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September 16, 2015

Philly@Home: Inside a busy PR pro’s Rittenhouse Square lair

Homes Decor
01-092315_PhillyatHome_Carroll.jpg Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Matthew Vlahos in his kitchen, left, and a mirror hanging in his bathroom that he found on the street in South Philadelphia.

In his business, the only constant is there is no constant. It’s fancy, frenetic and full of facades.

Matthew Vlahos, the 30-something owner of Vlahos Public Relations – which reps everything from the Philadelphia Science Festival to Macy’s – may find himself on the town working from morning until night. But when he comes home to his junior studio near Rittenhouse Square, it’s an eclectic, mid-century modern paradise.

“Because I spend my days (and nights) immersed in an industry that reinvents itself every season -- and nowadays sometimes more frequently than that -- I think I’ve naturally gravitated more toward a home that’s filled with history, to things that have a backstory,” says the Pennsylvania native.

There are the handmade quilt on his bed, the old china and the cast-iron coffee table for starters.

“My home is, well, homey – at least to me,” he notes. “When I have people over for the first time, they often say, ‘This is so you,’ and I think, 'Well, duh. Shouldn’t it be?' We please other people all day, every day. Home is where the heart is; fill it with things you love. I get that from my mother. Whether I’m home and awake for just a few minutes or for a few days straight, I always feel recharged.”

The roughly 400-square-foot room is filled with many items from friends and family. A giant painting by Philadelphia tattoo artist Pete Zebley hangs on the main wall, a quilt made by his grandparents covers the foot of the bed and his grandmother’s watermelon-shaped fruit holder takes a prime location on one of the only counter spaces in the apartment. (Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice)

Location: I live in Rittenhouse – or what I say is “Rittenhouse-adjacent.” It’s a third-floor walk-up in an 1800s brownstone at 18th and Pine, a few steps from a Starbucks and, beyond that, the square. I’ve been here for four years; before that, I lived in the 2100 block of Pine.

Size: According to the Realtor, it’s 450 square feet. I’m bad with math.

My favorite details: I love the natural light and woodwork and having windows that open and the old, creaky floors that aren’t uniform or even and snag your socks. I love the slightly crooked walls and the heavy, six-panel doors that pop open when the humidity in the air changes. On the practical front, I also love that even as a “junior one-bedroom” or “studio apartment” or whatever it is in Realtor speak, this space has enough cabinets for china service for 20 – far more people than could fit in here – two enormous closets, a washer and dryer and full-size appliances. I’m on the top floor, overlooking a carriage house and courtyard on the back of the house, so there is no one above me or on either side. I cannot stand hearing neighbors.

My décor: Almost everything in here has a story. My china, ceramics and even glassware are mostly from my grandmothers. They may look fragile, but there was a time when things were built to last, and that’s not 2015. My coffee table always gets people talking; it’s this antique from my late Aunt Barbara and has two cherub-y mermen with tales that entwine to form the base. The books are either autographed, galleys or from exhibits and places I’ve visited. My magnet collection is kind of old-school and makes me smile, although some of the best ones aren’t from places I’ve personally visited but rather ones friends brought back for me. Most of the art is by family members, old portraits of my mother’s ancestors in elaborate frames or things that I connected with when wandering the city.

The refrigerator door displays magnets that Vlahos collects from places that he and his friends have traveled to. And a comfortable reading nook has a self-portrait bust of his aunt and a York barbell from his home county. (Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice)

Secret to furnishing a small space: When you have a small space, it’s important that you love everything that comes in – seriously, everything, right down to the IKEA shelves. You’re going to look at it day in, day out. I like big art and groupings, but I had to come to terms early on with limited wall space. I’ve learned to edit, and it’s for the best. I think my favorite painting is mixed medium on aluminum, and it’s by a local tattoo artist named Pete Zebley. The other major piece I have up right now is by a Spanish artist, German Gomez. I later learned the artist stayed with a friend of mine here in Philadelphia while he was on a creative sabbatical; that skyline, with the Comcast Tower, was a view I recognized. It’s from their kitchen window.

A few years ago, I got a storage unit – and have upgraded several times since – to hold art and vintage furniture as I find it (or inherit it). This way, I can buy things that I know I would regret not having later, but without bringing more stuff into my home. Once or twice a year, I move everything in my apartment around. Everything. A lot of it goes back in almost the exact same place, but art or a side chair or different parts of a collection come out of storage and other things take a break.

My collections: I have an extensive collection of milk glass and all of it would be in cabinets, closets or storage. Instead, I use an old ashtray – from the 1963 bicentennial celebration of my hometown, Hanover – to hold my keys, have planted custard cups with succulents and keep vegetables like potatoes and onions in vases. My dressers are part of a Danish dining room set a friend from high school found in Lancaster. I don’t even know what’s in the cowboy cookie jar, but it’s not cookies.

