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Sunday, January 1, 2012
Walking to Warren Muller’s chandelier art studio from the opposite end of the Girard Avenue area of Northern Liberties is a bit like stepping into a an old celluloid redux of The Matrix.
The open sky, while slightly reminiscent of Colorado, meets a very bland sort of industrial highway. There are no sidewalks here, although a dead railroad track snakes in and out of various abandoned lots. The feeling of desolation is oddly comforting—the words industrially romantic come to mind-- and the tall fence meant to block access to a scrap yard only halfway succeeds: passersby over the years have dug out peep holes for a glimpse into a hidden terrain of debris mountains composed of waste material from consumer society.
Muller’s studio, Bahdeebahou, is highlighted by a Dadaist outdoor sculpture that looks like an image from a dream. The studio’s immense Basilica-like doors open into an equally immense space that at first feels too empty. Inside the studio, more than likely you’ll be met by the resident Feng Shui guardians, Elbe and Bella, two Chihauhuas who will run towards you but stop just before reaching your feet. Like an animated Hallmark greeting, the dogs will get you to follow them to Muller, who may be anywhere inside the labyrinthine cave working on his latest chandelier.
Muller’s chandeliers are made from scrap metal, trashed buggy wheels, old vinegar bottles, toy trains, found objects, family heirlooms, dolls, toy ships, imperfect crystals or plastic fish that look like the stuffed specimens in a fisherman’s dens. If the range here seems impossibly wide, that’s because it is.
If you want ample proof of this, take a trip to Bahdeebahou yourself where you’ll see any number of working projects in suspended animation.
A signature Muller chandelier can cost upwards of $25,000. When a client asks Muller if he can make a chandelier from a box of old family heirlooms-- which may include anything from an old set of antique hobby horse heads to an assortment of Victorian era tops—Muller is careful to say that he’ll do what he can, although there are no guarantees that he will ‘use their stuff.”
Muller chandeliers are in private homes, offices and restaurants the world over. This summer he completed a chandelier for the Chandelier Museum in the South of France, a near three year project that necessitated spending time in France with his assistant Rebecca. The fact that the French have heard of his work and treated him like a celebrity—giving him a house to live in while he worked on the project, as well as access to scrap yards, thousands of imperfect crystals from the Museum, and a special dinner in his honor---stands in stark contrast to his relative, muted celebrity in Philadelphia, a city that many artists in fact—from Henry Tanner to Thomas Eakins—have felt less than appreciated in.
“I decided to do the French chandelier in a traditional shape, sort of a cone, wide at the top, narrow at the bottom, in order to relate to what they do naturally,” Muller told me over lunch in a Northern Liberties Piazza eatery. “When they looked at it when I was finished they said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a chandelier.’ But it’s very chaotic what I did. The piece contains beautiful Cupids, beautiful bronze, arms; it’s very complex, very French. The imperfect crystals they offered me were perfect. I had a bottomless pit of French crystals, so we embellished the whole thing.”
Muller says he named the chandelier after the owner’s mother, who told him afterwards that she was excited about seeing her past revived and brought into a whole new realm.
For a Boulder, Colorado couple he was asked to do his take on a traditional chandelier but when he showed them the piece he was told that the chandelier “wasn’t girlie enough.”
At the time, Muller scratched his head and asked himself, “What’s girlie?” Perhaps in a perverse way it was the legacy of Boulder’s Jon Benet Ramsey that inspired him to apply a quick fix-- the addition of “some draped glitzy things”—that eventually won the approval of the couple. “Oh Yeah, that’s much better,” they told him.
The art world has caught on to the Muller mystique. Hilary Jay, of the Design Center at Philadelphia University, notes that Muller’s work reaches beyond aesthetic appreciation, “to become culturally reflective and intellectually inspiring. He keeps good company today---contemporary artists and designers such as lighting designer Ingo Maurer, the Dutch collective droog, Marcel Wanders, Philippe Starck, all who create works that conjure a dream and a wink.”
“In a way that architect Frank Gehry has reshaped our expectations of buildings, Muller has exploded notions of the look and function of lighting….Suddenly lamps are fun. And space is transformed,” writes Museum of Modern Art (former) Director of Education, Philip Yenawine.
