying a lot of things. It didn’t really go bonkers until I moved into this apartment about nine years ago.
I joke and say I dabbled in minimalism for a while because I appreciate the aesthetic of a cleaner and simpler design. But it was a fight to maintain that. When I moved here, I got 20 foot ceilings. As I settled in Oklahoma and started antiquing again, I said, “I’m going to let it out” and that’s when I started collecting.
I don’t think I’ve ever had quite as many things displayed as I do here. At my last apartment, I had some things out and curated, but what I’m doing here was really born in Oklahoma City within the last nine years.
You do it so well. People have a penchant for collecting, but they’re not displaying things properly. What are your tips for collecting versus hoarding?
First of all, we should mention that hoarding is a serious disorder that disrupts people’s lives. We’re not talking about that degree of hoarding. What we’re talking about is being a maximalist and having a lot of things that you display in an artful way that looks intentional and is pleasing, versus accumulating a hodge podge that doesn’t work from a design perspective. That’s what we lovingly call “hoarding” versus an intentional display of collections.
There is a fine line and I teeter between what I would consider a messy world from time to time. You have to step back, edit a little bit and be mindful of that. One rule I have is I keep all my collections together. They’re like an installation in and of themselves, and they read as one thing.
For example, I have a cabinet of swirl pottery. Every single piece of pottery is super busy, and all of them are exponentially busy. But when you put them together in a certain way, it reads as a single installation. I encourage people to keep their collections together and try to display them together in a cohesive way.
The second thing to think about is how you’re displaying them. For instance, some of the pottery I have looks good in an organic shape, while others look good in a rigid grid. Different objects call for a different means of display.
The third thing is: what are you displaying things in or on? For instance, the swirl pottery collections are in very ying and yang cabinets. The Nemadji is in a stark grey industrial mid century bookshelf. It’s a different color and surface from the pottery so the bookshelf recedes and acts like a frame.
Those are some things to think about. I kinda back up and look at the space as a whole, and sometimes things pop out in my eyes that need moving so I move them. It’s trial and error, it’s not gonna be perfect on the first try.
When you’re hunting and gathering, and you’ve gathered enough things, do you end up reselling things that don’t work out? Or do you hang onto it for a little bit to see if it could work in another space?
I have not sold things, I’m not one to sell things. I’ll give them away. I’ve furnished my niece’s apartment: she’s in law school now, so she has a lot of hand me downs. I don’t do a lot of purging, but I’m getting to a point where things have “timed out” in my aesthetic. I’ll retire those for a while but then I might decide to bring them back.
Your taste evolves, at least mine has. If you don’t like it now, you might like it sometime in the future. I hang onto things for a little while, but there are some things that get to a point where I don’t want them anymore and I want to get them out of there. I have purging episodes where I’ll take things to Goodwill or give them to friends.
Talk to us about building a collection.
In terms of building a collection, particularly with vintage items, you’re going to have filler pieces that are pretty nondescript and not super interesting but necessary to build the whole story. You might find those readily available and once you have a mass that looks cool together, maybe you need a few showstopper pieces.
This goes against the thrifter’s rules, but you might need to go online and find things on Etsy or eBay. You have to do that sometimes to find the really good pieces. Otherwise you might be searching for that unicorn for years and years and years. If you want to complete the collection sooner, I think that’s okay to do, and it’s almost the way to do it.
I have some collections I’m building that I’ve put away. When it’s time, I’ll bring them out. I have some things I’ve collected for many, many years that I don’t have a place for here. It doesn’t work in this space, but someday I might have more space and I’ll bring them out.
I’m a planner. You can tell that some of my collections require commitment, and so I’m pretty committed to long term projects. I have some things percolating in my brain that I see down the road. I see how they’ll be displayed and what room I want them in. I’ve always been a collector so that’s something I like to think about and envision.
I like decorating, too. That’s something that came later as a creative interest. I’m left-brained, but my job as a lawyer is a very right-brained, analytical role. I’ve exercised both parts of that thought process. Most times if I’ve had a stressful work week, the decorating is my bliss.
What is a design rule that you swear by?
I think that anything en masse can be awesome. It doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, some of the things that I collect are things that people have ignored. Lots of things en masse can make a really fun statement in an inexpensive way.
Piggybacking on that, sometimes if you’re trying to figure out what to collect, it’s fun to look at the things that everyone is ignoring, and to see if you can find interest or beauty in those objects. For one thing, they’re going to be very prevalent and the second thing is, they’re going to be really cheap. People just don’t look for them.
If you like to thrift and go to flea markets, antique stores or estate sales, it makes it more fun to have one thing that you’re always looking for because it makes it more like a treasure hunt. That’s an easy decorating tip in terms of how to use vintage things.
