PRESS: NEIGHBORHOOD NOTES
By Eve Connell, 'Neighborhood Notes', Jan. 19, 2011
The taxidermy trend is alive and well in Portland.
Paxton Gate on North Mississippi Avenue is almost like
stepping into my favorite natural history museums of my youth—except much more
elegant and not at all musty. The space is open and airy with natural oddities
galore, and yes, most of said oddities were once alive, and are now dead,
stuffed, pinned on display.
A macabre scene? Nay. Paxton Gate Portland is the outpost of beloved Paxton Gate
SF, which has been selling taxidermy, insects, shells,
feathers, fossils and more natural relics for nearly two decades. Owners Andy
and Susan Brown (longtime pals of the SF store's owner Sean Quigley) licensed
his design and brand, share resources and vendors, to bring the taxidermy craze
to Portland's retail scene.
Obsession With Dead Things Alive and Well
Paxton Gate. Photo
Over the past few years, we've seen stuffed dead things popping up all over—in
bars, restaurants, homes, retail window displays—but the trend has been thriving
in New York, among other hubs of hip, for many, many years. In the same DIY
spirit as raising chickens, understanding where your food comes from, collecting
your stormwater runoff, and other urban farming practices, taxidermy as design
directly connects to the "mountain man aesthetic that runs rampant here...wear a
plaid shirt, have a moose head in your living room. It’s urban chic," notes a
local design maven.
Debbe Hamada of
spiff Sellwood shop featuring designs for home and body—has had her eye on this
trend, too. "It’s rolled in the mainstream, for sure. We’ve been seeing faux
taxi-animals in ceramic and fabric forms made by mass manufacturer
Roost. All the cool
vendors at the home/design shows in New York and LA have been showing taxidermy
in some form in the past five-plus years."
Bobcat with quail at the home of Heidi and Julian Bijsmans.
Photo © Heather
Quigley got started in San Francisco as a landscape designer with a "half
office, half weird gardening store" He introduced insects in a small, natural
display (think: cork bark framing iridescent beetles, butterflies), which became
quite popular with customers. "We learned to relax them [the bugs, not the
customers] and dry them in semi-natural poses, and this got us into the natural
sciences realm of quirky store offerings,” notes Quigley. "Bugs led the way to
mice and slowly more small creatures ended up in the store's displays". When the
store moved to a more spacious location 11 years ago, "we started picking up
larger taxidermy pieces here and there…I met a big game hunter who had all sorts
of crazy stuff that was legal for him to hunt in the '60s and '70s—an elephant,
a lion, a full standing grizzly, a walrus head. Some of those pieces became part
of our collection so we covered our walls."
Bigger pieces are cool to look at, but typically only interior designers of
lodges and restaurants purchase larger exotic animals for their clients, and
only if legal to do so.
State and federal laws prohibit the sale of all sorts of animals—birds and
marine animals in California, for example, are big no-nos.
Why Taxidermy? We Covet What's Verboten
Quigley offers that taxidermy is sort of a backlash, a "U-turn
from what's sleek, modern, too clean…that scrubbed down look is everywhere, and
many people are interested in going back to things that had a rustic story
Design/Domestic Arts, confirms that taxidermy is "a
non-conformist aesthetic, opposite of what's hot in design now. What's
streamlined, clean, antiseptic, metal, sterile, devoid of clutter or earthiness
is, well, not full of personality…or, at least the kind of personality many
people want to convey to others through their home aesthetic, an extension of
Other non-stuffed natural critters like fossils, shells, skulls, feathers "say
something about you" when used as strategically placed home décor. I’m
contemplative. I take walks. I notice tiny, natural details. Such elements
conjure up certain nostalgia, linked perhaps to sweet childhood memories of
hunting, collecting, beach combing, camping. The physical representation of such
memories connects us to our experiences in a different, human, earthy way,
Plus, face it. We're fascinated with death, what's off limits, or controversial,
and a stuffed squirrel on the credenza taps into that "naughty" attitude, too.
This fascination prevails even though we are so removed from it (we are no
longer born and raised to live and die in the same house, the same plot of land
anymore. Death and dying were part of daily life experience especially on a farm
or ranch. Now it's all prefab and Ikea—just look at Dwell).
Taxidermy's Influence on Design and Fashion
Designers help clients stage interior settings that touch Goth-inspired
sensibilities and Victorian roots. To wit: this spring, a new, local wallpaper
company, Paper Paint Press, will launch animal-inspired prints to adorn the
walls of those wishing to bring nature into the living room in a less stiff or
Jim Staicoff IIDA, a local interior designer and principal of
Staicoff Design Company,
sees "people looking for honesty in materiality, and the accessories in their
homes reflect that search. Urbanites have often looked for ways to reconnect
with nature, too, and this relates to materiality." Aside from elements of home
design, there’s a trend in art and design in general that combines
animals/nature, nostalgia, and irony. Local artist
Amy Ruppel (and multiple other talented artists!) excels in
this combo, especially with her amazingly stupendous fine art
Mean Bird series.
Staicoff notes that this "trending [animals, irony] reinforces how important
it is for some to extend these components of personality to your walls, hats,
making statement about who you are through what you display."
And, actually, speaking of hats, taxidermy has made it back to fashion, too (to
the dismay of PETA and In Defense of Animals, no doubt). Hamada keeps her eye
out to what's what in fashion, noticing that "there are plenty of hip young
ladies wearing vintage fur again. They always tell you it's vintage, but it
seems to be everywhere, so it probably isn’t all vintage quality."
Tilde also carried feather earrings from
for years that were made from feathers of birds the Portland designer’s father
had killed to eat. "Of course our customers thought that was cool." Today,
feathers are hot again—everything from earrings to feather hair
Portland's a Natural Fit for Taxidermy
Back at Paxton Gate PDX, Brown boldly states that "taxidermy fits the lifestyle
and culture of Portland…it makes total sense." Reception has been great in the
hood, but Brown notes that there was "some aggro at first, but it dissipated.
Some neighbors weren't happy especially with foxtails that were used in a window
display. So we took them down. We are reasonable people."
Taxidermy is (slightly) controversial, certainly not everyone's cup of tea. But
what a great opportunity to learn about different animals: how they are raised,
what their status in nature is (endangered, not) problems and threats in the
wild. There are many great stories to be told, says Quigley, "and we focus on
educating people with the stories and knowledge behind each piece. It starts
with displaying signs that note the animal’s common name, genus, and species,
and then the dialog can begin."