NEW YORK – 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 2.4-metre-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.”
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 galvanized elbows used in duct work.
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.
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.
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. In March, he is excavating the hall: Gone are two layers of flooring (one wood, one linoleum). On the walls, he has laid out stock moulding 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.”
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.