Our Favorite Items to Start Collecting


Whether you're nostalgic for the days of yore, inheriting items from generations passed, or are simply keen on how an everyday object has changed and evolved over time, collecting can be a treasured, gratifying (and quickly all-encompassing) hobby. (As is proven in Martha's stunning copper cookware collection.) The best part is that there are so many items you can choose to start gathering, from popular and quirky and obscure and even haunting. And each time you find a new addition, it's a chance to learn more about its history and rekindle your appreciation.

Take vintage lunch boxes: They first started gaining popularity in the 1930s, spotted in students' hands en route to school, but saw a decline during the second World War when all metal had to be reserved for engineering airplanes and ration containers. As for their iconic looks, they come in a delightful range of shapes, colors, and designs—from plaid and checks to sports teams motifs and beloved cartoon or television characters. And even if they're not being used to carry mid-day meals to the office or classroom anymore, these vintage vessels make for charming tins toting baked goods to bake sales (or themed parties!), or for stashing away other collections of stamps, stickers, postcards, and stationery sets. Find them at estate sales, flea markets, antique stores—even your neighborhood yard sale.

Need inspiration for your next collection? We've rounded up some of our favorites, from antique keys and handblown glass buoys to chic vintage compacts and charming custard cups. So, let the hunt begin.

  • How to Store and Organize All of Your Prized Collections
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Nemadji Pottery

flower bouquet and vases
Lennart Weibull

Nemadji pottery is affordable and easy to find on resale sites like eBay and Etsy. And every piece is unique, thanks to a technique developed by Danish immigrant Eric Hellman in the 1920s. Each vessel was dipped in a vat of water, paint, and vinegar until the color adhered, then pulled out in a twisting motion to render a singular swirly finish. Ceramics like these were mass-produced by Minnesota-based Nemadji Tile & Pottery Company from 1929 to 2002. Often sold as souvenirs, this pottery type—named after the Minnesota township where the clay was sourced—fanned out across the country in tourists' suitcases. Display a few together, or fill one with flowers for your one-and-only.

When hunting for pieces online, type in "Minnesota swirl pottery," too. The ceramics are often called that due to their design and provenance. While all Nemadji is unglazed on the outside, creating its signature matte or "bisque" finish, some pieces have glazed interiors and others don't. If you plan to put water in yours, look for fully glazed. Aficionados date pieces by the marking on the bottom. The earliest is shaped like an arrowhead, as the town of Nemadji is in Minnesota's Arrowhead Region.

Styling by Naomi Demañana.

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Blown-Glass Beads

colorful garland glass beads
Peter Ardito

These colorful garlands have the charm of old-world heirlooms, but none of the handle-with-kid-gloves preciousness. The blown-glass beads—which come in loads of shiny shapes, sizes, and colors—have been handmade in what is now the Czech Republic since the 13th century. You'll find vintage ones on Etsy, eBay, and in antiques shops, but they're still being produced using Victorian-era molds, and a set of six to nine (old or new) can cost less than five dollars. Choose your favorites, add fishing wire and patience, and string together some memories for future generations.

Shop Now: 32° North Czech Glass Beads in Assorted Colors, Sizes, and Shapes, from $4 a set, vintage-ornaments.com.

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Merry Go-Rounds

German pyramide

The classic German Christmas pyramide always spreads holiday spirit as if by magic: Simply light its candles, and the rising heat from the flames spins the propellers and sets angels, wise men, and other yuletide figures into motion. Toymakers and woodworkers have been handcrafting them since the 1800s. Most stand about a foot tall (just right for mantels and side tables), but some tower as high as four or five feet and are meant for grand spaces like churches—or a soaring foyer. They're still produced throughout Europe and range in cost from $20 to thousands, depending on size, age, and quality. When hunting, look for special effects: The brass cherubs above chime the bells below them as they rotate—an apt detail for a New Year's soirée.

Created by Fritz Karch; Styling by Lili Abir Regen; Table courtesy of Roman and Williams Guild

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Wheat Pitchers

white ceramic jug emblazoned with wheat
Yasu + Junko

When ceramic jugs emblazoned with wheat, a symbol of abundance, were plunked down on tables in 19th-century farmhouses, you knew it was time to party. Every fall, families would break them out for a harvest dinner, where friends and neighbors gathered to toast what was hopefully a bumper crop. The vessels were cast in clay and fired at high temperatures for durability, and the stippled texture gave them a practical no-slip grip. Some authentic ones have screws near the rim; in days of yore, they secured lids, which kept beverages—usually freshly brewed beer and cider—effervescent all evening. (Those caps often contained lead, so they're long gone.) Search for "antique wheat jug" online to find a field's worth of sheaf motifs in a wash of creamy colors, many for under $100 apiece. Then fill one with flowers, and give it pride of place on your own autumn table.

