Talk of quirky interiors!

Talk of quirky interiors!


OFF-BEAT HOMES: The dining room of Kathleen Hackett and Stephen Antonson's home in New York. Below: Antonson's ‘Pie'd Pan’ sculpture, right, and his resin candlesticks that he sells through Gerald Bland in Manhattan. (Trevor Tondro/The New York Times)

Stephen Antonson, an artist with a wily and mischievous point of view, is fond of saying that when he makes something, he’d like that thing to do more than just lie there. He might throw in a sight gag: a plaster bust of Pan wears a cream pie in his face; a ghostly plaster side table erupts into a fruit bowl.

Or maybe he’ll set up a word pun. Home in Pittsburgh from college one Fourth of July, he and a brother (he has three, all of whom are artists) built a giant plywood Ritz cracker on their parents’ front lawn and painted it so it appeared to be engulfed in flames – like a “fire cracker,” in fact.

And when Antonson proposed to Kathleen Hackett, an elegant book editor and author he met while both were working at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia more than a decade ago, he concocted an elaborate, three-part scenario involving a steel-and-glass ring as big as an oil drum and an eight-foot-square carpet made from Polaroid photos of his hands forming the shapes of letters that spelled out a sonnet – the Shakespeare hit comparing a beloved to a summer’s day, rewritten so that it addressed Hackett.

“There was something in there about shoes, and how she was always late,” he said. “We were staying in a hotel that had a balcony, and I called her out on it, laying the poster on the ground below. And Kathleen couldn’t read it at all, even though she was only on the second floor. She said, ‘Let me get my glasses,’ and came down and stood on the poster, and then looked at me and said, ‘What is this?”’ That anecdote pretty much sums up the way the two have collaborated since, in marriage, parenthood (their sons, James and Finn, are 4 and 7) and nesting. “I make stuff,” Antonson said. “And Kathleen tries to explain it.”

Intriguing items

The two have written a book, “Home From the Hardware Store,” out late last year from Rodale, a cunning how-to in which Antonson uses items from the hardware store to make all sorts of intriguing home goods – candelabra from plumbing parts; a lamp out of drain grates; a coffee table from the kind of galvanised elbows used in ductwork.

It is Hackett’s second book with her own byline (she has ghostwritten 15, including one for Dolly Parton called “Dolly’s Dixie Fixin’s”). Her first, “The Salvage Sisters’ Guide to Finding Style in the Street and Inspiration in the Attic,” was written with Mary Ann Young, one of her six sisters, all of whom are named Mary (Hackett is Mary Kathleen). “Catholic girls,” said Antonson, whose father is a Presbyterian minister.

Hackett and Antonson’s is a match made from salvage, found at flea markets, antiques stores and yard sales. Buy as little new as possible is a manifesto they live by. Also, make stuff from other stuff. In their book, they quote Jasper Johns: “Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that.”

Their Brooklyn row house is a neat tableau vivant of these principles, and includes many items from their book. There are lamps wrapped in white cotton rope, and a light fixture made from a clutch of ceiling socket adapters.

It can be cowing to visit a place like this. You go home, look at your own stuff and think, “Yeesh, West Elm, so lame!” In the hierarchy of taste, “store-bought” smells like failure. Even the least handy, however, might be able to bang out the two-hour chair on Page 9, made from shelf supports and a piece of plywood. The robot floor lamp on Page 54 is another story.

“It almost sent us to divorce court,” said Hackett, whose unhappy task it was to pull all 14 steps out of Antonson, who created the robot in a right-brained frenzy for his sons, and then had to reverse engineer it for the book.

“I didn’t want to make it too simple,” he said.
With 33 “ingredients” – including a piece of window screen, a drain gasket, a lamp dimmer control and a doorbell – it nearly confounded Hackett, who likened it to making Julia Child’s cassoulet from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” a head-scratchingly elaborate production. And Hackett is an extremely talented cook.
“Our wedding,” she recalled, “was kind of like the robot.”

Antonson made plywood chandeliers for the little open-air chapel they were married in on a finger of land overlooking Penobscot Bay in Maine. He also made concrete urns – he begged bags of oyster shells from the Oyster Bar in Manhattan and mixed them into the concrete – and side tables for the reception hall.

“Stephen got so carried away,” Hackett said, “that at one point I had to say, ‘It’s not a show, it’s just a wedding.’ But this is how he is. Anyway, we like each other’s stuff – that’s a big plus. And I don’t care if things aren’t finished, or aren’t perfect.”
Hackett and Antonson’s row house is an ongoing, step-by-step renovation. Labour (Antonson’s) is free, but time is precious – like most artists and freelancers, they tend to juggle multiple projects that conspire to come due at the same time – and so it is their habit to work on the house in the margins.

Bought before the boom

They have been lucky in real estate. In 2003, they bought an apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, just before the boom. Antonson gutted and rebuilt it – even turning a staircase back to front – and they sold it for more than double what they paid for it, which enabled them to buy this place, a two-family, four-story brick Italianate row house, built around 1890, for $1.8 million.

The upstairs apartment, which they rent out, needed only fresh paint. The bottom two stories are being refitted in stages. On the parlour floor, Antonson has ripped up the floor – red oak, “a Home Depot special,” he said – to reveal the original heart pine planks. This month, he is excavating the hall: Gone are two layers of flooring (one wood, one linoleum). On the walls, he has laid out stock molding strips like boiserie (a project in the book).

Walls and trim are painted in a single deep colour, smoothing out “the visual chaos,” as Antonson put it, that erupts when a hall is lined with doors. “The book is what we do on a daily basis,” he said. “But I can sit around making stuff all day long, and it wouldn’t find its way to a bookshelf if it wasn’t for Kathleen.”

For the last decade, Antonson has been collecting orphaned mittens and gloves, harvesting them from piles of snow in his neighbourhood and beyond. In December, he began mating mismatched pairs and framing them, noting the locale and date on which he found each one, urged on by a friend, Andy Gray, managing director of the New York office of VSA Partners, a branding agency.

“It seemed like a perfect Valentine’s Day damaged-romance story,” said Gray, who turned the pairings into a show, “G(love),” at his company’s Chelsea office. Gray remembered the Polaroid sonnet proposal and asked Antonson to exhume it for the show. “Some people had a hard time reading it,” Gray said. “Others got it right away.”

Oddball stories above a sofa

The framed pairs are home now, oddball love stories that live above a sofa. David Stark, a sculptor-turned-event-designer who is an admirer of Antonson’s work, said: “Stephen suffers from the same artistic conundrum that I am inflicted with.

The heart wants to make something that is ever so beautiful, but the mind wants to throw a big, fat cream pie in the face of all that ‘pretty.’ He is so, so good at making elegance where there was none and giving humour to where there was serious elegance. He does that shamanistic thing, making the everyday magical.” In the dining area, a white table Antonson made from two-by-two boards and painted glossy white is fitted with roller shades on which windows and doors are sketched out in black marker.

You can pull them down to make a terrific fort (the book has directions). Antonson goes through a lot of dining tables, he said.  The last one he made from a rusty Saarinen Tulip table base he found on the street and ground down to the metal.

Topped with an oval of plywood, it was dull – too boring, in his estimation. One day when he was home alone, he took his jigsaw and carved a huge bite-mark in the edge, “like Godzilla had been there,” he said excitedly.

Which is how he explained it to his sons when they came home from school. “My lunch was sitting right here,” Antonson told them. “And a monster came in and he ate it!”

Hackett, he recalled, just shook her head.

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