Be honest, do you have a “hoarding” problem?
Sometimes I feel like, “Do I have a problem?” Am I just accumulating?” When I have those moments, it’s usually because I’ve had three weekends in a row of shopping. Maybe it’s just the peak estate sale season or I happen to go out of town to a flea market and then the next weekend I go with another friend.
Usually if I have a series of weekends where I shop and I come in and drop it, and then I bring the next stuff in and I drop it, and I come in from work and I realize I can’t even walk through my entry way, it does make me feel a little depressed.
It’s not fun when you have all this clutter around. I have to remind myself to pause and curate what I’ve collected, put it away and appreciate it. Incorporate it into where you wanted to incorporate it, or store it away. Then pause and enjoy what you collected.
If you’re asking yourself if you have a problem, then I don’t think you have a problem.
One thing I usually say is if it enhances my life and doesn’t interfere with my life, if it ever got to a place where it wasn’t fun for me, then I would change it. I’m a super organized person, I have storage units where I have my collections in boxes and they’re labeled. I do have a plan where those are gonna go.
There is a genetic disposition to collecting. My grandmother got me started early. She would go to garage sales while we were growing up. My mother doesn’t really have that interest, it skipped a generation. My mom isn’t into it at all.
Melissa Parks (@megillicutti), a dealer in Chicago, has a slogan, “The quest is the best.” And that’s true! Part of the fun is the hunt, your adrenaline kicks up and you get hooked on that high of finding something. You can’t just enjoy the finding because what are you going to do with it?
There’s a part two to the finding. Once you find it, you’ve gotta have a plan: either you’re a dealer and you’re gonna sell it, or you have a spot where you put it and enjoy it. That’s the second thing: you wonder if you’re a collector or if you’re a thrifter who just likes to buy vintage. Part of the fun with vintage is finding that really awesome thing or a cool piece that’s really valuable for a deal.
You have to recognize that you can’t always have dessert. You have to have something filling from time to time so that dessert is enjoyable. So you can’t always have the fun of accumulating and having that adrenaline hit because you found something awesome. You’ve got to pause and actually enjoy curating it and putting it on display, or selling it or giving it away.
Do you research most of your pieces?
I’ve been doing this for so long that I know a lot about a lot of things. I definitely know a lot about the things that I collect so yes, I do research. I have some books on the pottery that I collect.
Every now and then you run across something that feels quality, and you just have to go on a hunch that maybe it’s something interesting. A few months ago, I went thrifting with Hilary Prall, and in a Goodwill, I saw a mixed metal piece that’s shaped like a fish. (I like organic shapes, I don’t usually like literal shapes of things.)
But it felt really cool and it was like $2. Well, they’re on eBay for $125-$150 a piece because the artist is somebody in Mexico who made them years ago. I actually just found another one for a dollar this past weekend. So I have two of those, and I don’t necessarily want to collect them but sometimes collections take on a life of their own, especially if you’re out and about.
You do develop an instinct for things, but the number one question I get is with pottery. I have cousins who are identical twins and people say they can’t tell one from the other. They don’t look anything alike to me because I have seen them since I was born.
That’s how it works with pottery and things that look so similar. After a while, I can’t understand how people can’t distinguish between this type of pottery from this other type. I’ve seen it for so long, I can even tell by the feel. If you blindfolded me and handed me various pieces from my apartment, I can probably tell the difference based on the glaze and the weight and the tactileness of the pottery.
You learn the characteristics over time and that just takes a bit of practice. Particularly with vintage pottery, a lot of it is not marked, and you have to learn how to identify them. That’s what appraisers do. When you watch “Antiques Roadshow,” that’s how they’re able to identify things or really valuable furniture pieces. They learn the idiosyncrasies of how things were made, they can tell from certain patinas.
But I do like to research things and find out more about them.
It does become a rabbit hole. I recently purchased a ceramic piece that was meant to be an ashtray with a signature on the bottom. I googled it and found out the artist was a German woman who immigrated to Los Angeles in the 20s during the Golden Age of Hollywood. I found a few more pieces of hers available on Etsy and eBay.
Speaking of online tools, eBay is such a good resource. If you’re using search terms for something you’ve found, you can figure out what it’s going for, what it sold for, or what it’s called. That’s a good starting point for further research. I do that sometimes in the antique store or in a thrift store.
You mentioned earlier how you collect things that people overlook. You posted on your Stories the other day some wasps nests that you found.
I have them framed in a shadow box from large to small. I do think they look really sculptural. I posted the other day that wasps nests are an example of nature’s art. That’s another example of things that look cool en masse, especially mounted in a specific way. If you went to a natural museum, they would have various kinds of things like that on display.
