Ballard gift-store owner Curtis Steiner applies his exquisite taste to both creating and finding things people will value as beautiful.
ANY VISITOR to Curtis Steiner’s fairy-tale cottage near Green Lake should take a restroom break, needed or not, and head upstairs to peek around.
On the way up, notice the red-and-white handrail in the stairway: It’s actually a vintage surveyor’s pole.
Covering one entire wall are framed prints depicting birdlife. In the pasha’s palace of a master bedroom, heavy embroidered curtains enclose a bed covered with a tiger-print throw.
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Everywhere, on tables and in alcoves, mannequins’ and saints’ hands rise up in beatific mystery.
Before heading back down, at the top of the staircase, look straight out. You’ll stare directly into the soulful eyes of a taxidermy zebra head hung on the opposing wall.
Should you stumble, startled, down the stairs, you’ll land on maple floor boards that were oxidized to the color of burnt toast and set off with luminous mother-of-pearl floor pegs.
Steiner, lounging in a showpiece surrealist chair whose backrest is made of interlocking bull horns, his tiny dog, Mortimer, yapping with excitement next to him, will look on in childlike glee.
The 44-year-old likes having that effect on people, which is probably why there’s a human-size wooden monkey holding court on the back porch.
Steiner — artist, greeting-card designer and retailer — is also something of a showman, as anyone who has ventured into his little curiosity shop Souvenir, in the Old Ballard commercial strip, can see.
He is not a wealthy man. But a strong sense of taste compensates, dictating what he buys for his store, himself and for others.
Souvenir is, for all intents and purposes, a gift shop. But at his nondescript storefront, where there isn’t even a sign to cue visitors, Steiner’s aiming for something altogether more intriguing, and he’s inviting us along for the magic-carpet ride.
Wanton consumerism seems so out of pace with the times that it makes Steiner’s carefully considered, Old World materialism seem both fresh and appropriate.
His surroundings, the immaculately laid-out store with its glass cabinets and drawers full of bizarre knickknacks and exquisite handmade jewelry, and his deeply layered home, with its Northwest Gothic tchotchkes, textiles and taxidermies, may not possess the surface luster of say, Donald Trump’s gold-trimmed penthouse in New York. But there is a richness nonetheless in Steiner’s world. He has developed an eye for accessible opulence, compensating for a lack of deep pockets with imagination, an acute sense of intrinsic value and an obsession with beauty in ordinary things.
If he has a business plan at all, it’s a desire to trap gift-givers and gift-receivers alike in a moment of wonder.
STEINER HIMSELF is something of a traffic-stopper, with a head of short-cropped white hair and eyes the cobalt blue of a Bombay Sapphire gin bottle.
His gaze falls somewhere between knowing nonchalance and engaged curiosity. He stands very still. Like a portrait in the Louvre. You think his eyes are following you even when they are not.
There’s a degree of mischief in Steiner’s attitude toward commerce. It was on full display during a shopping spree for the store one Sunday morning at an antiques market inside an aircraft hangar at Magnuson Park in North Seattle.
From about 50 feet away, a pair of weathered, wooden oyster sticks catches his eye. Long and slim with little grooves in the surface for seeding the shellfish, the French-made sticks are beautiful, the way old fishing boats washed up on a deserted beach are beautiful.
“I bet I’ll sell those right away,” he says, already musing over how to display the sticks in his store.
“They have that mystery,” he says, imagining his customers’ reaction upon seeing them. ” ‘What is that?’ That’s what I like to hear.”
He goes on to buy a pretty set of sea pearls for “purely aesthetic” reasons, which sounds sensible enough, but he also takes a liking to an old landscape painting in a mint-green frame that doesn’t exactly scream “classy.” But Steiner explains the painting has “a certain 1930s cabin feeling. It’s got a nostalgic quality . . . a little bit romantic, without being insipid.”
