Chicago Secrets – Strange Closets people, homes, travel and stuff Mon, 29 Apr 2013 17:29:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Agent Gallery storefront opens on Damen Avenue Wed, 28 Oct 2009 06:01:11 +0000 4035910751_20b002c2b0

Agent Gallery owner Mariano Chavez looks a little bored when I arrive to see his new storefront on a stretch of Damen Avenue near the border of Ukrainian Village and Wicker Park.  Home to a diverse population of yuppies, bobos, immigrants and hipsters, the neighborhood seems tailor-made for Mariano’s merchandise, which includes unusual pieces (Catholic clergy garments, explosion-proof phones, glass artificial eyes) alongside more standard salvage fare (industrial lighting, school lockers, doll molds).

But when I arrive near 3 p.m., Mariano tells me the only passer-by to drop in for a visit was a possibly schizophrenic older man who was paranoid about the cloaked specters of death flanking the front window display, which Mariano, who’s also an artist with a degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, added to the consternation of close friends who feared this kind of thing might happen (although perhaps not on the first day).

Continued . . .


1890's skull and crossbones ceremonial robe ($85)

But Mariano does a brisk business online, so he’s not worried about the slow start.  In fact, opening a bricks and mortar store is more of a nice-to-have, a base of operations that doubles as storage and gives Mariano the opportunity to meet his customers face-to-face.

As I wander around taking photos, one of Mariano’s buddies stops by to check out the store.  The man’s husky, a little swarthy even, and it seems like he doesn’t really get what Agent Gallery’s all about.  “People pay for this stuff?” he asks clearly astonished.  But Mariano’s affirmation gets him thinking, and it’s not long before the man starts asking whether Agent Gallery can sell the miscellaneous things he may still have lying somewhere around the house.  Mariano listens intently before respectfully tabling the topic for another day.  Which may be a bad idea.  It’s Agent Gallery’s first day, so while the new shopkeep might have plenty of free time now, something tells me he’s going to be busier than he can handle when the neighbors discover Agent Gallery in their midst with its cool owner, interesting merchandise and great prices.  If you have a chance this weekend, stop in to say hi.

Agent Gallery.  916 N. Damen Avenue.  312.498.6818












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SpoWhen is the letter M just a consonant? (Plus! Antique Drawings at Agent Gallery) Wed, 06 May 2009 06:28:30 +0000 3423528474_bd3e8c1024

You may have noticed that I didn’t post anything last Monday or Tuesday.  Then again, maybe you didn’t notice.  If that’s the case, I only have one thing to say, and I’ll say it with my trademark sexy swagger; no you didn’t!

Ahem . . . I took the mini-vacation to hang out with my visiting high school friend Marla, whom I haven’t seen since we lost touch nearly fifteen years.  After unsuccessfully searching for her, I’d finally accepted that I’d never see her again when I miraculously found her via this little underground site Facebook (check it out sometime).

While Marla and her wife Cate now live in my future home San Francisco (Don’t call it San Fran buddy or I’ll pop you one!), they lived here in Chicago for a big chunk of the time we were separated – and in the same neighborhood where I lived!

Continued . . .


Marla at the Lincoln Park Conservatory

I was kind of nervous.  Marla and I didn’t actually go to the same high school; we’d always been more like phone buddies, so we’d never spent more than a couple hours together at any given time.  What if we didn’t get along?  What if the years had embittered us to the world and most tragically, to each other?  As it turns out, Marla and I had a ball.  Neither of us have matured in the least, and you’ll no doubt be glad to hear that we still go together like Bonnie and Clyde.  “What’s this all got to do with Agent Gallery,?” you must be asking.  Very little I’ll admit, but here’s the answer.  Roll the clip:

The screen is all scratchy and yellowing, as if it were from a movie made in the 70’s.  Marla lies on the bed and stares intently at the blazing giant-huge-crazy-big T (the biggest T the world ever did see)*, its amber glow the room’s only illumination.  I am doing push-ups.

Marla:  I love that T above your bed so much.

Me:  Do you want your own M if Mariano Chavez of Agent Gallery still has one available?  I think he’s selling them for around $150.

Marla (without missing a beat):  Yes, call him now!

One short hour later we were driving away with the M.  Cool huh?  I love her decisiveness.  Thanks for visiting Marla; I miss you already.

(sniff).  if you want your own light up letter, be sure to call Mariano at Agent Gallery.  I highly recommend buying the first initial of your first name.  It has profoundly changed the way I think of myself and altered my perception about how much influence I have on the world around me.  I believe you’ll find this slightly delusional experience quite enjoyable.