Created by Fritz Karch; Styled by Lili Abir Regen

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Brass Animals

brass animal figurines
Yasu + Junko

To elevate your own habitat, go where the wild things are. These animals journeyed from Korea and India to the U.S. in the mid-20th century, and were widespread here by the '70s, resting on desks and coffee tables as paperweights or statement pieces. Solid or hollow, they were all crafted the same way—cast in brass, hand-finished, and lacquered to prevent tarnishing—but come in an ark's worth of species, from two-inch-long snails to foot-tall giraffes. Indian figurines often feature realistic details (intricate ears, individual talons), while the Korean kind have more cartoonish qualities, like our duck's exaggerated beak. Their prices are diverse, too: Large ones can cost hundreds; ditto hard-to-find pairs and triplets (like the petite parliament of owls). But you can find plenty online for under $20 each. Follow your instincts and adopt a few—they'll bring style in droves.

Created by Fritz Karch; Styled by Lili Abir Regen

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Victorian Tumblers

Victorian tumblers
Yasu + Junko

Decorated with delicate blooms that seem to be dancing in the wind, these Victorian tumblers are the flower children of barware. And they are authentically Bohemian: Glassmakers in that region first made them in the 1800s, molding colorful molten glass into credit card-thin cups and baking on lasting hand-painted designs (and sometimes gilded rims, as shown at top left). Later, companies in other parts of Europe and the U.S. followed suit. Unlike Moroccan and Indian tea glasses, which are similar but fluted in shape, and made from clear glass dipped into bright lacquer that can flake over time, Victorian versions are straight-sided. Back in the day, you could buy sets of six with pitcher or punch bowl, but they chipped easily, so you're more likely to find singles or pairs now. And that's what makes them fun to hunt and gather. Since they're consistent in size—most measure bout four inches tall; cordial glasses (bottom right), just two—and typically cost under $25 each, you can mix and match to your heart's content. Put them out for wine or water, and drink in summer of love.

Created by Fritz Karch; Styled by Lili Abir Regen

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Like the crackle of a campfire or a symphony of cicadas, old-school enamelware conjures vivid summer memories. Each punchy yet practical piece has a shatterproof tin base and a durable coating awash in graphic patterns and playful colors, created by mixing minerals into porcelain. Early-19th-century items were often plain, but bright speckled ones caught on when Japanese companies started making them in the 1950s. You can find all kinds of plates, platters, and mugs online for under $100; just type "vintage splatterware" into your search to bypass quicker-to-dent modern replicas. Score a few finds (a stack weighs less than a thermos, and they're oven- and dishwasher-safe), and your table will be set for the season.

Created by Fritz Karch; Styled by Lili Abir Regen; Kyoto Table courtesy of Urban Architecture Inc., Brooklyn

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mother of pearl collection
Yasu + Junko

Mother-of-pearl is just that: the shimmery lining of a mollusk shell that can generate the prized jewels of the sea. But it's also eye-catching in its own right. Lightweight and delicate, the material has been used for centuries to fashion all kinds of covetable items—from intricately carved creations to stunning sculptural pieces, like the vessel up top, which was crafted by sanding away a nautilus shell to reveal its inner glow. Dishes were often shaped from one piece, as some ancient creatures actually produced sheets measuring more than a foot across. Today the pearlescent medium is harvested on seafood farms rather than being taken from wild oysters, clams, and mussels in Asia and the Caribbean. Older, more ornate objects go for thousands, but other deep-sea treasures surface online for about $50. Wrap one for Mom on Mother's Day, and light up her world.

