A Dilapidated Chicago Home Brought to Life by Two Artists

A Dilapidated Chicago Home Brought to Life by Two Artists

Name: Caroline Robe (Woodworker) and Magritte Nankin (Ceramic and Textile Artist)
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Size: 2,000 square feet
Years lived in: 1.5 yrs (Caroline), 3 months (Magritte)

Caroline and Magritte's large home in Chicago is unlike anything you've ever experienced, and it had a profound effect on me when I had the opportunity to visit them. I say that it was profound for this reason: never have I been in a home that was such a deep and meaningful representation of its inhabitants. This home did not strive to be like anyone else's home; there were no furniture store catalogs to be found, no DIY projects discovered on Pinterest; no trapping of the illusion that the home was perfectly finished or arranged. Instead, it is a space that has been cared for by these two artists, a woodworker and a ceramics/textile artist, and which in the process, has cared for them.

If I speak in deep and thoughtful ways about this 2,000 square foot home from the late 1800s, it's because that is how Caroline and Magritte have come to think of it. When Caroline moved in over a year and a half ago, the house was in a state of disrepair and required a lot of work to get it up and running again. They were blessed with a vision of what it could become — a studio for art, a work of art in itself, a project to rehabilitate and a space that would give them what they needed most: time to work, time to explore, and time to dream. Caroline brought in other artists to share the space, and just a few months ago was joined by Magritte, an artist who shared many of the same values.

Speaking to Caroline and Magritte made me think of exactly what a home was for. Of course it has practical utility as a space of shelter, for rest and safety, and as a place to play and work. It also can project messages about your style, your history and even your wealth and status. But these artists feel that their home is so much more than this. To begin with, the space is literally in a state of continual flux. As works of art are made, displayed, and sold (Magritte does not sell their works), the decorative touches of the home go through a transformation. As their artwork develops, and as they explore deeply their own interior selves, they project these insights and discoveries onto the walls, floors, steps and gardens around them. They learn about themselves through their art, and also through their home.

Because of this, there are no signs of pretensions, or aspirations to a certain status or look. It's not trying to achieve the look of an artist's studio — it is one. The building is well worn from years of use and little to no renovations; the floors creak, the stairs tilt somewhat, and there is a thin layer of dust all around from all the object being created. At the same time it feels grand; the ceilings are generous and tall windows provide abundant light; the rooms are large and there are a variety of gardens in the front and rear of the lot. The basement is a workshop, while a gallery in front of one of the upstairs bedrooms is used as an office. The first floor living room and dining room are flanked by a wide and open kitchen with a very interesting layout.

To be invited into someone's home is always revealing about its inhabitants; but to visit Caroline and Magritte I felt like I got to see a deep and personal side of these two amazing individuals.

Apartment Therapy Survey:

Our Style:
Caroline: My style is universal and ever changing. Some words I could pin on it are: Scandinavian, New England, vernacular, minimalist, natural, handmade.

Magritte: It's interesting because I think the word I would use to describe the style is serene. Like there's a harmony and sereneness. We both look at light as a material, and color as a material. There is definitely a lot of respect and sensitivity between the both of us and our work. We are celebrating. Creating the space itself is an act of celebration, really. I came up with a saying years ago when I saw the work of Joshua Kent, but this gives me a similar feeling — visual wind chimes. The sensation of wind chimes visually.

Inspiration:
Caroline: My never-ending inspiration is the vernacular architecture I have experienced in my travels and work around the world. The best book in the whole world of design books is Handmade Modern by Leslie Williamson. I also think of nature a lot.

Magritte: For my own practice the idea of medicine or making as a medicinal act is important to me presently and in the house. My spaces are two rooms and they have different philosophies within them. The space where I sleep is primarily dedicated to my dream state. And my studio is dedicated to listing. Also my studio has become a place of the feeling of falling in love. I've tried to foster feelings of self love because that's where my work is right now. All ideas that are inspiring to me.

Favorite Element:
Caroline: All the wood in the house. Of course, as a woodworker, wood is my work and my art. It is also my heritage. I grew up in Maine in a lumber community where my dad worked in the lumber industry. I spend my life in forests; it is in my blood.

Magritte: Light. Light is a really key material in this house. Time is a huge material in this house. That's why the things look the way they do, because of time. Not only are the stylistic shapes and geometry of the house based on time, but the layers of paint, the floor cracking and settling, the rug looking the way it does is because of time. I think being conscious of time and temperature is important. There is one very specific thing that is of the utmost specialness to me as a piece of furniture. It is a small child's chair in my sleeping room that was painted by my father for me with storm clouds.