Marla's Marvelous Many-Bulbed M

Also, I thought you might be interested in these antique drawings available at Agent Gallery.  Interesting huh?





* It’s a sports car thing.  So long folks!  That’s it for another edition of STRANGE CLOSETS.

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Studio Tour: Don Seiden (Artist, Educator, Author) Wed, 15 Apr 2009 06:29:49 +0000 3344032108_d16afc4045

Tomorrow I’m posting Don and Jackie’s Open House.  Don and Jackie are among the most fascinating couples I’ve spent time with, and their home among the most interesting I’ve visited.  There’s so much to see that I’m splitting the tour into three or four parts starting today with Don’s studio.  If you’d like to hear music along with the story, just click play on the You Tube button on the right hand sidebar.  Enjoy.

Don enjoys spending time in his bright, two level studio, which is located in the former barn behind he and Jackie’s Rogers Park home of 30 years.  An artist, mentor, author and former Art Institute instructor, Don Seiden was an early advocate for Art Therapy, an idea which seemed strange at the time but which is now widely used, taught and studied.  Don’s eyes still light up when he talks about seeing patients for whom nothing had worked show improvement after working with art therapists and making art themselves.

According to his biography, “in addition to founding the art therapy department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he has also served as a former chair for the sculpture, art education and art therapy departments at SAIC. Seiden is co-author of Direct Metal Sculpture and author of Mind Over Matter and the forthcoming Art Works.”

Continued . . .


Don’s studio is filled with sketches, painting and sculpture, so he and Jackie have recently begun sorting decades of art into piles for sale at various price points:  $5, $10, $25, etc.  The space would be ideal for a small gathering or event with a large selection of amazing art at all price points.  I bought a very interesting female nude sketch Don drew in the early 1970’s for $10 (seriously).

While retired from the Art Institute, Don offers mentoring to artists. Visit Don’s website to learn more about visiting his studio or mentoring.  And to learn more about Don’s life, visit Amazon to purchase the excellent graphic novel biography Artobiography.

Please come back tomorrow for Don and Jackie’s amazing Open House.


Don (far right) strongly resembles his father (far left)




Dancing with Death, Don titled this sculpture of he and Jackie dancing with the embodiment of the appointment we all have on our calendars.



This sculpture is of Don's parents






A breathtaking large scale rhino sculpture stands between the house and studio. Don constructed the piece using a technique he developed with tin foil and duct tape







Coincidentally, Don and Jackie spoke to me about their late friend Rudy before I toured the studio. It's clear that they still miss their friend a great deal


Don holding the sketch I bought from him

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Chicago Secrets: Agent Gallery Mon, 13 Apr 2009 08:10:51 +0000 3423485020_a86c11267f

What do you think of the painting on the left?  While I’m normally very shy, the artist made me feel very comfortable . . . pretty even.

As a music accompaniment for this post, may I be so bold as to recommend Plush Gun?  Try “Just Impolite,” which I’ve intuitively added to the right sidebar (simply play it).   And a note of the most sincere gratitude to Lakeview’s Caribou Coffee (on Broadway) for introducing me to this band last week.  Also thanks to ITunes for raising their prices, the filthy bastards.   Apple:  Putting the Great in Great Depression*

And now, sit back and enjoy the grandeur that is . . . Agent Gallery!

Have you heard the one about the guy who meets a beautiful woman at the local tavern, convinces her to have a slumber party and wakes up the next morning, alone and sans kidney?  Or the one about the high school couple who are necking in the car until, spooked by a radio report about the “Hook” serial killer (aye aye mate-y), they gun the engine and speed home (or as fast as allowed by state law), the boyfriend blissfully unaware of the object Betty Joe’s clutching in her purse . . . a bloody hook!  I decided to mix that one up a bit.

Fun little stories aren’t they?  But sadly they’re just examples of so-called “urban myths,” cultural memes that give a shape to the free-floating anxiety we all feel in the face of the threat of a second great depression (creating the next generation of thrifty seniors), the scourge of terrorism and the return of the pirate threat on the open seas.

Happy Monday by the way.

Continued . . .


But dry your tears little ones because the one about the guy with the apartment crammed full of Decoratus Absurdum in all its variations, all for sale at reasonable prices is true, true, true (YES!).  I even found a big T, which lights up.  I’ve always wanted to see my name in lights, so three letters to go!!!  (although I suppose a numeral 8 might suffice). Chock-full of all your favorites (or mine at least): salvaged vintage letters, industrial signs, political propaganda, medical objets d’ bizart and more, Agent Gallery is sure to hook you right away.  I hear ya, groan.