Created by Fritz Karch; Styled by Lili Abir Regen

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Egg Cups

vintage egg cups
Chelsea Cavanaugh

Whether farmhouse-fantastical or sleek and sophisticated, vintage egg cups are guaranteed to brighten any brunch table. In fact, there's even a word solely for the act of collecting egg cups: pocillovy—so go ahead, be a pocillovist.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Glass Vases

blown glass vases

Celery may strike you more as a crudites-platter staple than an edible centerpiece. But back in the day—the early 19th century, that is—the leafy vegetable was such a delicacy and status symbol that a formal vessel was made just to serve it. Blown-glass vases from the U.K. (second from right), with their intricately cut details and popular motifs, such as the lion's-head stem (front center), are highly coveted by collectors. The patterns would most often reflect contemporary tastes, including the popular shapes of the aesthetic movement in the mid to late 1800s (far left). A tulip design, such as the early New England Glass Company vase from the 1830s (back center), can sell for around $100 in antiques stores and online.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Compact Mirrors

vintage compact mirrors
Chelsea Cavanaugh

Forever in style, a good compact mirror is a cosmetic kit's must-have. Once upon a time, they were "gift with purchase" items at department stores; these days, you may spot an array of swoon-worthy varieties, from painted enamel and shiny metal to pearl-studded and glam gold.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Steiff Animals

miniature decorative pom pom song birds
Yasu + Junko

When it comes to stuffed animal collectibles, nothing beats Steiff's exquisite handmade marvels, from the original teddy bears (Sotheby's has sold one for as much as $86,000!), to equally charming renditions of chinchillas, marmots, birds, and more.

Created by Fritz Karch; Styled by Lili Abir Regen

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Chelsea Cavanaugh

Upgrade your sewing supply stash with a practical (and oh-so-precious!) pincushion. And while you may spot more tomatoes than any other shape (learn why that is here!), it's worth hunting down other fruits, insects, and even flowers.

Created by Fritz Karch

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paperweight collection
Bryan Gardner

Paperweights used to be a discreet way to add personality to an otherwise mundane office desk. But since digital documents have mostly eliminated the need for them, these curios are now valued more for their old-school charm than their utility.

Created by Fritz Karch

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scissor collection on red
Kate Mathis

Scissors are one of those ingenious everyday objects that we take for granted. (Perhaps you're familiar with their often-overlooked cousins, the safety pin and the whisk?) But this ancient tool is a work of fine craftsmanship. Though its origins aren't cut-and-dried, most sources agree the earliest designs date to the Bronze Age, with household pairs made of iron appearing in the 1500s. By last century, scissors became available in mass-produced forms more recognizable to modern eyes: in nickel-plated stainless steel that stays shiny for ages, as well as ergonomic shapes with plastic handles. A vintage pair of scissors deserves to be pulled out of the desk drawer and displayed, but why not go a step further and use them? That's the beauty of flawless design: It's forever.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Bakelite Bracelets


Ahead of its time when it first appeared in the early 1900s, bakelite jewelry was traditionally made from an almost-indestructible, Belgian-invented synthetic resin once used in car and radio parts. Soon, it found its niche in fashion (and aren't we glad it did). Even though its production ceased in the '70s, it has spanned decades of styles, from art deco (picture Coco Chanel) to '60s boho.

Created by Fritz Karch; Styled by Elizabeth Press

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Berry Spoons

berry good silver spoons
Yasu + Junko

Instantly delight a cup of sorbet or pie-dollop of cream with a vintage berry spoon. These ornate items may date back to the mid-19th century, but they're still everyday use-friendly (and will only get shinier).

Created by Fritz Karch; Styled by Elizabeth Press

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Lunch Boxes

vintage metal lunch boxes

Lunch boxes swung into style in the 1930s, as students began toting metal pails to school instead of brown-bagging it. The trend dipped during World War II, when every last bit of metal went into making airplanes and ration tins. But afterward, these cheerful containers reappeared in all kinds of new patterns, themes, and prints. Ohio Art decorated its oval-shaped ones with trains and sports pennants. And Aladdin outfitted its classic rectangle with room for a thermos (as in the red plaid design, center), a model it still produces today. Pick one up at a tag sale, and use it to stash a snack, store cookies, or organize your stationery. You'll feel like the coolest kid in the caf.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Handblown Glass Buoys

Bryan Gardner

First crafted in Norway in the early 1800s, handblown glass buoys were used to keep fishing nets afloat. They gained popularity in the 20th century in Europe and Japan, where many washed ashore from the Pacific Ocean. Nowadays these gems, ranging in color from watery blues and greens to rarer reds, are mainly decorative, lending a nautical touch to any interior. Find originals on eBay or at antiques shops, such as Beall & Bell, in Greenport, New York.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Ceramic Planters

