A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Thursday, November 8, 2018

SIGHT: The House of Collection

Oil cans. Propellers. A box of desiccated rodents and a row of crop dusting tins. Antique locks and tire chains. A tangle of discarded toe shoes. Chemistry glassware. Tugboat ropes and embroideries of flowering herbs. Buddha statues, a jackalope, and a taxidermied buck head in drag.

These are among the objects you will find at the House of Collection, a loft in western Williamsburg filled with thousands of (mostly) found and gifted objects curated by Paige Stevenson for almost thirty years. “It’s the human part of the things I love, even though it’s all about the stuff,” Paige tells visitors one recent evening. “This is my way of having a roadside museum.... I emphasize a less commercial approach to acquisition.”

In preparation for our visit, Paige has lit dozens of candles to illuminate the treasure cave into which we are spelunking. Two former bodega cats slink about between the low seating, which encourages visitors to look up and around. A pressed-in ceiling from Virginia and columns found in an abandoned hoard in Brattleboro, Vermont, demaracte the space, with other partitions made of cubbyholes, a piano soundboard, and a hideaway walled in plants.

Resplendent in a tiara and vintage dress, Paige pours mismatched cups of tea and ushers her guests between rooms, regaling us with stories of how the House of Collection evolved out of her itinerant youth, which instilled in her an appreciation for communal living, manual labor, and anti-consumerism.

Born in Virginia in the sixties to hippie parents, Paige spent parts of her childhood in a tepee in a California commune, an off-the-grid goat farm in a redwood forest, and a Victorian house in San Francisco where her bed was on top of a bathtub. Through her wanderings, she grew to love “the Americana, back-to-the-land aesthetic” of decorating with found objects. In particular, she was drawn to barns, which are often decorated with everyday objects like tools and taxidermy. 

A move to Pittsburgh led her to juxtapose this rural proclivity with the romance of that city’s declining steel industry. She realized the connection was really about “liminal spaces, which are so full of possibility.” Paige found her own liminal space in 1989 in a five-thousand-square-foot loft (though it's smaller today), which she moved into with three friends, fresh out of Columbia, where she had studied welding. To build out the space, they dragged materials through streets lined with drifts of crack vials and burning cars (Williamsburg in the 1990s), and hoisted them up the building’s hand-cranked elevator. After winning a twelve-year legal battle for rent stabilization, Paige (a bookkeeper by day) decided to pay it forward by opening the House of Collection to the community for gatherings, parties, events, shows, fund-raisers, and as an artist workspace. Though she now lives alone, at its peak ten people shared the space, bringing Paige back to her roots in communal living. “It’s like an organism,” she says of her home. 

She loves objects for their own sense of self as well as for the negative space they create. After a recent fly infestation, for instance, a coil of flypaper became part of the collection, hanging from a kitchen lamp and offset by a mandala of kitchen tools and a fridge masked in envelopes found on Houston Street—a friend “skinned” them off her former fridge and adhered them to her new one, creating a palimpsest of the found, the gifted, the old, and the new that seems as representative of the House of Collection as anything.

“I like the energy of things that are worked with,” Paige says. “You can take them off the wall and use them.”

At the end of the evening, she brings out a bag of rambutan fruits she bought in Chinatown because she “liked the way they looked.” A few visitors show her how to score the spiny skins and pop out the pearly fruit, which tastes like a creamy grape. There it was again: treasure where you least expect it, revealed with the help of friends.