Biggest Challenge:
Magritte: On a real logistical level, it's the dust — the waste that we produce. That's pretty much the biggest challenge. A lot of people would find a lot of really big challenges in this house but we are of a very specific ilk of people. It has a lot to do with acceptance and generosity. For me, the practice of living in a space that needs care and attention is something I am willing to do.

Caroline: I agree: the dust and what it represents. The larger challenge of being two artists with very material crafts — Magritte is a ceramicist and textile artist who harvests, processes, builds, and fires clay in the house and I as a woodworker with my full shop in the basement. We are very messy.

What Friends Say:
Magritte: A lot of the vocabulary I receive from people is, "It's peaceful." They use words like "beautiful". They say they feel good in the space. I feel like those words for me come to mean the space is beneficial for people in really complicated ways.

Caroline: People are impressed by the volume of the space. It is a huge house — over 2000 square feet. We are very lucky.

Biggest Embarrassment:
Caroline: The house is very old and sometimes it smells bad. There is a lot of old material in the walls. It was built in the 1880s and has not been thoroughly renovated at any point.

Magritte: Nothing is embarrassing to me. There is nothing about this space that embarrasses me. I feel very comfortable being out and vulnerable in this house.

Proudest DIY:
Magritte: The clay I harvested from the neighborhood. I'm proud of all the things I have done, which is like everything. What haven't I done myself? And what haven't I done without the help of others? Everything and nothing. Brokenness and independence are cultural constructs and if you are talking about DIY you are also talking about culture.

Caroline: To be honest the whole house is the DIY I am most proud of and possibly the thing I am most proud of in my whole life so far. When I came into it I was broken, in this sick life and sick relationship. The house was broken, full of trash, rats, and bags of dirty diapers. There were chains on the pillars in the basement. Old dog shit everywhere. Everything was busted. None of the doors had hardware. Now, so much has changed. The house is healthy; I am happy.

Biggest Indulgence:
Magritte: I think we're back to the topic of culture. Too often people equate indulgence with money or time. I would say my largest indulgence is the way I choose to live my life. I make a lot of time for myself to enjoy making art and being in this space.

Caroline: My biggest indulgences are wall paint, wood and other art-making materials, and the work of other artists. I also own an organic latex foam mattress, which is pretty nice.

Best Advice:
Magritte: My best advice in space-making is:

1. Take the time to learn how to listen to yourself.

2. Create your space not to an ends but to explore. There is no such thing as a perfect arrangement. A space is a continual reflection of the thoughts you have and a stagnant representation of yourself can be stunting. Give yourself permission to change all the time. Be really queer about it. Celebrate and accept change and transformation in yourself and in others in your space.

Caroline: Dream big. Get wild ideas and then figure out how to make them happen. Your home is your HOME; you deserve it to be everything you need from it.

Dream Sources:
Magritte: The bounty of the earth, the destruction of the earth. For this house those are things that are already happening. Earth. We already have access to our dream source.

Caroline: Lumberyards in Maine that I drive to with my dad. My friend Julia's furniture collection — all her beautiful stuff. All of my incredible craftsperson friends — their objects make my world, I want more.

Resources:

PAINT & COLORS
All of the paint is the cheapest white from Home Depot. It is not the right white, I'd like to do a different one eventually.

LIVING ROOM

  • Couch, coffee table, stool, wood pieces around walls: All made by Caroline.
  • Artwork over mantel: made by a friend, Angela McIlvain
  • Sculpture on side table, animal sculptures around fireplace: Magritte made them.
  • Pinch pots for plants and small plants: From ceramicist and plant seller Verdant Matter.

DINING ROOM

  • Reading chair is a Poang from Ikea that I found in the alley and re-upholstered.
  • Fabric hanging in reading nook is by friend Susan Smith.
  • The table is an industrial workbench finished by an old roommate
  • Burl table is by Caroline.
  • All the rest of the furniture is DIY'ed
  • Necklaces on wall by Magritte.

KITCHEN

  • Ceramics (berry bowl) from Facture Goods.
  • Cast iron pans are from Lodge.
  • All cutting boards and spoons made by Caroline.
  • All of the match strikes around the house are made by Julia Finlayson

BEDROOM

  • Caroline's bedside table is from Target. The model is not made anymore.
  • The moon hanging in Caroline's room is from A Little Lark

STUDIO

  • Wooden lamp is by Collin Garrity.
  • Artwork and cutting boards by Caroline.

Thanks, Caroline and Magritte!


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