Sarah van Riemsdijk’s Westport home is full of light and warmth—and it’s every bit as charming and welcoming as its owner. Inside, she displays endless collections of mementos picked up on her far-flung travels, each as interesting as the next. Having spent years living, working and traveling abroad, van Riemsdijk eventually decided that she wanted a fixed retreat when she wasn’t on the go. For a year and a half, she searched around town for the perfect refuge before deciding on her barn. Originally built in 1866, the converted barn is secluded and abundant with natural light, and offers ample wall space for decorating. Van Riemsdijk’s friends knowingly refer to it as “The Hermit Kingdom,” a nod to her habit of unplugging and disconnecting here to indulge in the quiet life. Ensconced, she peruses her vast collection of books, practices her writing and plans her next trip.
After fifty years of international travel, van Riemsdijk’s boundless curiosity is still not satisfied. “Everybody has a quest, something they want to do,” she says. “Since I was a little girl, all I wanted to do was see the world.” She’s made enviable progress towards that goal, with proof of her travels on display throughout the home. It is full of items from every corner of the globe. “I never really set out to collect anything, but when you’re out and about traveling, you always bump into curiosities.”
The two items she does consciously collect are globes and solar topees, more commonly known as pith helmets. These helmets were often used by soldiers stationed in Africa, and van Riemsdijk brought them into her home as a sign of respect to those who once wore them. Of the rest of her possessions, she says, “When you’re my age, and you’ve been to as many places as I’ve been, this really isn’t that much.” Moving between thirty different homes during her lifetime, she’s learned how to keep what she values and let the rest go. “If it doesn’t remind me of something, if it isn’t meaningful, it’s gone.”
One constant in her life has been wall color. “It’s called Old Parchment,” she says of the paint shade she’s been using for thirty-five years and in every house she has lived. “I found that it was just the perfect foil for antiques.” Items like massive turtle shells, antique taxidermy and zebra rugs pop against a shade as soft as day’s first light. It retreats behind particular pieces, allowing them to make an even bigger statement. One example is the custom kitchen table, inlaid with coins from around the world. Another eye-catcher is the sliding barn door, draped with a North African wedding blanket covered in metallic beetle wings and embroidered stars.
The varied details and objects in van Riemsdijk’s space slowly reveal themselves, like a good story. Natural materials—feathers, rocks, porcupine quills—are thoughtfully placed throughout the rooms. The most unusual of these items might be the wasp and bee nests. “If you look at nests closely, they’re really works of art. In certain lights, they are almost fluorescent,” she says, captivated. “In another life, I would just study nests.”
With uniform color as her backdrop, van Riemsdijk relies on shape, form and texture to decorate, but she does include a show-stopping compilation of photography. “I was quite old when it occurred to me that there was absolutely nothing on my walls except photographs,” she says. Her collection includes several large photographs by Peter Beard, as well as images by her good friends and famed photographers Jimmy Nelson and Henry Dallal. A series of pieces by renowned Egyptian photographer Attaya Gaddis line the stairwell to the second floor, as if they’re family portraits. Explaining her passion for the art form, she says, “It’s the [same] reason that I never read fiction—because it’s not real. Photographs are real.”
Reflecting on her experiences, van Riemsdijk concludes, “The spirit is indomitable. I really believe that the world is a magnificent place.” Although she still travels extensively, her home is never shuttered. Friends and family frequently drop by to make use of the barn as it awaits van Riemsdijk’s return, ready to welcome her home.