This article on wunderkammern-themed places was posted on MSN yesterday, and written by Pam Grossman of the Phantasmaphile site.
An old-world sense of wonder...
In search of the strange and wonderful? All things are considered at these 10 U.S. shops and museums with a curiosity-cabinet theme.
By Pam Grossman for MSN City Guides
So far this century has been a sleek and shiny age marked by clean lines and minimalist décor (Apple store, anyone?) While white plastic gadgets have captured many a heart, sometimes I long for a time when clutter was a sign of abundance and extravagance was king.
After all, in the 17th century, you wouldn’t have been an aristocrat worth your salt unless your home had a dedicated display case (or better yet, an entire room) crowded with a collection of marvelous objects accumulated over the years. Called “cabinets of curiosities” – or wunderkammern – these personal exhibits paid homage to the wonders and mysteries of the world. A typical curiosity cabinet might have included zoological specimens, geological rarities, anatomical aberrations, and exceptional works of art, all juxtaposed in a visual melee designed to set the viewer’s jaw dropping and eyes agog.
Luckily, no time machine is necessary if you care to usher in your own Age of Maximalism. The wunderkammern aesthetic has been blossoming in shops and museums across the country. After visiting these places, you might just be inspired to create a designated area in your own home for your newly acquired two-headed stuffed rabbit, rainbow titanium geode, or scrimshaw carved in the likeness of the “Mona Lisa.”
Obscura Antiques and Oddities
New York City
Customers with an offbeat sensibility will not want to miss this shop, in New York's East Village. Owners Evan Michelson and Mike Zohn seek out bric-a-brac with a bizarre, dark edge for their eclectic clientele. Old surgical equipment, taxidermy, prosthetic limbs, shoeboxes filled with nameless photographs, and Victorian garb line the walls of this shrine to the macabre. Perfect for decorating your own version of the Addams Family estate.
New York City
Tucked away on a quiet cobblestoned street on the outskirts of Chinatown is De Vera, a treasure trove of antiques and exquisite decorative objects from around the globe. Vividly colored glass vases, weathered statues of saints, sparkling Renaissance necklaces and lacquered boxes from Asia are just a sampling of what you’ll find in this gorgeous duplex. The shop is almost a museum in itself, carefully curated as it is with fine attention to display and detail. A set of rings may sit on top of a page of floral engravings, a pendant adorns the throat of a wooden queen, an abacus lies against a silver painted wall. These aesthetic correspondences are at once surprising and delightful, like the elements of a wonderfully strange, opulent dream. (Those on the West Coast can be treated to the smaller sister location in San Francisco).
New York City
If natural history museums make your pulse race, then Evolution is the place for you. Filled with fossils, shells, and bones from an impressive array of no-longer-living creatures, this store on Spring Street in SoHo is a veritable supply house for biology teachers and amateur collectors alike. A lesser known fact: there's a separate space around the corner dedicated to an extensive inventory of insects. Ask one of the staff to arrange a viewing for you, and prepare to be dazzled by row after row of arthropod jewels.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
When seeking inspiration for interior decorating, it’s often a good idea to study a master. Isabella Stewart Gardner was a wealthy art patron in fin de siècle Boston. She had a massive, Venetian-style villa built for her diverse collection of paintings, textiles and objects d’art, and opened the house to the public in 1903. If you go, take note of how virtually every inch of wall space is covered, and chronology is thrown to the wind.
“I love the idea of taking something old or something odd and looking at it with a fresh set of eyes,” owner Suzi West says. That statement pretty much sums up the spirit of Collier West. Inside this enchanting home goods store, you’ll find such continental treasures as a century-old copper bathtub from France, fairy-tale-styled chandeliers, antique apothecary fixtures and a vast selection of dishware designed by Milanese art legend Piero Fornesetti. Yet it all feels somehow new, thanks to Ms. West’s inventive store layout.
Discovering this boutique is a bit like discovering a hidden, thoroughly ornamented Shangri-La. Owners Rajan Patel and Jeffrey Lee describe Grange Hall as an “oversized curio cabinet with a mad sense of whimsy.” Here, one-of-a-kind, handcrafted items mingle with porcelain animals, exotic candles, piles of books, bird skeletons perched atop velvet upholstered furniture, and innovative floral arrangements. Recently, the most show-stopping piece for sale was a picture frame encrusted entirely in brilliantly colored beetle wings.
Museum of Jurassic Technology
Culver City, Calif.
No wunderkammern list would be complete without a mention of the unclassifiable Museum of Jurassic Technology. Dim lighting and glittering cases filled with capricious displays (a collection of decaying dice, for example) make this remarkable place seem both a mysterious repository and the mansion of a madman. A visitor wonders: Are the exhibits actually imaginary, or do they perhaps contain relics from a long-forgotten past? With explorations of topics such as bats that can fly through walls and the use of duck’s breath as a homeopathic curative, this museum is a living oxymoron: illuminating absurdity.
San Mateo, Calif.
Though called a museum, this is actually more of a private, eccentric project by artist Jim Stewart. “The museum is an 8x14 foot shed in my driveway, packed with various dioramas, vitrines, exhibit cases, and loose artifacts,” Stewart said. “Once inside, you see a bewildering but intriguing assortment of items, including dead animals, dried fish, insects, and assemblages made of desiccated and decaying objects.” Intrigued? The museum is open to public for a few days during the annual Silicon Valley Open Studios, in May. Otherwise, contact the creator for your own private tour.
When exploring this store, don’t be surprised if you sense the presence of two ghosts who answer to the names Charles and Carl (that’s Darwin and Linnaeus, respectively). Who could blame them for feeling in their element at this garden shop turned olde-timey science emporium? Here, you can buy a variety of plants, as well as bell jars, footed canisters, hummingbird feeders and even quill pens, all to support your own investigations into the natural world.
Steve’s Weird House
Not much is known about the enigmatic “Steve,” resident owner and obsessive extraordinaire of this zealously cram-packed Northwestern home. Although the space isn’t generally open to the public, if you’re a serious collector and ask real nice, he may just let you see his antique toasters, Siamese twin animals, quack medical electrical devices, et al. When asked about how this collection of outlandish artifacts came to be, he says: “My house is my attempt to live inside of a museum…[it] is fundamentally inspired by childhood visits to ‘Ye Olde Curiosity Shop,’ a Seattle institution full of mummies, shrunken heads and freak animals for over 100 years. Back then, they had a bin full of real human skulls for $10 each, but my dad wouldn't buy me one.” Who says childhood trauma can’t be turned into something positive?