Welcome to The Collectivist, where we share some of the many meaningful ways in which people live with their favorite objects and tell the stories behind them. In this edition, we visited Hetty Lui McKinnon—New York Times Cooking recipe developer and author of the delightful new cookbook, Tenderheart: A Cookbook About Vegetables and Unbreakable Bonds—in Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband and three children.
If you ask Hetty Lui McKinnon, she would describe her home as maximal-minimalist. “I’m not really a minimalist,” she clarifies. “But I like the idea of it.” Because the family’s pandemic-find apartment is small, the Australian-born author has hidden most of her stuff, making an exception for plants, her international collection of ceramics (for prop styling and eating), and a few choice vignettes.
The first of these is her grouping of Japanese kokeshi dolls, traditional wooden children’s toys without arms or legs. It was actually her love of ceramics that led her down the path: She discovered a two-foot-tall ceramic doll by the Japanese ceramic artist Hikari Masuda at one of her favorite stores in Sydney, but decided it would be too hard to get back to New York. As she recalls, “The owner knew I was obsessed with it and DMed me a few months later to say, ‘She’s just sent me more. Do you want one?’ I bit the bullet and said yes.” It arrived intact, and she’s since bought a few smaller ones, including a wooden trio from a Brooklyn antiques store that reminded her of her children.
“I’m not really sure why I collect them,” she says with a laugh. “I like the fact that they’ve got a history I don’t know about and that they’ve lived through other hands and hopefully brought joy to other people’s homes and lives.” There are many myths and meanings surrounding the dolls—some say they bring hope and luck, others that they symbolize something more sinister. “They’re quite odd, which is why I like them.”
On her dining-table-slash-desk is another mood-shifting tableau: a candle kit put together to brighten her workday. The round cork trivet and stack of coasters echo the shape of her new table, which she’d been dreaming of for ages. The antique rectangular French table she’d had for years was a wedding gift from her sister that had followed her and her husband from Australia, but she felt it didn’t allow her to see everyone’s faces. Last year, she realized, “My kids are getting old. I need to have this table so we can create memories around it. It’s been a turning point in my life,” she says. “Eating around a round table is very different. It feels very together. We feel closer, and there’s more conversation. More…roundness. As I get older, I turn back to some of the things my mother would say and my cultural heritage. Roundness is a big symbol in Chinese culture: There is no beginning or end. I feel such peace when I sit there.”
Candles add to the new sense of peace. They were, she says with a laugh, “one of those things where you’re like, why is it so special? Why is it only at dinner for special guests?” The kit sits next to her laptop during the day, and she lights the candles while she works. “It’s nice having a candlelit writing session,” she explains. She puts strike-anywhere matches into a porous ceramic jar so she doesn’t have to stop working to fetch a lighter. The pillar candles in muted colors come from her local homeware store, Slope Home, and are set in lovely birch holders found at the dinner party supply store Big Night. The Deep Forest candle comes from the Copenhagen design boutique Frama. She ordered the same fragrance in an aromatherapy oil, used to scent a diffuser made from Korean soil and wood.
“There’s a pattern with the collecting,” she says, realizing it as she speaks: “I find something I like and replicate it.”
From Our Shop