The essays in Sean Wilsey’s brand-new collection were written for a variety of publications, from National Geographic to The London Review of Books, and their subject matter is just as expansive. Wilsey travels across the country to profile restaurateur Danny Meyer, to explore the art of Marfa, Texas, to visit NASA. Read an exclusive excerpt from the book below, in which Wilsey’s subject strikes close to home: renovating his Bedford Stuyvesant building with fixtures and fittings from the wealth of Craigslist. And don't miss the author in-person at Greenlight Bookstore on July 16 as he reads from and discusses More Curious with his editor.
“The Objects of My Obsession”
The film Six Degrees of Separation ends in a conversation between a matronly uptown art dealer (Stockard Channing) and a street-kid grifter (Will Smith). He ’s robbed, conned, and tricked her. She vows to give him a job—under the condition that he turn himself in to the police and serve a few months in jail. She’ll find him an apartment, and persuade her husband to lend a hand, too.
“I have no furniture.”
“We’ll help you out.”
“I made a list of things I liked at the museum. Philadelphia Chippendale.”
“Believe it or not, we have two Philadelphia Chippendale chairs.”
“I’d rather have one nice piece than a room full of junk. Quality always.”
“You’ll have all that.”
“Philadelphia Chippendale! And all I have to do is go to the police.”
* * *
I have a quasi-erotic attraction to well-built and beautiful objects. Furniture, fixtures, appliances—it is an across-the-board phenomenon, with unpredictable, contradictory-seeming implications. I’m smitten by everything from fabric patterns to the pennant-shaped washers beneath the chromed lug nuts of one in every ten thousand eighteen-wheelers. My head turns, my attention is captured, I am almost wounded (definitely smitten in the beaten-or-struck sense of the word), when the right object hits my eye in the right way. As a friend once put it: “I have a terrible defect. I like to see beauty.”
Recently I have aggressively indulged this weakness in the realm of high-end domestic appurtenances—namely appliances and fixtures. Such items are overwhelmingly engineered by Germans (Bosch, Duravit, Dornbracht, Miele, which sounds Italian but 100 percent isn’t), often by bona fide Italians (Alessi, XO, and Bertazzoni, which was originally La Germania, natch), occasionally by Americans (Viking, Sub-Zero), and in one case by New Zealanders (Fisher & Paykel). But to the same degree that I lust after what’s produced under these brand names—with exceptions: Viking fridges are junk—I am offended by how much they cost, and how divorced from manufacturing reality, let alone ethics, the pricing seems to be.
Why am I thinking about all of this? I bought a three-story, wood-frame, two-family dwelling in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, and am preparing it for tenants. Bedford-Stuyvesant, until recently, was, in the words of one of my neighbors, “the ghetto of America” (slogan “Bed-Stuy, do or die”), but is now branded as Clinton Hill, which is branded as Fort Greene, which is branded as “Brownstone Brooklyn.” On two-block Claver Place the smell of ganja wafts most evenings. To the frustration of recent gentrifiers a Guyanese reggae club (Slogan: “Jah is living”) had been operating illegally, packing eight hundred people at twenty dollars a head into a backyard, with a cut, according to another neighbor, going to blind-eye-turning cops. It was here that I found my house and its large detached garage, on a 25-foot-by-127.5-foot lot. As the owner of a pickup truck and a small motorcycle I’ve always lusted after a garage in New York.
I bought the parcel for $710,000 with the help of a 2.25 percent line of credit with Wells Fargo, and began renovations with the intention of cash-out refinancing in six months, after upgrading the interiors and facade. The mortgage and rental numbers suggested I could have my garage for free. I would need to do some serious upgrading to make this happen. The initial appraiser’s report described a bathroom vanity “at the end of its economic life” and was kind in calling the kitchens’ appointments “economy grade.” I visited an appliance store a friend described as having “great prices” but left feeling lied to and gouged. Still, I needed to do something. I wanted the post-renovation apartments to be low maintenance, high quality, and beautiful, because, Jah knows, when things are beautiful they are loved and taken care of. But the more I shopped for the beautiful the more outraged I became.
On the web I began searching for the best fixture producer I had ever heard of, Dornbracht, which claims to make “100% of its products in Germany,” with “the highest quality of manufacturing.” Its website, no doubt 100 percent translated from the German (adding to the appeal), contained the sort of bold assertions that deeply reassure the maintenance-concerned landlord/aesthetician:
Although Dornbracht fittings... have been copied many times, nothing has ever achieved such creative and functional durability. The products, fittings, accessories, and systems... are unique and irreplaceable... As Matthias Dornbracht, the Managing Director responsible for Production, Logistics and Purchasing puts it, “Not a single millimeter, not a single radius is changed for the sake of increasing the number of items manufactured per unit of time.” Production takes second place to design.
I soon found their single-lever lavatory mixer for sale on homeperfect.com,theoriginalpricestruckthrough—“Was $1,283.00”— and replaced in red, bold, with a new one: “$898.10.” On the same site a twenty-four-inch towel bar in polished nickel that originally had cost $587.00 was now a mere $257.94.
This was a galvanizing experience. I am often reminded of my own ignorance, but I do know that the moment one decides that it might be OK to spend $257.94 on a towel bar is the moment that one becomes party to, at the very least, corruption, and quite possibly some deeper cultural wrong. And all the high-end stuff on AJMadison.com (the go-to, volume seller of new, warrantied appliances) to which I was drawn was priced this way: Viking thirty-inch range: $4,979. Bosch Axxis condensation dryer: $1,074.60. Bosch Axxis front-loading washer: $1,254.60. Bertazzoni thirty-six-inch copper element/sealed-burner range: $3,799. Miele G7856 “professional” dishwasher: $5,449. (Did the moniker “professional” mean that all others were “amateur”? The answer lies in the fact that it can do a load in six minutes.)
The pricing was so venal that it seemed to be part of a conspiracy. And the low-end manufacturers were complicit, or possibly even coconspirators, in making their stuff noisy, ugly, cheap… My conclusion: it’s a moral failing to buy retail, and it’s spiritually debasing to live with crap. Paradox? No. There was a solution.
The fact that all the manufacturers I liked had managed to enshroud themselves in a rarefied air was made laughable by the fact that I could find their products where they did not want me to look. Deflation of rarefication could be accomplished by a single powerful word, with which I would replace Will Smith’s “the police” in my own version of his above-quoted paean to quality: Craigslist.
The truly open market.
From More Curious by Sean Wilsey. Reprinted by arrangement with McSweeney’s. Copyright © 2014 Sean Wilsey.