Put a fish in a big tank, they say, and it will grow to the size of its surroundings. Put a collector of “pretty stuff” in a 1,900-sq-ft space and this magpie’s nest of treasures is the result.
“That’s what happened here,” jokes Tim Stuart, an American toymaker and self-confessed hoarder. “It’s like, ‘Oh, look, space. Let’s fill it with clutter.’”
Museum-like, with collectibles on display everywhere the eye rests, the converted industrial unit Stuart has lived in for eight of his 11 years in Hong Kong will soon be returned to its shell when he and his family begin a new life, in Thailand. The items, mostly spoils from the neighbourhood, will then serve as mementos and, later, perhaps as heirlooms for their children.
“I happen to be in Sheung Wan,” he says. “It’s fantastic. People throw away the most amazing things here.”
One man’s trash was a large shop sign with gold Chinese characters reading Hollywood No 149. Stuart’s home, at the Cat Street end of that road, has become the resting place for many other finds besides, most haggled for or inherited, evincing method to charming madness.
Having grown up in houses in which things were rebuilt and rarely acquired new, Stuart, the son of an engineer, took it upon himself to turn a brutally bare unit (and former tailor’s atelier) into a home, complete with a kitchen, laundry area, dining space, sitting room and sleep zone. Shelving and a deep walk-in wardrobe, made with a ladder hung horizontally, are part of the “bedroom” Stuart and his wife, Asya, now share with their baby.
Because the apartment is open-plan, save for a small bathroom, Stuart delineated private areas with Chinese screens and an old matrimonial bed that is a room unto itself. He also had two criteria when it came to collecting.
“Every single thing is beautiful or practical … in my opinion,” he says, pausing. “I need that water vessel from Dagestan when I go up the mountains.”
Extra ceiling lights have also been fitted and storage areas built into the public zones, some supported with bamboo scaffolding poles. The biggest expense was the red kitchen cabinetry, designed by a friend, and installed in the apartment eight years ago.
His own handyman, it is little wonder that Stuart collects not only work benches but also wooden stools, of which he has 62, many of them half a century old.
“Most [of the stools] are from Sheung Wan [wet markets and fishmongers]; some are from Vietnam; some were given to me,” he says. “They used to be HK$20 to HK$80, but then they started going up and I think I paid a couple of hundred dollars for one recently, which had a great anatomy to it.
“You can flip them on the side, stack them up and use them as jungle gyms. It’s the most practical item we have because you can put them together, with a piece of wood over the top, to use as your table, to put your feet on, beer on, whatever.”
Rugs make up another striking collection, from Dagestan, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Iran. As do the educational toy bricks that are the foundation of his company, Unit Bricks. These form miniature buildings and other structures on a stand accessorised by the Hollywood Road sign.
That these bricks help develop visual-spatial and geometric skills makes sense in the context of the apartment.
“Every home I’ve had has always been easy to organise,” Stuart says. “I look at it as set design.”
Which brings us to how the family (soon to grow from three to four) plans to live in Thailand, for the next chapter of their lives.
Straight as a spirit level, he declares: “My wife and I want walls.”
Living area Among the few things bought new when Tim Stuart moved into the unit eight years ago was the red sofa, from a shop in Horizon Plaza, Ap Lei Chau. Reindeer and sheep skins cover an old rattan lounge chair, accommodating the family’s teacup poodle, Monkey. The white armchair was inherited from the unit’s previous tenant. The lamp beside it was fashioned from a HK$50 base Stuart bought on Cat Street, which he rewired then topped with an old shade. By it are an antique pram (circa 1890) and stool. The brown-leather American Arts and Crafts armchair is part of a pair Stuart bought from the United States consulate in Ankara, Turkey, years ago. Serving as a coffee table is an 80-year-old pharmacy bench (HK$1,200), which came from Select 18 (18 Bridges Street, Central, tel: 9127 3657). The portrait on the wall, of a tattooed Burmese Chin woman, was a gift from photographer Jens Uwe Parkitny (bloodfaces.com). The Chinese screen (HK$800) next to it was a Cat Street find while the screen behind the sofa came from a “tat” store on Queen’s Road West and cost HK$500.
Bedroom At the far end of the unit is an 80-year-old elm-wood matrimonial bed (HK$21,000) that Stuart bought from a shop in Horizon Plaza. The step was acquired from a store on Lascar Row. The desk came from Zhongshan Antique Furniture Market (Gudu Avenue, Sanxiangzhen, Zhongshan, tel: 86 760 8668 6278). Stuart refashioned an old lamp with a Hakka hat with fringe and a fisherman’s hat above it. The rug was from Tree. The screen was a vintage-shop find. The artwork on the floor, by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, once belonged to Stuart’s grandmother.
Through view The kitchen and laundry are at the far end of the unit, followed by the dining and display area, beside which is the lounge. Stuart installed the globe ceiling lights, which were fitted with Philips Hue LED bulbs for mood lighting. The rugs came from Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Iran, Azerbaijan and Dagestan.
Kitchen The kitchen cabinets were made eight years ago with Germantops laminate. The square table came from Zhongshan Antique Furniture Market. The stools, part of a 62-strong collection, came mostly from wet markets, street vendors and fruit stands in Sheung Wan.
Dining area The dining table was inherited from the previous tenant. The Chinese sign reads Hollywood No 149” and the Godzilla artwork was by graphic artist Laine Tam (email@example.com). In front of it are Stuart’s Unit Bricks. The display/storage unit by the window is supported by bamboo poles.
Dining area detail The cabinetry was made with Germantops laminate. The round box was found in rubbish left on Hollywood Road. The papier maché rosy-cheeked masks were from an incense store on Queen’s Road West. The Chinese paper cuts were gifts.
Bathroom Stuart bought the tub (1,200 yuan/HK$1,395) through Taobao. The wall and floor tiles were bought from shops on Lockhart Road years ago and the shower curtain was from G.O.D. The bamboo ladder can be found at most hardware stores.
TRIED + TESTED
Jewel purpose The antique teak Burmese goldsmith’s table is used as a dressing table by Tim Stuart’s wife, Asya. Instead of a regular mirror, Stuart hacked a brush stand (usually available for less than HK$500 depending on size) found in a bric-a-brac shop on Lascar Row. He then attached a mirror cut with bevelled edges, on the back of which he added brackets. Instead of brushes, necklaces and other jewellery can be hung from the small pegs on the sides, leaving enough space for primping in front of the mirror.