Ceramic Planters Collectable Items
Chelsea Cavanaugh

These adorable glazed creatures—just the right size for a single cactus or jade plant—may be a diverse bunch, but many were made between the 1930s and the '50s in the same small town famous for its ceramics: Roseville, Ohio. If you happen upon one with its original hand-painted face, like the frog at lower left (by McCoy, one of Martha's favorite pottery makers), know that it's especially desirable.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Custard Cups

custard cups

Dessert served in its own custom dish always makes for an extra-special delivery (think ramekins for creme brulee). These vintage cups, designed for baking custard, do that to sweet—and colorful —effect. Yellowware versions from the late 19th century are rare finds, but bright midcentury ones turn up fairly often in thrift stores (and if you're lucky, you'll happen upon a full set of six). You can also find their original wire baking rack, complete with a handle to remove them easily from the oven. These durable cups usually cost from $8 to $20, with more expensive ones running up to $50. Companies such as Ohio-based Hall China still produce them, often casting from original molds. We love using the cups for custard, but with their high, curved sides, they're also ideal for a favorite cool treat, such as a few scoops of sorbet or a mini sundae—to each her very own.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Vintage Cameos

Vintage Cameo Jewelry on a Stylized Background

Cameos made their first appearance in Hellenistic times, when they were chiseled into small pieces of stone to immortalize leaders and mythical heroes. More recent versions, like these above, enshrine anonymous women who were graced with the most desirable traits of their day; the two beauties with light-peach backdrops are from 19th-century Italy. Often carved in shell, they were sold to Victorian travelers on European tours, who'd bring them home to wear as status souvenirs. The trend caught on: By the early 1900s, less-expensive glass ones were cast en masse to meet demand—that's why you can find vintage ladies, in a range of colors and prices, set into nearly every form of jewelry. We like the pins and pendants for their versatility: String one (or a few) on a necklace, or go all-out prim-chic on a dress or the collar of a blouse. These nods to history always turn heads.

Created by Fritz Karch; Prop Styling by Lili Abir Regen.

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Skeleton Keys

antique key collection
Chelsea Cavanaugh

Large, heavy skeleton keys get their name from the bare-bones cuts that grant them access to any room in a building. (Cue the spooky innkeeper.) They and the other kinds of vintage keys shown here are very affordable—antiques stores often sell them for as little as a dollar each—and are as beautiful as they are mysterious. The smaller, less ornate lever style was used to lock valuables in cabinets and desk compartments as early as the American colonial period. And tiny toy and clock winders needed only a few simple notches to turn gears; you can imagine how easily they were lost. Look for unusually large or detailed specimens, and those made from older metals, like iron and brass. A collection displayed in a shadow box is perennially intriguing, but for Halloween, hang a few from a doorknob for a jangling sound that will follow anyone who dares to enter.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Decorative Fake Fruit

stone fruit decorative

There's no limit to our appetitie for collecting these fruity too-pretty-to-eat arrangements, from clusters of marble berries and handcarved wooden jackfruits to exquisitely beaded bunches of grapes.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Candle Snuffers

vintage snuffers
Chelsea Cavanaugh

A few candles give any winter evening that magical, flickering glow. To complete the picture, keep a vintage snuffer at the ready. Copper and pewter versions like these are easy to find at flea markets for just a few dollars (sterling silver ones are slightly pricier), and look pretty set on a mantel or coffee table, or hanging from a hook. Whimsical styles can spark conversation: Consider the musketeer helmet with sword (fifth from bottom right), an example of the novelty snuffers produced from the 1920s to midcentury; or the tiny horn (bottom left), which takes after a Colonial design. It would have sat on a matching chamber stick to guide people (clad in stocking caps, of course) from room to room at night—and was perfect for sneaking a glimpse of Old Saint Nick.