In Bahdeebahdu, I spotted a number of pieces waiting for the right buyer. Muller, who produces about 20 chandeliers a year, works during down time cycles when sales are low, though whatever he makes is eventually sold. “I’m always prepared for downtime,” he says. “Downtime is the time when I make things without a request. A lot of the pieces in my studio are pieces I made just because no one was asking me. I have so much stuff that I collect. And I am always adding things. Eventually someone needs it for whatever reason.”
His “Marcel du Lamp,” a chandelier based on themes by Duchamp, hung in the studio for months before being spotted by one of the guests at a wedding (the Bahdeebahdu space can be rented out for private functions). Muller, in fact, had given up trying to sell the piece and had already decided that he was going to keep it when the wedding guest put in his bid. Shortly after this another buyer came forward but it was too late. Muller, who has learned to work with this sort of ebb and flow, says, “In my old age I’ve learned to be patient---things take the time they take; just because you can imagine them now, you also have to give things the life that they need to evolve.”
The Hung like a Horse Chandelier demonstrates just that. Anything but discreet, it is half Robert Mapplethorpe, half Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse. “Cute” is a word a group of modern Catholic nuns used to describe it. “The nuns became my friends. There’s a homeless shelter in the neighborhood that we’ve taken on as a project. We’ve done a few events here to raise money for the shelter that the nuns started,” Muller told me, while I tried imagining the good sisters, some in habits and some in chic stretch pant suits, inspecting the horse’s thick neon- lighted projectile.
Bahdeebahdu’s fundraising events for the shelter became so popular that they were moved to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where at one party there was a concurrent show of “provocative nudes.” Muller says that his initial reaction was to worry how the nuns would process this but, thanks perhaps to a path having already been cleared by the Art World’s Sister Wendy, he adds that “the nuns were just fine.”
Born in the Bronx to Eastern European Jewish parents, Muller recalls his childhood as a sort of Frederico Fellini-driven “museum in the streets,” full of color, noise and activity.
“My parents died in 1976, just six months apart. They had a dry cleaning business so we always had a storefront. I have an estranged sister a few years older than me. I tried to interest her in me, but that didn’t work. So you go and make your own family,” he said.
From the Bronx he went to the Hartford Art School and then he traveled to the island of Paros in Greece where he enrolled in The Aegean School of Fine Arts. On the island he met a photographer from Philadelphia who invited him to come to the city and enroll in the Philadelphia College of Art. After this he got involved in documentary filmmaking and the world of dance, leaving Philadelphia often to travel and live in San Francisco, New York, and Berlin. Still, he always managed to find his way back to the Quaker City as if under the spell of a dragging vortex. “I’ve been working here so long, you know, but the city ignores you—in spite of this I go about my business,” he says.
Not to worry: As long as you’re known in Paris, who cares about Terry Gross, Marty Moss-Coane and Radio Times, or winning a Best of Philly award?
In 2006, The New York Times featured Muller and his interior designer partner, Rj Thornburg, in a piece about the couple’s Pocono Mountain retreat, a three bedroom, 1,800-square-foot house on three acres of hills, fields and woods. Muller told The Times: “In the country, we take a lot of walks. There’s space to breathe, and plenty of room for imagining our dreams and goals…” The couple currently divides their time between the studio and the traditional farmhouse setting. In the studio there is a fully equipped kitchen and enough space for living accommodations although the average customer would never suspect that the studio is also doubles as a home away from home.
Muller and Thornburg met 13 years ago through interior designer Floss Barber. Barber was in Muller’s studio and suggested he come along to a luncheon interview. “You might be interested in meeting him,” she said. Muller took the bait and says he wound up having appetizers, a drink and dinner. “I stayed and stayed and stayed. I felt this rapport with him.”
Thornburg, as it turns out, got the job with Barber and worked with her for about a year before opening his own shop across the street from Muller’s old studio in Old City. The two later decided to go into business together and opened a studio on Cherry Street, where they sold chandeliers and furniture by designers.
“Wink,” a 135-page art book on Muller’s work put together by the artist’s friends, is a lavish work of art in the style of Taschen Books. “I invited people to write essays about me,” Muller says. The result is an all-inclusive look at every aspect of the artist’s life. “Wink” includes photo kaldeiscopes of Muller’s work, personal shots of him and Thornburg at home in the Pocono’s (including a party shot of both men in drag). Childhood photos of Muller-- his big ears and proud pompadour reminiscent of Howdy Doody—show up in the middle section.