Michael Port's antique business is a treasure trove of curiosities
If you’ve heard of Area 51/Vintage Interiors, you might have wondered what happened to it. After the vintage furnishings/accessories business left its most recent location off of Badger Road, owner Michael Port’s business seemed to … be around, but where? It’s no coincidence that the business was named after the military base nicknamed Area 51 in Nevada, known for conspiracy theories and UFO folklore.
“[Area 51] is very secretive,” acknowledges Port. “I’ve abstracted the name to a place that’s hard to find—but it’s a place where, once you get there, you never really know what you’ll find. I have a lot of things that are hard to define. A lie-detector machine, an airplane wing—a lot of things I just don’t know what they are, but they’re beautiful.”
ort’s industrial warehouse on East Johnson and First streets houses his huge collection of period furnishings from all eras—from turn of the century up to the 1980s.
Your business has been in quite a few locations. Why have you moved so many times throughout the years?
I started in the Hotel Washington in 1979. Then moved to a loft space across the street. Then I was off Johnson Street, off of State Street, then North Street. I moved into Epoch [a vintage clothing store] when it was on West Washington, then the Odana Antique Mall and most recently off Badger Road. There’s just never enough space!
How did you get into collecting?
In high school I had a job with an antique dealer. I did a lot of refinishing work in her store; some of it was Chippendale furniture. Her husband was a pattern maker. I would watch the husband with his knife and these patterns. A lot of the patterns were for machine parts. I learned to appreciate the manufacturing process. Even though something is made by a machine, it starts out as a hand-carved [pattern]. They are not meant to be decorative—they’re purely functional—they make a faucet work, or a car engine work. To this day, I have pattern pieces that are hand-carved; some are big, some are small. They have to be precise—but I think they are just pieces of sculpture.
I started collecting in the 1960s. I started with Art Nouveau, which is turn-of-the- century things, what most consider the beginning of modern design. It incorporates plant life and the natural world in its design.
Each decade has its own style. Whatever era the item is from [that I collect], that style was considered avant-garde.
What items in general do you have?
Designer items from Charles Eames, Edward Wormsley, Mies van der Roh, Bauhaus stuff. I have industrial design pieces—things that were designed for function. Factory items like utility tables, medical furnishings like tables with porcelain tops and operating room lights. These items had to be simple and easy to clean. But they’re beautiful—they have no extraneous details. Some of the things were never intended for the home—these pieces don’t have curlicues or fake flowers on them; they’re just beautiful.
What’s your favorite era to collect from?
My life would be a lot simpler if I could narrow it down to one or two! I do like industrial design, like a chair an anonymous designer in a factory had to design. There’s a lot of stuff out there that functions well, is beautiful and is unpretentious.
Where do you find your items?
I work with people throughout the Midwest (in about a four-state area) who have a good idea of what I look for. They’ll call me knowing what I carry and sell me items. It has been getting harder and harder to find things, though. When I started in the 1970s, people purchased stuff from the 1930s. But as each generation progresses, people start to get rid of stuff they owned when they were young.
Working with antique items, are you everworried about being sold a fake?
I’ve seen enough merchandise by now that I’m able to discriminate on details. The real things are quality; replicas are cheaply made.
Take an Eames chair. Herman Miller did everything at the highest level of quality—but knockoffs could reproduce the look. The replicas accomplished [the design] with different construction techniques. Across the room it might look like an Eames chair, but upon closer examination of the materials, you can see it’s not.
What are some of the most exciting or rare pieces you’ve found?
George Nelson & Associates designed a marshmallow sofa that became an icon of design. It’s one of the most uncomfortable chairs—it’s better to look at! It was exciting to find one of those. I found it in the Anchor Bank on Atwood Avenue (now closed) that was changing décor. Their whole waiting room was Herman Miller furniture—it was like a little time capsule! I don’t know why they sold all of the furniture. So I kept [the couch]. It’s the only one I’ve ever seen—except for at auctions.
In the early 1980s, I was traveling and came across a replica of the Statue of Liberty. It was six feet tall, made of plaster and the lamp was electric. When my store was off Johnson Street, William Gaines, the founder of Mad Magazine, wandered in the store and fell in love with the statue. His wife collected them! So we shipped it back to their home in New York.
You’re hard to find, but apparently not that hard to find.
One day I got a phone call out of the blue from the set designer from the movie Public Enemies, which is set in the 1930s. She was looking for a radio. But it ended up that tons of my furniture appears in that film.
They rented an Art Deco apartment in Milwaukee and they borrowed a bed from me. I want to put a little brass plaque on the bed that says: “Johnny Depp slept here—or at least pretended to.” (Laughs.)
They also used spotlights for a prison scene, some racks and an old iron for a prison laundry room scene.
What advice can you give to someone looking for a vintage piece?
It’s this mysterious X-factor. Either you like something or you don’t. When I ask people what they’re looking for, seventy-five percent of the time they say, “I’ll know it when I see it.” I usually ask what other things will be in the room and then help them pick up an element in their favorite chair [or furniture piece] and mirror that in some way, and find other pieces that might have that element.
I always offer people the option to bring it home and see if it works. It’s a fun part of the process, to work with people with that flexibility.
Port holds monthly weeklong sales. Visit area51vintageinteriors.com and sign up for his e-mail list. Otherwise Port is available by appointment only.
Shayna Miller is associate editor of Madison Magazine.