Small Wonder

By Christina Breda Antoniades
Sunday, September 23, 2007

If he sits at his desk and looks slightly to the left, out the window and down a long, skinny alley, Washington Glass School director and co-founder Tim Tate has a clear view of a sliver of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "This is my favorite view in the whole world," says the 46-year-old Tate, waving toward the slice of museum. "My work is right in that top floor, to the right."

It was the view that drew him to this particular apartment in 2002, when the 1917 Mather Building in Penn Quarter was being reincarnated as Mather Studios Loft Condominiums. Tate, who grew up in Montgomery County, had rented an apartment on Capitol Hill for 26 years. A move, he thought, would be a chance to "shake up my life a little bit."

Shake it up, indeed. He bought the condo after seeing only a floor plan while the units were under construction. His first look at the finished space proved shocking. "When you first walk into a blank space, it's so little," says Tate, a husky 6-footer with a ready grin. "I couldn't believe I was actually going to leave my adorable place on Capitol Hill to come to this tiny place." Despite the condo's 13-foot ceilings, at 900 square feet, it was tiny. Still, the artist was eager to start designing. "It was a blank slate to me," says Tate. "I drew this place every way imaginable."

What he finally settled on was this: an off-shaped room -- "I didn't want a square," he says -- with a triangular platform for his office, adjacent to the kitchen, and a poured concrete countertop bubbling out from the kitchen entrance. Closing off a set of French doors between the bedroom and living area allowed for privacy. For warmth -- physical and visual -- he added a fireplace in the living room.

With the bones of the home in place, there was the decor to conquer. And one small problem: Although his artistic star was certainly on the rise, Tate had just shelled out $136,000 for the apartment, which left little for remodeling. Fortunately for him, artists like to barter. "Everything here is traded," he says, surveying the room from his spot on a cushy concrete-colored sofa. Well, almost everything. In all, he says, he spent $3,000 on decor -- for a chair and ottoman, the concrete kitchen counter, flooring, the fireplace, a bookshelf and one $249 end table from Value City in the bedroom. He painted his living room walls gray and cinnamon and his kitchen a deep purple. Venetian plaster in shades of green, taupe and terra cotta covers his bedroom walls.

Tate made his first trade with Sean Hennessey, founder of the decorative painting company Scenic Artisans. It was Hennessey who, in return for glass kitchen tiles from Tate, transformed the walls with faux finishes and warm hues. Tate values the trade at roughly $6,000. While Hennessey worked, Tate began acquiring the dozens of pieces that would make his space a home. Most would cost "a couple thousand dollars," if he had to buy them, Tate guesses. Some were made specifically for him, he says. Others "I saw in their portfolio and said: 'That would look good here. Let's trade.'"

There is the funky metal light canopy made by local sculptor Michael Enn Sirvet to play off the metal front door. (Sirvet says he didn't even think to trade. "I just really wanted to have something of mine in his space.") The living room is home to three silvertone prints by photographer Matthew Girard and two playful serigraphs by the late Clay Huffman, an original artist at the Torpedo Factory. Across the room is a tile work by Lynn Putney, and in the bathroom a Margaret Boozer clay sculpture -- "one of my favorites," says Tate, his voice increasingly animated as he describes each piece. Over the outside of the bathroom door are two brightly lit entwined glass tubes, a Huffman piece embellished by local artist Marty King in "kind of an homage to Clay," Tate says.

"Some of these are famous artists," he says, pointing to a large lithograph in the living room, "Big Foot Meets a Wolf in the Forest," by Roy De Forest.

When it comes to works of art, however, there is the notable absence of one person's pieces. "I can't afford my own artwork," Tate says with a laugh, noting that none of his signature sculptures -- save one flawed glass heart -- grace his home. However, "the one thing I can affect is glass," he says. And so, it was Tate who created the glass light covers in the living room; the chunky glass backsplash with a deep bas-relief in the bathroom; and the kitchen cabinet doors, dubbed the "doors of a hundred monkeys" for the raised forms that cavort on the glass cabinet fronts. Opening a cabinet door, Tate shows where he took a jigsaw to the melamine and then glued in the glass. "Everything is done cheap," he says.

Everything is also done to match Tate. Big or small, each addition tends to be bold and -- such as the Robert Warrens lithograph in the living room of Satan flying over New Orleans -- a little offbeat. "I went out of my way to make it quirky and me," Tate says. "I think people could walk into this condo and say, 'Oh, my God, Tim Tate lives here.'"

Christina Breda Antoniades last wrote about show poultry for the Magazine. She can be reached at

© 2007 The Washington Post Company