And these are free! It might take you a while to find large ones, but you can find a ton of small ones, especially if you live in a subdivision at the end of summer when they go away. I immediately envisioned a bunch of them together and graduated in size, kind of in the same way that I have my shells displayed.
You have a number of shadow boxes on your gallery wall.
All of my shadow boxes I’ve made. One of them has arrowheads and flint, and that was part of my rock collection growing up that my grandfather had given me a few of. I have seashells that are twenty years old.
What I’m doing with those shadow boxes is a smaller version of the gallery wall. That is just enjoyable for me: I like the structure and the order of their meticulous placement. There are so many things that can look great in a $20 shadow box. It takes me about an hour to do, and I love styling them and placing them.
I do have a tip for the wasps nests: you need to spray them with a clear coat first. You need to clean them, shake them, and take them outside with a matte clear coat and spray them. I did it first without a clear coat and every time I picked it up to hang it, there was a little something that dropped. So I would take it down, rehang it, then something would drop again. I did it like 20 times before no little nest debris was falling out. This was easily resolved with a clear coat and that was just a first timer’s mistake – I should have known.
I love that you have a miniature gallery wall on your gallery wall. What are some tips on creating a gallery wall?
That’s the way I look at them. What I was saying earlier about a collection as an installation in my apartment: that’s the same idea with this gallery wall. You have all of the same things in a frame: it reads as a single thing. It’s not as busy because your eyes are not looking at everything in a shadowbox, for example, because you realize they’re all shells. Your eyes just sweep over them and they don’t cause the eyes to pause. That’s when it starts to look messy.
Many of the things I have, people wouldn’t necessarily like them standalone. Because they’re usually boring standalone, many of the things on this wall are kinda “eh.” But together, they sing a different song. Maybe the Japanese could be cool by itself, because it packs a punch, in a more minimal space.
That’s true for a lot of my collections, they’re pretty “blah” by themselves. When I shop, it’s hard for me to be attracted to an amazing painting that really stands on its own because I can’t see that in my place. Most of my stuff has to work together. If it’s a piece of art that needs its own wall, that doesn’t appeal to me. It’s gotta be something that has enough simplicity or is monochromatic. Most of my things are black and white so they blend in and don’t need their own place.
Any tips for the actual hanging of the pieces?
I do not use a tape measure, I do not cut out pieces of tissue paper and lay them on the floor to replicate the positioning. I just wing it and I know not everybody can do that. I look at everything that I have and I have a picture in my head of where things need to go.
I place large items first in my head. If I need space between them, I figure out what would go between them and I start from the center and I build out. The wall behind me has changed a few times, but the first thing I placed was the Japanese flag which is the biggest piece here and a punctual item. Within the room, I knew that’s where it needed to go on the wall.
As counterweight, I have another larger piece lower down and another larger piece down here. It’s a number of odd numbered things because that’s a styling rule that a lot of people use. Then I fill in. It’s just a matter of looking for balance versus symmetry. The long pieces I have at the top offset the long console I have below.
I move things around, I’ve had a couple things that I got tired of. I got rid of one thing that was too white. Everything else has a cream or orange feel to it. I didn’t realize it until one day I noticed it was too stark white, and then I couldn’t unsee it. So I took it down and had to fill in.
The gallery wall kinda trickles away so I have these smaller pieces along the wall that just trickle away. I concentrate the large pieces in the middle and I work out.
For literal hanging, I just use a hammer and plain tack nails. Most of the pieces are not anchored. Obviously if you have a larger piece, you want to do that. I find that sheetrock screws are made to grab, so just one of them at a slight angle will hold a lot of heavy things. I’m a renter so I try not to use things that will leave big holes.
I’m pretty meticulous about filling holes when I take things down. I do move things around and tweak them, but I’ve gotten pretty good at guesstimating where things should go.
Obviously these would be different tips for someone living in California with earthquakes…
We actually had earthquakes in Oklahoma for years when I moved here. All of my stuff would be off kilter! I have a lot of pottery and things on the wall, I don’t know how I would live in California in super earthquake-prone zones.
And as much as I like New York, I could never live there. I just don’t know what I would do with so much stuff. Luckily, I live in a part of the country where I could afford a larger space. This is a smaller apartment but my ceilings are 20 feet tall in every room. I’ll never have this kind of ceiling again, and I’m gonna have to get over that. It definitely makes the space look more grand.
Tell me about your most epic secondhand find.
My most epic find was last year in 2020. An Instagram friend in Oklahoma City messaged me on a Friday afternoon. I was kinda taking a nap after I got off work and I heard my phone ding. She knew that I collected vintage portraits and had just left an estate sale where the guy was an artist and he had tons of amazing portraits. She sent a couple of photos and it was just boxes of stacked portraits.
