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Echoes of the Past

With its quirky character and curated collection of vintage pieces, interior stylist Jamie Kohler’s home celebrates life outside the box.

By Leslie A. Westbrook

Photo by Gaszton Gal

In the dining room, a ’40s-era Art Deco cabinet with geometric motif doubles as a bar.

Jamie Kohler’s cellphone rings in the middle of our interview.The interior designer and owner of Echoes of Opal, an antiques and collectibles shop in Ventura, grabs it immediately. This is not surprising, considering she’s the mother of three, stepmother of another three, and, along with her husband, Billy, has a combined total of 11 grandchildren (number 12 is on the way). The former labor and delivery nurse is also an assistant midwife, so I figured there might be a baby on the way, or perhaps a kid in trouble.

“1920s table—free! I kind of like the legs. It needs work. Clean that up, polish the brass feet… Yeah, I’ll take it. It’s a free table,” Kohler squeals, explaining that friends send her tips, knowing of her penchant for collecting cool items that she then repairs or gussies up with a fresh coat of paint, turning sow’s ears into silk purses.

The enthusiastic re-purposer with a purpose loves found objects. Nothing escapes her eye, and she chalks it all up to her Grandma Opal, for whom she named her business: an “open by appointment” shop located off an alley in downtown Ventura.

Grandma Opal was a colorful gal who preferred alleys to main thoroughfares. Born and raised a “barefoot beauty” in the hills of Kentucky to moonshining parents, Opal ran off with husband number one of five, a wealthy, hard drinking, educated gentleman from Iowa. They had identical twin sons, one of whom grew up to become Jamie’s dad. By the time Jamie was a little girl, wild Grandma Opal was living in Atascadero on a ranch with a big ol’ barn. The barn was filled to the brim with a child’s delight: old furniture, vintage clothing, and all kinds of doo-dads to scavenge through.

“I’d disappear in that barn,” recalled the nonstop talker. “My grandmother was a picker, and she had everything—jewelry, paintings, rugs, clothing. I would sit in that barn and become a princess and arrange a castle. That’s where it began.” Over time, she developed a knack for curating and putting items together in a pleasing manner.

Nine years ago, Jamie and Billy bought a 1942 two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow and guesthouse located on a tree-lined, meticulously maintained street in midtown Ventura. They fixed up the house and gardens, and Jamie fiddled around with the interiors—five times so far.

One year ago, the restless designer redid the living room, dining room, kitchen, and guesthouse. Carefully curated with plenty of whimsy and a great eye for balance and detail, the rooms feature an array of Jamie’s beloved found objects. One’s eye moves curiously around the room, as there is much to investigate. Built-in cabinets have glass bottles and beakers on display. “I like anything scientific,” she says, and apparently anything made of glass, rusty metal, or seashells. There’s even a cello, which Jamie plays, resting in one corner of the cozy living room where recessed lighting has been added. Black bookshelves give an edgy look to the vintage tile fireplace. Collectables range from turquoise Tiki mugs to Billy’s array of vintage 1940s microphones. The bottom shelves are filled with children’s books and toys for the grandchildren.

On the mantel, a sand hourglass and magnifying glass, nude sculpture and headless vase with peacock feathers make for a fun array.

“Barber bottles: most people would put those in their bathroom. I say they go in the living room,” Jamie announces. Also in the living room, a set of nesting Chinese tables abuts a sofa covered in houndstooth check. A favorite “found” oil painting—of nuns bewildered by a nude painting in an art museum—hangs in the hallway.

Jamie confesses she’d be “stoked” if her husband, who works in the oil industry, came home with a rusty old piece of metal rather than a bouquet of flowers. “I love to collect and display cast iron wheels off machines, molds, clamps, hooks, and tools that are being discarded,” she says. “I don’t like perfection—imperfection is perfection.”

But that doesn’t mean she can’t create a room with finer objects d’art.

All the interior design elements for her clients are taken from what the client already owns. Items are simply reused in new and interesting ways, combined with vintage and antique treasures, repurposed and upcycled one room at a time. She recently posted a note on her Facebook page: “If you could have someone come into your home and redo your room on a budget that you specify, would you do it?” A stranger responded in the affirmative and hired her to redo his wife’s office in Ojai without her knowing.

“We used what he had,” Kohler recalls. “The only thing he told me was to make the room clean, minimalist. His wife had a feather collection and a bottle of sea glass. She likes mermaids. That was all I had to go on.”

The office turned out fabulous and the client “went nuts—she loved it!” Jamie's only caveat: a client has to allow the picker plenty of time to locate items, which she sources from estate sales, flea markets, and sometimes even dumpsters.

"I believe the environments we occupy powerfully influence our humanness,” she tells me before running off to search for new treasures for Echoes of Opal. “A space filled with well-loved objects, comfortable furniture, personal collections, and stunning color encourage creativity and a sense of peace … Space design is much more than designing for aesthetic appearance; it’s about how we live, and who and what we love.

Simple touches lend a relaxing vibe.

Kohler calls the boots on the rabbit “a bit of whimsy.”

Bone medicine bottles, hand-painted shells and eggs, and etched barbershop glass containers encourage conversation.

“For me, there is nothing less appealing than a room with curtains that match the pillows.” Every piece of furniture, art, and décor in the Kohler home has been repurposed.

A deceptively simple kitchen upgrade focused on color (six different hues) and maintained the home’s original curved cabinets and deco tile.

Jamie Kohler puts her “morning coffee spot” to use.

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