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The Deliberate Life

Art and light in Victoria Lesser’s new home

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CALLICOON — First, you see the light.

Walk into Victoria Lesser’s Callicoon home—newly built, designed by her from the ground up—and sunlight washes over you. Most of the windows are up near the ceiling and aren’t necessarily large, but they catch the light and channel it in. The floor plan is mostly open, with knotty pine floorboards stained black and then sanded to show the grain. Art is everywhere. The space looks clean and bright and has the feel of a museum for when you have hours to spare, looking at everything.

Although it probably wouldn’t take that long. Lesser was the innkeeper and designer at the North Branch Inn. “Forty-five hundred square feet of space,” she said, no sign of regret. The new house is a mere 680.

Tiny houses aren’t easy. It’s like the cliché about writing: the process is easier if you have as many pages as you want, there’s no editing, no effort aside from making words. The tiny house is work. Possessions are pared to a minimum, and everything is carefully chosen, then monitored. “One new item in, one old item out,” Lesser said with a wry smile. “I need space between things. Nothing feels extraneous; even the Airstream in the backyard doubles as a guest room.

“I do everything with the psychology behind it,” she says. “Everything does have a history.”

 Perhaps because it’s all so carefully chosen, it is all personal, symbols of a friend or a memento of an event, a gift by a loved one, a purchase from a local shop.

And she knows the source and story behind it all. “I can’t get here by myself… I’m going to honor the person who made this, or the person who grew these flowers, who sold this item,” Lesser said. She buys locally as much as possible. “This linen dish towel came from Spruce here in Callicoon—I like the way it looks and feels.” A gorgeous toilet brush and red enamel dustpan came from Sunny Ruffalo’s shop in Narrowsburg, the desk chair came from Karkula and an art piece from PAO! (both in Callicoon), and the kitchen light from New York Vintage Lighting (New York City and Callicoon).

“Wherever I am, that’s where I am, [but] the art follows me. I feel the presence of my friends.”

Like a cat, Lesser has had many lives.

She first saw Callicoon in 2005, and went elsewhere, but she has Sullivan County roots: a childhood summering at the Riverside Hotel, attendance at Sullivan County Community College in the late ‘60s. She logged time at Key West, then in North Branch, then in California.

And then she cycled back here, loving Callicoon, the changes happening here and the beauty of the village. The new house is on a small plot of land that is easily mistaken for a neighbor’s side yard. When the land came up for sale, Lesser grabbed it and started thinking.

She chose Mountain Valley Builders for the construction. When the hole was dug for the foundation, “36 by 20,” she says, “and three feet down, I’d climb into the hole after they left for the day and imagine where everything was going to go.”

She loved that she could create “every inch of it… I’m not stuck in any one design,” she said. Past homes, her Key West design studio, her friends’ artwork—it was all grist for the interior.

Lesser segues into a talk about designing clothes, demonstrates the details—French seams, carefully made buttonholes—that characterized her line. “So much work went into clothing, and it only gets worn once,” she said. “Now I really like making places that other people can live in.”

And she can live here. Construction-wise, the place is “a tight build,” Lesser said, so when the train goes by the house doesn’t shake. Pocket doors conserve more space. There is enough room not just for her, but for her two dogs, Baker and Beans, as well.

Working on the North Branch Inn and other people’s homes taught her that “with a house, you take the needs, wants  and budget. Sometimes when it comes time to dress the house, you’re out of money.” So she made choices all along. The windows scattered at the top of the walls, for instance, came from Keller Glass, remnants from other projects.

Tiny houses require curation, For Victoria Lesser, the result worked splendidly. “I wake up in the middle of the night and I look at the windows and watch the light change. And I think, ‘Oh, how beautiful.’”

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