My body levitated out of the chair and I flew around the apartment – I had dinner in the oven and this was at a time where I was afraid to go anywhere without two masks on. But I ran outside with just one mask and thought, “It’s fine, I’m just gonna risk it.”
I went to the estate sale, I haven’t been anywhere at all during the pandemic, but I went in, and oh my gosh, he was a prolific amateur artist. I got fifty portraits for a steal, I’m even ashamed to admit what I paid for them. I shared them on Instagram, and it became this awesome thing where so many people went to the estate sale the next day that they literally bought all of his art. His family was so moved that everybody loved his art.
The portraits are really bright colors. They’re from the 80s. The characters are very fun and funny. His signature was to elongate the nose. They’re all so different but they have that common denominator with the slightly elongated nose that gives them that continuity being all together.
I know I’ll never in my lifetime find that many portraits, or anything else, at the same time for that great of a price.
What is the one that got away?
I learned to get things when I see them, so I’m pretty good about that. I collect Ozark roadside pottery which is the thick glazed swirl pottery in my entryway. On eBay there was a piece that was about four feet tall – huge! I actually know the guy who bought it, we follow each other on Instagram, he’s also a collector.
I watched it on eBay for a long time, the price went down but it was in Kansas and I would have made a weekend of it to pick it up. I do regret not pulling the trigger on that. But that’s also illustrative of this funny thing that happens with collections where you get to a place and you’re like, “Eh, I just don’t want it.”
Even though you should want it, sometimes you’re just in this mood where you’re like “I don’t want it today.” Which is weird! And then I’m like, “Why didn’t I buy that?”
That’s more of what I leave behind than any one thing that got away. It’s part of a weird cycle where I wasn’t in the mood, like I didn’t want to carry it. You also just get tired of certain things that you’re collecting.
For those things that you left behind, is there a unicorn piece that you can’t stop thinking about?
A couple things come to mind. In the Ozark pottery world, there is a lamp that I’ve only seen once. That pottery has gotten really pricey and it’s very hard to find. It wasn’t mass produced, and there were only a few potters that made that. Then there’s a birdhouse. I don’t really want the birdhouse because it doesn’t really fit in my displays.
Some pieces I exclude from my collection if they don’t fit in my aesthetic. I’m not a purist collector where I’m trying to get a complete set of something because I may not want that.
One of my unicorn pieces from years ago, there was a Ralph Lauren store in Dallas that had a display with a black and dark blue globe that didn’t have any continents on it, but it had a gold outline. I learned that it was an aviation globe made by Denoyer-Geppert. They’re kinda expensive, and I did want that for many, many years.
Crazy enough, I was having dinner with a friend next to an antique mall in Oklahoma City. In the first aisle, under the table, there it was! I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m getting that.” And so I got that, and that was a piece that I wanted for ten years.
I love that things you were meant to have will find their way to you. I’m a firm believer in that. Was there anything crazy you had to do to acquire something or bring into your house?
One time a really good friend in Dallas had a neighbor who cleaned off her shelves and had a hundred pieces of matte white mid century pottery. She had them in plastic piles, and my friend sent me photos. I thought, “I have to have those.”
So that was a funny coordinating effort to get all of these tubs of pottery, which by the way, I probably have 500 to a thousand pieces of them in storage.
I have had many instances where I’m driving dangerously with things close to my body parts that would probably kill me if I was ever in an accident. Or sometimes if I’m with family and I find some things, I tell them we gotta put their suitcases on their laps.
Tell us some of your favorite places to go shopping in Oklahoma City.
One is Room 3 Vintage, they have a really good, fun assortment of more contemporary used pieces. Secondhand doesn’t necessarily mean antique or vintage, so they have a lot of contemporary pieces as well as antiques.
There’s an antique mall called Decades Revisited that is a good place to go. Another great one is called Rink Gallery, it’s an old skating rink. It has a ton of stuff, that’s where I found the Denoyer-Geppert globe.
Since I’m close to Dallas, my favorite flea market to go to within a couple of hours is the Canton Flea Market – I’ve written articles about that in a magazine before. That’s definitely worth a stop if you’re in Dallas.
I would happily advocate for Oklahoma City. It’s really a fun place to visit, there’s so much to do. If you like shopping for vintage, there’s so many places to go. It’s economic here, it’s easy to get around. We have so many new parks downtown. It’s really an awesome place to visit which surprises a lot of people.
I moved here for work so I didn’t necessarily choose Oklahoma City, but I have loved it, and it’s allowed me to grow my collection and decorating interest.