Contrary to what the abundance of stuffed animals, colorful dolls and cute wind-up toys would lead you to believe, there are no children living in Nini Yang’s recently purchased three-level Lakeview townhouse. But as someone who’s been collecting kid-centric items since she was a youngster, Yang, 36, isn’t fazed by the assumption.
“In my old condo when the maintenance people came they were like, ‘So, you have a child?’” she recalls. “I told them, ‘No, they’re mine.’ They thought it was a little strange.”
The Taipei-born developmental therapist has come a long way from her days of hunting for Japanese pencil boxes, Swatch watches and vintage cameras at flea markets with her father as a child in Colombia (she moved to Chicago for college when she was 18). Over the last ten years, she’s also developed a passion for pricey Alexander Girard wall hangings (she has four originals and seven reissues) and midcentury modern furniture. “As I’ve made more money, my collecting has matured a bit,” Yang says. “Now I focus more on things that are really hard to find.”
To make sure all of her “obsessions” would play nicely together in her new home—not surprising, part of the attraction to the 2,000-square-foot space was the basement, where a ton of boxes marked “toys” currently reside—Yang turned to longtime friend and design consultant Neil Zuleta for help.
“I wanted to achieve a very simple, streamline design with neutral finishes to showcase all of Nini’s collectibles in the best way possible,” Zuleta says. Yang’s furniture—such as the gray Luminaire couch she splurged on seven years ago, the George Nelson coffee table, the Eames black leather lounge chair and the Saarinen reproduction white dining room table she got at an estate sale along with two yellow-cushioned chairs—all were worked into the design of the light-filled space.
Take note, would-be collectors. Yang follows two rules of thumb to amass her investment-worthy collection without going broke: She buys pricey items over an extended period of time—“I allow myself a big purchase once a year, and it has to be something that really catches my eye,” she says. And she does her homework. “I pretty much know how much things go for, and I just try to buy as cheap as possible. It’s the Asian in me; I never buy things at full price.”
Yang’s other request of Zuleta was that he create a floor plan for the ground level that was fluid and open—the better to see all of her toys displayed on the various living room surfaces—but also offers a division of space. For instance, an extra-wide bar-height counter separates the dining room from the kitchen; it also provided the perfect hangout spot during her recent New Year’s Eve/housewarming party, where she served food on vintage Franciscan Starburst plates.
When it comes to collecting, whether it’s visiting auction houses, thrift stores or estate sales or shopping online, the get is just as important as the chase for Yang, who gleefully recalls the orange Herman Miller chair she scored at a garage sale in Washington state for two bucks. The $20 extra luggage charge was definitely worth it, she says.
But it’s not just about the price tag. Thinking about the “ones that got away,” Yang is just as upset about the expensive Marilyn Neuhart dolls (she currently has seven) she missed out on at an auction as she is about the $15 art deco-style John Deere powder box for which she unsuccessfully haggled at a roadside sale.
And while part of Yang’s toy attraction may stem from her work with children—she’s always on the hunt for interesting, thought-provoking toys to bring on her home visits—there’s more to her thousand-plus-item collection than that. “A lot of people don’t appreciate old things, but for me they remind me of my childhood when life was so carefree,” she says. “They always make me happy.”