When less is more: Because you have one room doesn’t mean it has to feel that way. I’ve created distinct areas, each adapted to how I personally approach the task at hand. So the kitchen was a given – you can’t do much with that based on my layout – but I also have a living space, sleeping space, working space and a whole lot of space for my clothes. That’s an occupational hazard that I can’t escape (nor would I want to). Coming from 6,400 square feet into about 450 required some adjustment for sure, but through some trial and error, this place accommodates everything every other home has in the past, with one obvious exception: I can’t entertain more than one or two people, comfortably, at a time. But hey, no pressure to host anymore. See, silver lining!

Various cookbooks in Vlahos’ kitchen. Most are signed and are from clients and friends. One is even from his great aunt Mary Konetes. (Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice)

Favorite neighborhood spots: I love the square. I sit in it, or walk through it, pretty much every day – sometimes for hours. I love walking through the streets, especially west of here, between Rittenhouse and the river, and the Parkway. Philly is a beautiful city, especially on foot. I love having so many stores nearby; I spend too much on fresh-cut flowers (mostly orchids) from Blossom on 17th Street, can always find something at stadler-Kahn and love the handmade fabric boutonnieres at ToBox that the owner’s wife makes.

I take all my shoes just inside the side entrance of the Ritz-Carlton to be shined; he can make your leather bags look like new, too. Duke & Winston has the softest hoodies and flattering tees. Charlie’s Jeans can take one look at your ass and put you in the perfect pair; seriously, that’s not hype. I cook when I can, but this neighborhood thankfully has great restaurants, too.

The moca hete at Tequila’s is something I crave; their margaritas are amazing and not just because they come balanced on the head of your waiter either. (Classic with a little salt on the rim, although the rose goes over well with friends, too.) The pickle bar at Schlesinger’s needs to be talked about more – and they have the best fountain Diet Coke in these parts. Plus you get to watch all the hotties coming out of the cycling place downstairs.

The hummus at Dizengoff blows my mind; their menu is a moving target, but go with anything that has pulled chicken if it’s available. The flatbreads at Vernick are works of art – as is most of their food. Miel Patisserie makes the most perfect macaroons, and I head across Broad to Sweetbox on 13th Street for cupcakes. The Saturday morning markets are great too, but I’m not a morning person, and honestly, I’d rather hike to a place like Green Aisle for farm-fresh finds and get to sleep in. (To that point, I rely on others to score Federal Donuts before they run out.)

Getting out to other neighborhoods so easily is a major factor for living here in Rittenhouse; it’s the center of my world in Philly, and nothing is more than a quick walk, cab or Uber away. That’s good because I’m perpetually running late. When I do cook, having a Williams-Sonoma so close is a major perk. Di Bruno Bros., Rittenhouse Market and that fruit shop on 20th that I can never remember the name of also make life easier.

Things I can’t live without: Charcoal Grit Bar from Crux Supply Co., which is a local company out in the burbs (I found them at Clover Market in Chestnut Hill and stock up). Molton Brown black peppercorn body wash and their Mulberry & Thyme at the sink. I don’t have much hair left, but Joe at Groom gives the best clipper cuts. I shave with a great razor from Harry’s between appointments. The best purchase I’ve made to date is a Cuisinart food processor to dice and slice. I really want a KitchenAid mixer but am realistic about counter space.

In my closet: Good shoes. Good flip-flops (it’s a Greek thing). Good jeans. Over the years, I’ve adapted to more of a day-to-day “uniform,” reducing the colors in my wardrobe so that everything more or less works together, has a similar fit and doesn’t require special laundry knowledge. In the summer, for example, Lacoste polos are my go-to if I don’t have client meetings or events. Right now, I have 17 in blacks, blues and greens in rotation. Done and done. Simplifying my closet was one of the best decisions I ever made, and it’s made my life immeasurably easier. I hate doing laundry, and I embarrass myself if I try to iron or steam something, so whatever doesn’t get washed on regular in cold water gets set out. Money well-spent.

Favorite movies, music or TV shows: I can’t live without my purchased music (several thousand songs strong), Pandora and Apple Radio. I also love the Shazam app and let tagged songs build up so I can download enough for a new playlist at once. I have one of those cable box relics, but I watch everything through Apple TV, and I tried living without HBO and Showtime and Netflix, but I can’t. Hulu is calling my name, too. I love watching shows and movies, and I’m a size queen when it comes to televisions. The TV I have now is a compromise with myself; it’s definitely larger than it should be for my space but smaller than the one I wanted.

I wish I had: I want a new sofa. Finding the perfect one is an adventure.

Where I like to shop: The flea markets and places like Jinxed or the vintage stores on Passyunk Avenue are great for vintage things. The outdoor Clover Markets have great vendors, especially the one in Chestnut Hill. Auctions are amazing! Find out when new things arrive at T.J. Maxx, rent a Zipcar and head to the burbs. That’s a great way to fill in the little things. While you’re out there, head to Terrain, too. Love that place! I’m also inspired by and actually find things to buy on Instagram. The green oval mirror in the corner of my living room, for example, was something I saw on Instagram. The idea for planting succulents in dessert dishes came from a vintage store account, too. Don’t underestimate big-box stores, either. You’ll find West Elm, Crate & Barrel and CB2 mixed into my space, too.

Have a space we should see? Tell us about it.