Insipid. Merriam-Webster defines it as “lacking in qualities that interest, stimulate or challenge.”
You can tell by the way the word spills from the corners of Steiner’s mouth that insipidness is a big part of his aesthetic taste test. That may explain how three mirrored French lark-hunting lures wound up on display in his living room. A hunter will gently twirl the handheld miroir aux alouettes to catch the attention of a bird in flight, dazzling it with flickering light long enough to get off a clean shot, blowing the creature out of the sky.
“I love that something so pretty has such a menacing purpose,” Steiner offers, smiling.
Interesting: Check. Stimulating: Check. Challenging: Definitely.
IF STEINER SEES himself as anything, it’s certainly not as a predictable shopper or salesman. But he’s set out some ground rules for himself: “Like: No paper,” he says.
As it happens, Steiner loves all manner of paper products — old parchment, Art Nouveau flashcards, sheets inked with Chinese characters.
In the mid-1990s, before opening Souvenir, he hand-painted greeting cards for a living, attracting big-name clients such as Neiman Marcus. In fact he moved into the Ballard storefront in November 1999 because the backroom was spacious enough for him to expand the card business.
The showroom in front was little more than an afterthought, a space to display his cards. But he decided to put about 20 items, mostly “tiny little sculpted objects, paper ephemera,” out for sale. “And then there would be some whimsy or — what do they call it? — a folly,” he says.
The follies — gigantic flower arrangements, artwork hanging from the ceiling, huge Japanese parasols — have become Steiner’s signature. Even today, he changes the décor frequently.
“The space was more about the entertainment value in the beginning,” he says.
Over time, he added jewelry, showcasing his own idiosyncratic trinkets as well as that of local art jewelers whose work he admires, like Jennifer Howard Kicinski and Julia Harrison.
Steiner says part of the joy of his work is spotting choice pieces at bargain-basement prices, like the pair of beautifully carved Jacobean chairs in his living room.
“I like that I have them because people pay real money to buy these things, but I don’t,” he says, smiling again.
For the store, it’s also about spotting pieces that customers will be willing to pay hundreds of dollars for, in some cases. That’s tough when you have eccentric taste. It’s like translating a wonderful French film into Korean, then translating that into English and expecting audiences in America to love whatever made the original so appealing. Beauty can get lost in translation. Unless, like Steiner, you completely redefine beauty.
“I’m kind of an omnivore aesthetically,” Steiner says.
While others are interested in book value, Steiner sizes up objects based on less quantifiable standards. At the antiques fair, he spots a Victorian-style pastoral painting featuring a girl and her dog in a wooden frame with star-shaped corners.
“I hate the picture . . . insipid,” Steiner says. There’s that word again. “But I love the frame.”
A few weeks later, the frame was for sale at Souvenir, sans picture.
So what is this beauty omnivore actually seeing?
Richard Buccino, a landscape architect and urban designer in Vancouver, B.C., has been asking himself this question for the 21 years he’s been friends with Steiner. The two met through a mutual acquaintance who introduced Buccino to Steiner’s artwork when Steiner lived in Vancouver. Steiner credits Buccino with teaching him about beauty. Maybe it’s the other way around.
“All of design is made up of pattern and line and massing — that’s how Curtis sees the world,” Buccino says. But “he understands a dialect that I have no idea about.”
Buccino recalls a trip he once took with Steiner to an antiques fair in Portland, during which he intended to help Steiner pick out items to resell at Souvenir. It was an utterly humbling experience for Buccino.
When shopping, “Curtis has got this sort of laser scan that’s like, ‘Zzzzzz . . . OK, I want that, that and that,’ ” Buccino says animatedly. “Curtis sees the nuance that is invisible to the rest of us, and I include myself in that.”
Steiner once gave Buccino a simple alabaster pine cone as a gift. But for the life of him, Buccino couldn’t figure out what he was supposed to do with it.