Chavez, who worked at both Urban Remains and Salvage One, doesn’t have a shop yet, but you can visit the Agent Gallery website, which is full of great products and which Chavez updates often.  Visit frequently lest you miss out on the perfect accessory.  I learned that lesson the hard way as somebody already claimed the crazy-cool jeweled movie theater nightlights and the realistic artificial glass eye (the perfect paperweight).  Now what will I buy mommy dearest** for Mother’s Day?

Agent Gallery (online or by appointment)

* Hey!  My Mac just froze up.

** They’re wood hangers mom, I swear . . . i’m sorry :-(



















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Chicago Secrets: Pegboard Modern Mon, 30 Mar 2009 06:56:52 +0000 3365294610_2c51133b1a

This post may contain tangents that may be unsuitable for most readers.  Reader intoxication is advised.

Some are saying “Chicago Secrets” is bogus, that my use of the word “Secret” is misleading.  They say that just as trashy tattler rags (sorry mom, but they are) use salacious headlines to attract pop culture junkies, I use “Secrets of Chicago . . .” rather than something less enticing like “Not Very Well Known . . . ” in order to “sell more papers.”*  If I were innocent I’d be outraged, but that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Pegboard Modern’s about as much of a secret as my rendezvous with . . . let’s just say owner David Carter is well-known among designers and dealers for his knowledge, friendliness and most of all, the high quality of his inventory.  The business has been online since Mark Zuckerberg was annoyingly Friending every kid in detention, but it was only when their home runneth over did the Carter’s decide they needed an entire warehouse to store everything.  Located along the only attractive stretch of Western Avenue, I’d say head over you can’t miss it, but you can’t head over unless you make an appointment and you very well might miss it, because there are no big flashy signs to alert passers by about the awesomeness so near (yet so far).

Continued . . .


It’s becoming a cliche to say that buying antique furniture is more “green.”  While it’s true, there are better reasons to buy vintage generally and mid-century modern in particular.  These pieces have stories.  Buy a couch that’s lived a little.  The pieces at Pegboard Modern have been there for weddings, funerals, showers and countless holidays.  Picture it!  It’s a warm sunny day in 1959.  Mr. Johnson enjoys a Marlboro as he drives his cherry red 57 Chevy home from “the office”.  He can’t wait to kiss his beauiful wife Betty and enjoy a gin martini by the pool.  But no drink awaits Mr. Johnson.  And he knows why the instant he looks out the back window onto the pool . . . only the furniture knows what happened.  See?  These objects have absorbed all this amazing energy.

Aren’t I a good B.S.’re?  I almost started believing myself until I remembered I was deliberately trying to sound new age-y in order to make the post more diffic . . . entertaining for you.  But I do kind of believe the part about the energy.

In all seriousness, there are more pragmatic reasons to buy vintage.  The classics are classics because they’ve been in and out and in again until they transcend the cycles and become timeless.  So the pieces you buy probably won’t look dated.   There are financial reasons too; when you sell mid-century classics, you’ll probably break even or make money.  It’s an investment.  You can’t say the same about most contemporary furniture (or stocks).  Finally, this stuff is just cool.

Click here to visit Pegboard Modern.  Appointments are available upon request.  Keep checking out Strange Closets, because very soon I’ll be featuring the Carter’s sweeeeeeeettttt home designed by John McPherson; it’s the perfect backdrop for their amazing collection of furniture.










* The definition of which will one day be unknown all but linguists.

** You can go to Design Within Reach if you want, to buy everything new.  It’s perfectly legal.  OK even.  But I think it’s important that you think of all CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere so that you can buy an Eames chair that doesn’t have a scratch.  Oh wait, it’s not OK.  The ice sheet is melting and we’re all screwed (says the guy who loves air conditioning more than food).  Buy vinage.

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Chicago Secrets: Arthur Swirgon’s Art Collection Tue, 24 Mar 2009 05:48:51 +0000 3379803860_92c907e333

West side antique dealer Arthur Swirgon knows a lot about a lot:  European antiques expert, jewelry dealer and self-taught mid-century modern expert (he can run circles around most), Arthur knows the history and importance of many of his store’s pieces.

So it kills me that he’s doing so well on his Ebay store and developing a reputation around the world when many Chicagoans don’t even know he’s there.  True, his store, which is located on the west side, may not be as convient as the local Pottery Barn, but it’s stocked with amazing finds at affordable prices.  Let’s face it, there’s no shortage of mid-century modern furniture stores, but I’m always delighted by Arthur’s selection, which includes classic, quirky and rare pieces.  I went ga-ga over a Danish mid-century desk/dressser (marked 50% off by the way).

