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These charming men

With Patch NYC, Cambridge designers give their love of vintage crafts an outlet

CAMBRIDGE -- Given the alarming number of crocheted pillows, deer figurines, and pipe-cleaner dolls artfully displayed, the apartment should, by all rights, belong to someone's pack-rat aunt -- the sort of sweetly misunderstood lady who delivers brownies in rescued Kleenex boxes and collects issues of Better Homes & Gardens dating back to 1976.

"It's overwhelming for some people, but this is what we like," explains Don Carney, one of the apartment's actual occupants, as he gives a tour of his home, which includes a room entirely devoted to old picture frames. "We've always been inspired by vintage things."

That inspiration seeps into the jewelry and art created by Carney and his partner, John Ross , for their company, Patch NYC. Chunky chains are adorned with vintage charms and beads found at flea markets. A stitched pattern on an old apron may inspire a handbag, and bracelets are oxidized to make them look as though they've been stored in a jewelry box for several decades.

Patch NYC -- which the pair operate out of their apartment -- feels more like a hipster arts-and-crafts project with a celebrity following than a jewelry and accessories company. In the 10 years since they began in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, their products have evolved from hats and handbags to T-shirts, pillows, and jewelry. Stars such as Julianne Moore, Madonna, and Sarah Jessica Parker have been photographed wearing their line. Ross, 41, proudly recalls that when he and Carney ran a store in New York, Liv Tyler's dog had an accident on their floor.

"That's when we knew we had truly arrived," he says.

They closed the shop in 2005 to focus on their wholesale business and move to Boston for a change of scenery, but their line of men's jewelry is carried at tony stores such as Barneys New York , and Carney's elaborate ink drawings, which are housed in the vintage frames, are sold at Louis Boston and ABC Carpet & Home in New York. Not bad for a company started by two men with no fashion background, who happened to be inspired by a mother's love of crocheting.

Patch NYC began when Ross's mother mailed him a hat she knit during one of his first New York winters, after he moved there from California. At the time, Ross was working in the visuals department at FAO Schwarz and Carney was designing shoes. They hatched a plan to put Ross's mother to work knitting more hats made of wool yarn instead of acrylic, and the two men would try getting them into stores.

"I think she just went along with it to humor us," Ross says. "She said, 'Yeah, sure, I'll knit some hats.' "

The first full collection as Patch NYC featured hats and scarves. A buyer suggested they add handbags. Shortly after, Barneys New York placed an order. At that point, "everything started happening," Carney says.

Sitting in the retro-fantastic apartment near a wall that has been painted to resemble paneling, Carney, 40, shows clippings of Patch products featured in British Vogue, Japanese Vogue, and Italian Vogue. With no sewing skills, the two built a company with the help of Ross's mother, who handled production, and, of course, crocheting duties.

The lanky couple -- both are 6-foot-3 -- relocated to Cambridge for a slightly quieter lifestyle, and also to be closer to Carney's family in Lexington. Each has a dry sense of humor, peppered with occasional moments of charm. Carney, who favors shorts and Wallabees, claims to be the more outgoing of the two. Ross, who looks a good 10 years younger than his age, seems to be more comfortable in argyle or plaid.

Although the focus of their company is now more jewelry than crocheted accessories and handbags, Ross's mother still comes regularly from California to assist with production, while Carney's mother comes in from Lexington to help.

"It's great because both of our moms are creative, but in very different ways," Carney says.

Growing up, Ross says he assumed that everyone's mother crocheted doilies and made outfits for their children. He fondly recalls the year his mother made matching hibiscus-print shirts and A-line dresses for the family.

"We would actually go out like that, and people would stop us and take pictures of us because we looked like the Brady Bunch or the Partridge Family on tour," he says through laughter. "I was only 4, so I had no say in the matter. But I look at pictures now and I think, 'What a bunch of geeks.' "

The idea behind Patch is not to replicate items found at neighborhood yard sales, but to slyly incorporate vintage details into fashionable new designs. The two gather ideas and collaborate on a theme for the line each season, then Carney sculpts charms such as anchors, hearts, or houseflies.

"It looks like it could have come out of your grandmother's attic, if your grandmother was incredibly fashionable and hip," says Sarah Easley , co-owner of the Soho boutique Kirna Zabê te.

Their sterling silver women's jewelry, found locally at Nomad and Joanne Rossman , is one-of-a-kind and incorporates found items such as an antique pocket knife . They also make a line of costume jewelry that is sold at stores such as Kate Spade and Nanette Lepore on Newbury Street.

"It's really different, and there's an old-world quality to the work," says Maria Fei , vice president of operations and buyer for Louis Boston, which carries Carney's ink drawings. "His art is incredibly thoughtful."

Ross and Carney seem to be on a continuing mission to seek out more tchotchkes to fill their home. In their 14 years as a couple, they have amassed enough bric-a-brac to outfit the condos of several nanas. But they are skilled at editing their collection and avoiding a home that looks like the set of "Sanford and Son." The end result is a space that feels homey and hip, much like the line itself.

"We're always drawn to things that are handcrafted, or things that have a story," Ross says. "I think that's why it's always been so easy for us to design together. We both like things that some people see as junk. We just happen to see them as things with a unique past life."

Christopher Muther can be reached at