Long before opening Kirk Albert Vintage Furnishings, my showroom in Georgetown (Seattle), I was drawn to what I describe as perfect imperfections—–artifacts that are distinctive precisely because of their unique flaws. I believe there is an extraordinary quality to objects that have been handcrafted, or aged over decades, that simply cannot be replicated. I’ve never seen a faux finish that can compete with Mother Nature—there is simply no substitute for time and exposure to the elements.
While I could never be accused of having a highly organized approach to my work, everything selected for the showroom goes through three specific stages.
During the first stage, my role is closer to that of an archaeologist or curator than designer. Finding those pieces that aren’t just imperfect, but perfectly imperfect, is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack (or vintage, over-sized calipers in a haystack, as the case may be). Some objects are found within driving distance of the showroom, but I discover most pieces during my cross-country buying expeditions.
I’m guided mainly by my intuition at this stage, but there are several questions that I find myself asking over and over:
- Did this make me smile? It may sound silly or trite but when the corners of my mouth start to creep upwards uncontrollably, I’ll take a closer look.
- Will setting a drink on this surface add or detract from its beauty or singularity? Will the piece be made more or less compelling? If the answer is less, then it’s not right for the showroom.
- Does it have a story to tell? Vintage artifacts frequently have led rich and varied lives before we meet them. A century-old telephone pole may not be beautiful in the traditional sense, but if you think about its history – the effort taken to create it, what it took to maintain and how it connected people over its lifespan – it’s incredibly powerful. Putting that telephone pole into a new context changes its meaning once again. What was originally created to be purely functional may now be valued entirely for its decorative qualities.
During the second stage, I play the roles of both art restorer and product designer.
A central theme running through all my work is authenticity of materials. My goal is always to capture or enhance what’s happened to a surface before I selected it—never to age or renew it. If I must alter an original finish for functional reasons, whether removing layers of loose dirt or applying a finish to lock in the unique patina, the goal is always to enhance the intrinsic flawed beauty of the object. Flaws are celebrated rather than masked—they are the signatures of a one-of-a kind piece.
I then determine what function these items will ultimately serve. Should that stack of vintage gears be hung on a wall, displayed on a table or combined with a mercury glass shade to form a one-of-a-kind light fixture? I consider lighting to be the most important design variable in a space, so if there’s an opportunity to transform a found object into something that’s artistic, functional and luminescent, I usually jump at the chance.
There is also a practical element to this stage. I want everything I offer to be take-home ready. If it’s lighting, we rewire everything to be UL certified. If it’s a stand-alone sculptural piece (like the 7-foot-tall grinding wheel that’s now in a construction executive’s board room), we’ll create a custom display stand for it. I’ll do whatever it takes in order for something to be enjoyed immediately.
Finally, I act as both merchandiser and interior designer. For me, eclecticism rules, and I’ve always said, “The magic is in the mix.” It’s why I compulsively redesign the entire gallery every few days. There’s an ongoing dialogue between varied objects, and I’m always seeking to form unexpected connections and contradictions that surprise, delight or perhaps provoke.
The story doesn’t end here, however. Once these pieces are purchased, they move on to a new chapter in life. Whether they are installed in a retail environment or made useful in a new restaurant, an office or residence, I’m always thrilled when someone shares my appreciation for perfect imperfections.