In Print: Steve Starr and his famous frames | Calendar | Chicago Reader

In Print: Steve Starr and his famous frames 

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"I remember everything," says Steve Starr. "Visuals I remember very well. I distinctly remember them putting up the wallpaper in the hallway, the gold squares."

Starr is recalling the ten-room apartment at 521 W. Roscoe where he, his two older sisters, and their parents moved when he was two years old, a place he describes in vivid detail in his new book, Picture Perfect:

"When my mother found [the apartment], she knew this was to be our new home. But first she had to redecorate. Although the world of decoration and design was about to enter a whole new era of materials and shapes, the atomic age had not met Gloria Starr." The year was 1948. The apartment was transformed into "a glittering showplace, a temple of 1940s glamour."

The metallic gold-square wallpaper stretched the length of a 40-foot hallway connected to the four bedrooms. Paper on the foyer walls featured metallic gold clouds floating against a chocolate brown background punctuated by tiny white stars and coral unicorns. Near the front door, a white leather love seat sprouting winglike arms was flanked by two white Roman columns. The doorway itself was flanked by white plaster console tables shaped like giant scallops. Jungle-print fabric draped the walls of the living room, which was further adorned with such memorable pieces as a polished bird's-eye-maple-and- cream-leather coffee table and a mahogany piano above which hung a painting of two elegant zebras leaping in tandem.

"My mother has really good taste," says Starr. "She always tells people that I inherited the important thing, her good taste." The evidence is all around him at Steve Starr Studios, the art deco shop he has owned on Clark Street near Diversey for more than two decades. Starr's late father was a lawyer, but "not a lawyer type at all. He was easygoing. Everybody liked him. And he wore great clothes. My dad was on a list of the ten best-dressed lawyers. He always wore the best suits and a hat."

Ensconced as a young child in this spectacular setting, Starr raced his tricycle up and down the gold-flecked hallway, endlessly passing three tall carved planters along his route. Two of them decorate his own home today.

Not that he always appreciated the style of his boyhood home: For a brief moment in the late 50s he had his doubts, having detected a difference in the way other people decorated their homes. "I thought, what are we doing with all this old stuff? Why don't we redecorate?" Soon his mother set about doing just that. "Ma got a couple of atomic lamps (their bases the intertwined circles emblematic of the atom) and put them on pedestals. The hall became white and we got rid of some of the 40s furniture and got a plain white couch. That's when I thought, maybe we shouldn't be redecorating."

Realizing with dismay that he might never see certain beloved objects again, Starr, then 13 years old, began to stash them in his bedroom. The jungle-print drapes ended up there. So did the winged love seat and the maple-and-leather coffee table. "I changed to a single bed so I had more room. I started doing my own decorating with the stuff from the front of the house."

Later Starr was briefly distracted by the 1960s. At the age of 20, as a second-year student at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, Starr embraced a contemporary mood, making a name for himself producing poster paintings of "mod" women. His success financed the opening of his shop in the late 60s, where he carried items running the gamut from clunky jewelry to three-foot-square floor pillows.

In time, however, Starr found himself drawn once again to the past. He designed a line of art deco furnishings produced in plasterlike fiberglass: replicas of the scallop-shell console tables that had stood in the entryway on Roscoe Street were among the line's offerings. He added vintage clothing to his shop's wares, which in turn led him into theatrical production: Vanity, a campy musical revue that showcased his clothes, ran to sellout crowds for five years in the 70s.

In 1976 Starr redecorated his store, replacing loud fabric wall covering with a neutral paper that left a naked-looking high-ceilinged expanse of wall. He slid a photo taken from a Vanity production into the single art deco frame he owned--a plate of glass silk-screened with a design of maroon, ivory, and metallic silver--and hung it up. It was a turning point. "I always knew these frames were special," he recalls. "After I put this one up, I thought, not only do I love these frames but they're the perfect way to display my shows and the people who've been here at my store."

Starr embarked on a mission to acquire more such frames. Thanks to antique and resale shops, garage and house sales, his collection rapidly spread across his wall, framing photos of everyone from Bette Midler the day she stopped in his shop in the early 70s to Ma Starr circa 1940 in a sexy bathing suit. Altogether, Starr owns more than 600 frames, quite possibly the world's largest collection. Several hundred of them cover his shop wall--and not one of them is for sale.

The cream of this collection is the subject of Starr's latest venture. Picture Perfect, a new coffee-table book published by Rizzoli, celebrates Starr's frame collection in all its glory. The book features vine-laden romantic frames and straight-edged geometric frames, elegant Moderne frames and sleek streamlined frames, patriotic frames and sentimental greetings frames--all from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, each described in detail by Starr. He worked late into the night for nearly two years, cleaning, restoring, and styling nearly 220 frames, replacing his personal photos with black-and-white and hand- colored movie stills. "Once I put the movie stars in them," Starr says, "the frames looked even more spectacular. Actually that's the way they were originally sold, with movie stars in them.

"A lot of people come into my shop just to see my frames. Some bring people from out of town just to see them.

"I obviously feel an affinity for certain sorts of things, although most things I'm drawn to were before my time. Why? It's hard to say. Some people are drawn to certain objects because they like the look of it. And some, just because it reminds them of things."

Picture Perfect goes on sale this week at Steve Starr Studios, 2654 N. Clark, and will be available as well at the Art Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Rizzoli Books, and other bookstores. For information call Starr at 525-6530.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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