While I’ve written about Arthur’s furniture offerings, I continue to be most impressed with his selection of African American art and sculpture.  If you’re a collector or just looking for an interesting piece for your home, stop in.  If nothing else, Arthur’s a cool, intelligent and highly educated guy, so I think you’ll enjoy talking with him (and probably learn a thing or two).

You can read my first piece (posted way back when) here.  Enjoy!

320 S. California.  773-392-1613.
















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This Week: The Field Museum Shop Fri, 20 Mar 2009 14:43:26 +0000 3362405718_0b10658efd

Two days ago, a mere 48 hours, I exposed the Field Museum’s unintentional secret, a secret that can only be called the Harris Loan Center because like most of us, the Harris Loan Center has just one name . . . three if, defying convention, you count Harris, Loan and Center as three separate names, but one if you consider the three words that make up its name to be beautiful bits of information but otherwise incomplete components of its actual name, the Harris Loan Center.   In fact, it’s full name isn’t the Harris Loan Center but the Harris Educational Loan Center.  No, you stop it!

But it wasn’t the Harris Educational Loan Center that brought me to the Field Museum, but a friendly invitation by former Open House star and new friend Maribeth, a creative genius in the Museum’s terrific shop.  I was surprised that the Museum carries an extensive selection of authentic artifacts and a very cool product mix (most available online).

Director Jeri Webb was kind enough to provide some information about these products via email, and I found copying and pasting so much easier than writing that I’ve decided to rely on them exclusively for the remainder of this post.  Don’t worry; I’ve stripped out anything that seemed educational (this is a design blog (sort of), and I don’t want you to accidentally learn something about nature).


Maribeth liked this stuffed rooster so much she keeps one on her desk


These stuffed animals are perfect for those who love taxidermy but feel a bit creeped out by it (as they eat their burgers)


Did you hear the one about the camel and the anubis? The canine-headed Anubis is credited with inventing mummification. The anubis, which has the best animal name (EVER) was the guardian of the Necropolis, protecting the deceased from evil spirits.


Don't you think I should be a nature photographer for National Geographic?


Their eyes were all closed until I snapped the first photo . . . so that was scary


George Pooley Hopi Kachinas-George's work is very traditional, and very affordable. The Hopi people believe in spirits called katsina (also variously spelled kachina), which represent the elements of nature. Hopi men carve katsina dolls most often from cottonwood as teaching tools for children to learn about the different types of katsina spirits


Balinese butterfly kite--these are working kites which are flown by children on the beaches in Bali. Doesn't this butterfly make you feel free?



An assortment of kachinas displayed in our kid's tepee


Indonesian shadow puppets with a late 19th century lady's slipper chair from China


A primitive listening device


Really amazing metal work from Mexico (animal sculptures formed from recycled wire and tree of life wall sculptures--very detailed wonderful animals)


Chinese puppet heads with working eyes


Every Museum shop needs a little kitsch


Traditional carvings from the wood of the copal tree, painstakingly painted with fabulous patterns and colors


African mud cloth shawls and scarves. This fabric is very hot now


The forecourt area of our 6,000 square foot main store at the Museum. The space was designed by Charles Sparks Company


Mexican sombreros and Day of the Dead accessories and T-shirts from our Aztecs exhibition market place


Off the top of my head (and copying an email from Director Jeri Webb), I believe these are Embera masks from the Panamanian rain forest. The Embera people inhabit remote villages in the Panamanian rainforest near the Columbian border. Shamans use traditional masks in healing rituals and before hunts to ensure good luck. The masks are made from two types of palm, using both sewing and knotting techniques. Each mask is one-of-a-kind and highly prized for its intricacy and creativity of design.


African masks from Mali and Burkina Faso

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Chicago Secrets: The Field Museum’s Hush-Hush Rental Program AKA the Harris Loan Center (Exposed!) Wed, 18 Mar 2009 08:45:43 +0000 3361656759_07ed0e6b72

Museums, in addition to being large publicly funded institutions which are open to the public for educational purposes but which often require an annual membership or nominal daily fee, are places where ANYTHING can happen!  Artifacts are collected for crying out loud!  From around the world!!  From remote areas!!!  Watch it because the exclamation points are really flying now!!!!!!*

Those of us who were regaled by the adventures of Indiana Jones know this already.  While we’re on the topic, I love the scene in the original (numero uno) where the good doctor (played by Hollywood Everyman Harrison Ford) is confronted with those dastardly swordsmen, and he, cool as a cucumber chillin’ on ice, takes out his pistol and takes care of the problem (as if the entire film’s premise weren’t blatant enough, the scene’s obvious pro-colonial propaganda should give one pause before rewinding to watch it again).