“I said to him, ‘Thanks, but I don’t get this. Take it to the shop and make something happen with it,’ ” Buccino recalls.
Steiner kept the pine cone. Later, Buccino was visiting at Steiner’s home and noticed the rejected gift on display on an end table with some other random objects. Seeing the pine cone in that context, Buccino had a revelation: “What a fool I am. Why didn’t I see it for how extraordinary it was?”
It’s sort of like dogs, Buccino explains. “Dogs can hear things in higher-pitched sounds. Curtis is like that.”
IN KINDERGARTEN, Steiner’s teacher sent home a report card with this note: “Sometimes he is too much of a perfectionist and becomes irritated with himself if things are not exactly correct.”
His relentless pursuit of beauty pays off in an artwork on display at the Davis Wright Tremaine law office in downtown Seattle: Steiner painstakingly pinned about 30,000 pearly sequins to a translucent, 6-foot-high panel. He jokingly calls it glitter art. If you blow on the sequins, they quiver magically, like minnows in a stream.
“I think my childhood was about trying to dig myself out of ugliness,” Steiner says. “My childhood was just the perfect contrast to what I wanted my life to be — not very colorful, not very rich.”
Steiner was something of an early-’80s, New Wave misfit, what with the purple jump suits and Devo obsession. “I was just tortured” by schoolmates, he says.
Steiner dropped out of Mountlake Terrace High School in the 10th grade and found sanctuary at the infamous downtown nightclub Monastery. Seattle’s street-kid scene back then is the stuff of legend, immortalized in the documentary work of photographer Mary Ellen Mark. Steiner spent most nights as a 15-year-old crashing on friends’ couches or on the street.
At different times between the ages of 16 and 22, he also lived in Portland and Vancouver. Today Steiner gets lots of help from a different but no less motley cast of antique and trinket vendors he meets at shows and estate sales, and occasionally from traveling salespeople like the elderly German woman named Brunhilde who pops into Souvenir to show Herr Shteiner her latest wares. Steiner says he’s a magnet for sellers trying to unload eccentric pieces that other retailers might pass on.
“My capacity for exoticism is huge,” he adds.
His friend Buccino puts it this way: “When you have a found object — much the way Marcel Duchamp did with bicycle wheels and stools that were not intended to go together — it’s about looking at the world differently. That’s the delight that makes Curtis’ shop so accessible. There’s hidden beauty by virtue of association.”
It’s not magic, he says, “because it’s so consistent.”
BACK AT THE cottage one evening, under the starry light of a couple of brass Moroccan pendant lamps, Steiner relaxes in his horn chair with Mortimer at his side and elaborates on his design sense:
“If you have things beautifully arranged, it relaxes the eye — you just kind of get sucked into the environment.”
Scanning the living room, with its worn leather coverings, clawfoot lamp, herd of tiny brass bulldogs galloping across an end table and warped, oversize mirrors, it’s clear a romance language is being spoken here. But Steiner’s sense of romance is untethered from sugary triteness.
Steiner finally hits on it. The pieces arranged around him all have one thing in common — soul.
“But most things don’t have that kind of soul anymore, most new things,” he says.
It’s a pretty high benchmark for decorating and gift-giving. Indeed, people are afraid of giving Steiner presents because they think he won’t be impressed, he says.
A brave antiques-dealer friend, Galen Lowe, with whom Steiner shared an installation of artfully arranged collectibles at the Seattle Art Museum a few years ago, gave Steiner a palm-size wooden toolbox with little holes in it for a collection of old French-made drill bits.
Steiner picks it up to show it off. It’s exquisite, like a bouquet of petrified seed pods.
Apparently, that’s what you get the guy who has everything.
In general, though, Steiner prefers it if friends steer clear of gifts they think he will find “original.”
He’s the ultimate master, and embodiment, of that elusive art.
“If the eyes are the windows to the soul,” Buccino says, “that’s ultimately what we see in his shop. It’s his world, his essence.”
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.