West Side story
Architectural artifacts, thrift-store finds and art dress up a once-dilapidated space.
“Gentrification means pretty things get thrown away sometimes, and you just gotta be there to pick ’em up,” Bil Susinka says, gesturing to the chunks of architectural salvage that adorn his cabinet of curiosities–style bookshelves and hang as sculptural art on the walls of his home.
After spending his twenties getting priced out of apartments—first in West Lakeview, then Wicker Park and finally in Pilsen—Susinka made up his mind to plant roots in a nowhere-near-turnover area where he could afford to buy a place. “I would live in a wonderful dilapidated space for years, and suddenly everything would get fancy, I couldn’t afford to live there anymore and I’d skedaddle,” he says. “I decided to take control.”
Eight and a half years after moving into this West Side two-story walk-up, his home appears in many ways still dilapidated—the walls are cracking, the molding is falling apart, and the hardwood floors could use an overhaul. “But you don’t think about that because I made it pretty,” Susinka says. In fact, the contrast between watermarked ceilings and elegant chandeliers is part of the charm.
The 40-year-old executive assistant at University of Illinois at Chicago describes his vision as “fallen grandeur.” He draws attention to the European style of architecture with design choices, such as the theatrical red velvet and felt cut-out curtains cascading down the nine-foot-long front windows. “[They] remind me of a French balcony,” he says. Twentieth-century art culled from friends, thrift stores, the American and French eBay, local galleries and auction houses hangs in gallery-like groupings on the walls. Presentation, he says, is everything. How else could you explain an aluminum teeth-mold-cum-ashtray displayed under a tall glass dome? Or a dozen framed dog portraits next to the staircase in the style of a fine Victorian home?
Susinka started collecting in his twenties, focusing on interesting lamps as sculptures. No fewer then ten appear in nearly every room, with and without bulbs or shades. Since then, he’s binged on midcentury biomorphic ceramics, chemistry glass and dog portraits, to name a few things. “I’d say my style hasn’t so much evolved as it has become more refined,” he says, noting how today, he’d trade up brass candlesticks for finer 18th- and 19th-century French bronze versions. “But I never want to lose sight of the fact that you can find value anywhere.”
As much as his home displays Susinka’s eye for good “bones,” it also showcases his artistic handiwork. Of note are the hanging mobiles that double as light fixtures made from metal parts and the glass bead chandelier that Susinka strung together and shaped for the downstairs bathroom. But the most creative use of salvage appears in the bathrooms, foyer and kitchen. Susinka’s ex-boyfriend, Douglas Ray Jackson, works as a tile artist in the school of Edgar Miller, and covered the walls and floors in colorful Cubist-style tiling composed of tile, marble and granite discards. Much like the home, they’re beautifully cobbled together.