So I was excited when former Open House star Maribeth invited me to visit the Field Museum shop.  Things were going along splendidly enough – you’ll see more about that later this week – when Maribeth slipped and revealed a secret that was so . . . well, I promised not to say anything.

Continued . . .


To calm Maribeth down, I swore up and down I would never breath a word of it.  And I never will.  What?  Why are you looking at me like that?  Oh man . . . I can’t (I promised Maribeth) . . . She might get in trouble . . . OK I’ll spill . . . but you didn’t hear it here.  So there’s a department, so secret it has an official name and website (the Harris Loan Center), which is located deep in the Museum’s bowels and filled with taxidermy.  But unlike taxidermy which is unavailable to be checked out, this taxidermy is available to be checked out.  CRAZY!  Like a fox.  Literally, they have everything.  You just pay a one-time fee (no, it’s not one million dollars) and you can take the little critters home with you.

So that dear friends is my decorating tip of the day.  Spruce up your room, for a party or for daily living, with one of the Harris Loan Center’s check-out-able taxidermy pieces.  I checked out Sue+

Field Museum.  312-922-9410

*  How do you feel about exclamation points (!)?  I make myself use them because I recognize the function they serve particularly in an e-mail.

Hi Bill.

Hi Bill!

See.  I’d rather somebody say, “Hi Tate!” than “Hi Tate.”  But I also think exclamation points seem kind of artificially enthusiastic.  There needs to be something in between the period and the exclamation point.  Something like + at the end of a sentence conveys a general friendliness.  Not Hello.  Not hey.  Hi.

Hi Bill.

Hi Bill+

Hi Bill!

Do you find yourself thinking about punctuation:  Do you want to solve the vexing issue we face punctuating!  Get it.




I hate my reflection sometimes.





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Chicago Secrets: Zap’s Props Wed, 14 Jan 2009 07:04:18 +0000 _dsc3720

Thank you to sometimes contributor, The Found founder and ephemera expert Albert Tanquero for alerting me to his Zap’s Props experience (be sure to check out Albert’s Flickr photo stream for a peek at his fantastic collection of vintage photos, many of which are for sale).  “This place is . . . nuts,” Albert wrote in an email, and I knew he meant it as the supreme complement.

And Albert’s right; the giant warehouse (and favorite stop for movie and theater set designers) is chock full of potential props, much of which certainly qualifies as Decoratus Absurdum including robots, taxidermy, vintage signs, circus stuff, shrunken heads and . . . well, everything; this place literally has everything.

Thanks for new friend and fellow blogger Lizzie Garrett (of the terrific blog DesignWatcher) for accompanying me (you can read her story here).  She and I acted as each other’s reality check when things got too zany.  I knew we’d hit it off when the following exchange occurred:

“Lizzie, I just took a photo of the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Is it a clown?” she asked without a moment’s hesitation (that’s my kind of gal).

It wasn’t, in fact, a clown; it was far, far worse:


Sadly Zap’s Props is not technically open to the public and is intended primarily for the trade (i.e. set designers, restaurant decorators, interior designers, etc.).  In fact, most of the stuff crammed into the three massive floors is rental only.  One floor contains items for sale, so if you’re in a buying mood, give them a call.

Zap Props
3611 S. Loomis
Chicago, IL










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Hidden Treasures: Daniels Antiques Secret Stash Tue, 18 Nov 2008 14:20:00 +0000

I ran into Daniel (of Bucktown’s excellent Daniel’s Antiques) last week at the Modernism show and was as impressed as always with his merchandise (which included a killer-cool metal cabinet, amazing deco-era art and a poster I shan’t tell you about as I’m saving my pretty pennies). When Dan casually mentioned his storage warehouse, my ears perked up, and I asked for a tour.

While not open to the public and not staged for that purpose, the warehouse is a treasure trove of goods waiting to be made up for their public debut in the store proper. Stop by the store first, but if you don’t see what you want, make sure you ask about the secret stash.

Daniel’s Antiques is located at 2062 N. Damen in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. Make a day of it and also check out Michael Del Piero’s boutique, Pavilion Antiques (which I’m told is a Nate Berkus favorite), the all new White Attic, Crosby & Co. and much more. For questions, visit their website or call 773-276-9600.

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