Van Harrison grew up everywhere. He moved to Austin from New York where he and his brother owned an art gallery. While this trajectory is not unique to Van, many are migrating for jobs or the slower pace of Austin, Van does not feel like a transplant. Instead, he has taken cultural cues from each of his homes and developed a distinct style-- the mark of a true Austinite. Van renovated his home in East Austin into a minimal space without sacrificing the charm and age of the house. As a former gallery owner turned antique dealer, Van filled his home with beautifully curated artifacts of American handiwork. We spoke about the renovations, his childhood and his fascination with odd and hand-made antiques and collectibles.
When did you start renovating this house?
Let’s see, I bought the house in 2010 and it was a complete dump, utterly. I mean you could smell the house from a block away. It just stunk of cat pee and rat shit, just awful. The house was leaning a little bit, inside all the walls were cracked. There was no running water in the bathroom and only cold water, not hot water. There was no heating, no air and there were seven people living here. It was kind of crazy. Interestingly, the property had been for sale for 3 years but they had the “For Sale” sign on the empty lot next to it so no one knew that the house was for sale. Not that they would have wanted the house.
So the lot is yours too?
Yeah, it’s a third of an acre. It was a great find. In 2010, there was a house down the street selling for $85,000, a three bedroom and now they are all selling for much more. And it wasn’t even foresight on my part. I thought the property was cute, the house was workable and I just wanted to sink my teeth into it and I knew that Austin was growing but I don’t think anyone new how fast it was. But I sat on the property for about six months and then delved into the renovation. I raised the ceilings. I’m 6’4’’ and I could stand without stretching my arm out too far and I could touch the ceiling. They were super low. So I vaulted the ceiling in the living room and the bedroom and it was so gross!
Just everything up there?
It was so disgusting. I did the demo myself, completely. There were three layers of asbestos tile and then four layers of carpeting including batting. It was like walking on a marshmallow in here. And there was great oak, well not great, somewhat great oak floor under there.
A little paint job and it looks cute!
Seriously! Well I got a quote for $3,600 to sand it and stain it and so I was like no thank you.
Had you done major renovation like this before?
Well I used to own an art gallery in Chicago and New York, so I was a little handy. I could paint and put up plywood and drywall. And for plumbing and electrical, I had to have professionals help me with that and obviously the marble counter-tops I couldn’t have done that either. So certain things when you’re doing a house you need get a professional. It all took about 3 years and the house was finally done. With a little tweaking here and there but for the most part it’s all done.
It looks great!
Thank you. But I definitely made a lot of mistakes, I don’t think I’d renovate or tear the bathroom out first (laughs) or the kitchen! It’s nice to be able to use the toilet every once in a while when you’re out here working. I ended up having to run to 7-Eleven or Whataburger to use the toilet, every time. That and permitting. If I were to do it again I would've taken a huge bank loan and just said let’s get it done in six months. But at the time I didn’t want any loans, I didn’t want any credit. I just wanted to do it from paycheck to paycheck and I was able to do it!
So how’d you get to Austin. You’re not from Texas originally are you?
I was born in Atlanta, Georgia. My mom’s from Fort Worth and her entire family is from Texas she was living in Dallas and met my father at Celebration’s, a great little restaurant in Dallas and they hit it off. He’s from Georgia, so she moved to Georgia and had us. We were the first generation of kids to be born outside of Texas and we were definitely the black sheep and my mom for sure is a black sheep, gypsy, artist lady. So in Georgia, they got divorced and then we moved back to Fort Worth to hang out with to our grandparents. And then from Fort Forth, my mom and dad decided to reconnect so they got re-married in Oakland, California. We lived there for a little bit and there was a Santa Barbara stint there for a little bit as well for a few years in Montecito. Then back to Oakland, Oakland to Telluride, Colorado. Telluride back to Fort Worth where my mom married her high school sweetheart. I went to Connecticut for boarding school and then Connecticut back to Santa Barbara for college. And then to Chicago where I had an art gallery.
I did that for about six years and then I moved the gallery to New York City in Chelsea where I opened another gallery with my brother, Travis. We did that for a little bit and then by then I had been doing that for eight or nine years and I was just kind of over it. Being a dealer is just exhausting. It’s fun but you know artists become very dependent and needy. It was a good experience but if you’re not independently wealthy or wildly successful, it’s not for you. Honestly it’s weird. And the art market right now is not very strong. By the time I left New York, which was around 2006 the art market was just dwindling. Galleries were closing left and right. So I went from New York to Fort Worth where my mom was living at the time and she was really feeling the angst in Fort Worth so she decided to sell the house and on a road trip we took through Austin (you know, I had never been to Austin before) and I was like wow this is place is so cool, I love Austin I’m going to stay here! I’m going to move here! And she was like, “well me too!” So she got a place in Travis Heights and I stayed with her for a little bit and I got a job at Uncommon Objects.