Created by Fritz Karch; sterling silver snuffers courtesy of Tudor Rose Antiques

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Christmas Ornaments

christmas village ornaments
Kate Mathis

From handcrafted bells and horns made by German glass artisans to these magical miniature houses that'll transform your tree into a real wonderland, we love finding hidden gems in the world of vintage holiday ornaments.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Trinket Boxes

Chelsea Cavanaugh

These decorative little containers possess a certain well-traveled charm. Whether exotic, like those inlaid with wood and Baltic mother-of-pearl, or campy, like a lacquered papier-mâché boot, the novel designs have made them popular souvenirs since the 19th century. Once lending glamour to the simple act of offering a cigarette or dealing playing cards, today you can use them to stow jewelry, or just let them sit pretty on a coffee table, casting a worldly impression.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Tea and Coffee Tins

vintage tea tins collection
Bryan Gardner

Vintage tea and coffee tins make stylish and inexpensive vessels for organizing. We like to use them to corral assorted teas, desk supplies, and cards. The tins are available in a wide range of shapes and colors, and come from all over the world. (The green tin is from a New York City tea distributor prominent in the early 1900s; the yellow box is from Ogo Kaffeerösterei, a German coffee company established in 1928.)

Created by Fritz Karch

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vintage decanters
Chelsea Cavanaugh

Serving party guests (or hey, yourself!) a glass of wine or sherry doesn't get more sophisticated than with one of these vintage decanters. They even make for beautiful vessels to display a long-stemmed bouquet.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Heart Jewelry

Sang An

In the Victorian era, heart necklaces were diminutive and delicate in scale, but they grew bigger and bolder over the years. The charm bracelet, it seems, will never lose its charm: Generation after generation, women buy them, then add to them piece by piece. Pins in all manner of metals and materials set collectors' hearts aflutter. The brightest, cheeriest ones are made from red Bakelite and date to the 1930s and '40s. Although they are not rare, they are very in demand, commanding high prices on the vintage market: A big pin in good condition could fetch as much as $1,000.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Valentine Textiles

valentine handkerchiefs
Chelsea Cavanaugh

Long before lovebirds were sending winking emojis to each other on Valentine's Day, a romantic textile message was the approach. In the 1930s and '40s, sweeties would buy heart-patterned embroidered linen and cotton handkerchiefs to tuck into envelopes and mail to their loved ones. This February, consider reviving the tradition. You can easily find inexpensive vintage hankies in bulk online, or for a few dollars at thrift shops. Another charming idea is to sew a fabric envelope out of some to package a small love token. Or keep the sentiment alive year-round and frame a set to display on your wall.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Egg Platters

egg platters

There are so many ways to garnish a deviled egg—if smoked paprika feels ho-hum, you can sprinkle on chopped dill, capers, or caviar (our favorite). But for serving this delightfully retro hors d'oeuvre, one vessel beats all: a platter designed to cradle each bite. Pressed-glass options hit the scene in the 1920s and '30s. (Today the colored- glass versions, like the one at left, are highly collectible, and therefore harder to find and often more expensive.) After World War II, imported trays hand-painted with chicken motifs (below, left) became popular, as did ones decked out with playful matching accessories, like salt and pepper shakers (below) or a canapé-toothpick holder (above, left). Whatever the style, we love a dish that does its singular job so well—and makes a devilishly good centerpiece, too.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Magnifying Glasses

magnifying glasses collection
Mike Krautter

The lens that helped Sherlock Holmes solve crimes has stayed true to its form over the centuries. The same can't be said of magnifying-glass handles, which have ranged from deeply carved wood, second from right, to beautiful Bakelite, second from left. We think they make great modern-day desk accessories. It's elementary!

Created by Fritz Karch

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Salt and Pepper Shakers

Lucas Allen

Brighten up any dining table or counter with a lively pair of vintage salt and pepper shakers, a joy to collect especially when spotted in their quirkiest, most retro forms.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Heart-Shaped Cutters

Bryan Gardner

Vintage or new, intricate or simple, these charming tools have been shaping sweet memories for decades. The earliest shown here (such as the heart with the round hole in its back, center) date to the 19th century, when tinsmiths crafted cutters from spare snippets of metal. Mass-produced tin cutters came next, followed by aluminum cutters—common in the 1930s—and then plastic cutters a decade later. Copper became popular and collectible later in the 20th century. Designs with flat backs and holes generally predated those with handles. But it's difficult to date a cutter definitively because so many reproductions have been made, and tin ages quickly, looking well-worn even when it's not.

Created by Fritz Karch

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Patterned Scarves

vintage silk scarves collection
Bryan Gardner

The best vintage patterned scarves are a cross between a fashion statement and a work of art, which is why so many become treasured finds. Look for colorful styles at thrift shops and online. You might come across a classic like this mod '60s red-and-pink Vera Neumann square, second from right, collected by Living style editor Naomi deMañana.

Created by Fritz Karch; scarves courtesy of Naomi deMañana​

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