So Uncommon Objects make sense, wasn’t your mother an antique dealer?
Yes, my mom has been an antique dealer her entire life. She’s always been in retail. She’s had children’s stores, candy stores, book stores. Yeah you name it, she’s definitely had it. Resale, consignment. Uncommon Objects has been amazing. I was hired there in 2010 and I’m still there, what a roller coaster. And it’s been incredible. I mean just the volume that we go through on a daily basis of just the most random, uncommon objects that you would never think in a million years that someone would want.
What’s the most uncommon object you’ve seen come through there?
There was another dealer that was driving down from Dallas and they found this dead possum it was like mummified, crusty, rusty gross dead baby possum. I bought it for twenty bucks from them and I put it under glass on a pedestal like a little dome and I sold it for three hundred and fifty dollars. It’s like this completely random thing.
Do you know the person who purchased that?
No idea. I mean we’ve sold human arm bones just weird, weird, weird stuff. There’s a market for everything. There really is.
And your booth is kind of Texas meets beautiful indigo?
Yeah, I kind of characterize it as new industrial. Just like items that are massed produced with an aesthetic that's hand-made. A lot of them are hand-made and just have this precision and quality of material and dyes. I mean the indigo and this West African fabric is just beautiful.
I spent six months in Senegal and basically just left everything I brought with me so that I could fill my suitcase with fabric and baskets. And you can buy all that pretty easily here but it still feels special to get things when your traveling and it's so much cheaper.
I’m going to Morocco this summer and I can’t wait! Cannot wait. My sister's having a birthday this summer so we’re just going to go chill. Shop, eat, swim, hang. Totally do the markets. Oh my god, fabric and just gorgeous ceramics.
I’m sure whatever you find will fit in nicely here.
Yes, and I kind of love that about my aesthetic. It is minimal, there’s kind of a sparseness to it but there’s also very unique one-of-a-kind items. For instance, I just absolutely love that snake weather vane. I have never seen anything like that before. And that flag I bought that from Mandy.
And it’s interesting because you guys have been doing that look for years, you’re not following trends you’re just doing what you believe in. But I see the trends catching up to yall’s taste. The vintage American flag as a window covering is a real thing now.
Well when Mandy bought that online she didn’t realize how big it was.
Usually it’s the opposite problem when you buy things online, it’s like "oh, this is tiny!"
I had a friend of mine that bought this great Persian table.
Did it turn out to be a doll table? Because I’ve done that.
Yes! They showed me the photo online and it looked like a real table. And it’s still all hand done with inlay and it looks incredible but still how are you going to use that?! (laughs) Things in my house have to get me thinking: How was this item made? Who were the people behind it? What was the family thinking? How much did they pay for it? And where did it live? The history of these objects speak to me in a weird way. All my antlers come from West Texas. I have these pickers that go out to the ranches. And my staple-wear.
I used to have this fascination with ironstone. I got this jug in Weatherford and I’m not so much into ironstone any more but for some reason this one still speaks to me because of the anchor and the chain, it’s so epic! Dirt and oil and time have gotten into the ceramic and we call it “crazing” when the actual glaze of the ceramic starts cracking and it allows oils and dirt and it stains the ceramic. But this one I just love it! I bought it at a flea market in Weatherford for $2, $2! I’ve never, ever seen anything like this before. And I love seascapes and the ocean and water in general.
So do you travel for the shopping, or do you travel for travel and just shop where you happen to be.
I used to travel to shop a lot more than I do now. It’s become harder and harder to find that one, amazing thing. So I do a lot of online shopping and at antique malls. I have this other weird fascination with spool tables. These are all old wooden spools, for thread. This just goes back to the handmade, the trench art, the family that sits around and saves these to create objects, functional objects. That just really speaks to me.
I wonder what the things are that we use now that could be used in an interesting functional way. Because everything feels very plastic, very throw-away.
Yes, so throw-away.
At my friend Ada’s ranch they recently dug out a new road and uncovered her family’s old dump and it’s glass bottle city. And that was just their dump, I mean everything came in a glass bottle and she’s been digging them up and putting them up in the window at her dad’s place and they are so pretty.
Yeah, like this wooden chain it’s called a whimsy. It was one of those things people did back then, it was probably a soldier back from the war or some old geezer guy sitting on the front porch. Nothing better to do, so it was carved out of a single piece of wood. Isn’t that amazing! So unique. And this ashtray with the little airplane was made out of a single tin can. I love that! l just love that creative ingenuity. And these heavy iron guns are what they made the leather holsters from. Like a model. This ones a Lugar, a German Lugar And it’s super heavy.
I love plants too. This one closes at night, it’s so bizarre. When I first got it I thought something was wrong. I thought I had killed it but then it slowly opened up.