Adam Wallacavage is best known for his octopus chandeliers – pop surrealistic creations in saltwater taffy colors whose curving arms resemble sea creatures' tentacles. The designer, 42, studied photography at University of the Arts, but an elective class in molding and casting turned out to serve him just as well. In 2000 he bought his current home, a torn-apart brownstone on South Broad Street, and began putting it back together to use as a backdrop for photo shoots.
Looking to the period rooms at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for inspiration, Wallacavage taught himself how to make the decorative moldings and wainscoting he imagined might once have been there. Collections of squeaky toys and friends' paintings wink at these ornate elements, as do the octopuses – the earliest of them hang in his “Jules Verne Room.” Stepping into the aqua-colored chamber feels like stepping into a Fabergé egg – if the House of Fabergé had summered in Wildwood. But that could change. “The house is in a constant state of progression,” says Wallacavage. “I think of it like a sketchbook.”
Consumed with: Ma Ling, a painting by Rebecca Westcott, a Philadelphia artist killed in a car accident in 2004 at age 28, hangs in Wallacavage's living room. Westcott gave him the painting shortly before the accident. “Everything else is replaceable,” he says.
“Because it's her”: “Becky was so positive,” says Wallacavage, who in 1997 cofounded Chinatown art collective Space 1026 with a handful of artists including Westcott's husband, Jim Houser. “We were a whole group of artists trying to make it,” he says, “being competitive with each other and trying to get into certain shows – but she didn't care about any of that stuff. She was so lighthearted.”
Namesake: “I don't even know if Becky knew what Ma Ling was,” he says. “I found out it's a canned meat, kind of like Spam.” Opposite the painting is a window overlooking Broad Street that is filled with birdcages whose doors are often left open. The colorful lovebird Wallacavage named Ma Ling likes to fly over and perch on the painting.
Breakthroughs: “There's so much insecurity involved with trying to be an artist, but Becky was very confident at a very young age – it's such a blessing to be that way,” says Wallacavage. He didn't find his footing until after Westcott died. Around 2006 he sold his first chandelier to a woman who was so excited and happy, it made him realize he wanted to shift his focus from photography to making octopus chandeliers. His first show and commissions soon followed. “When you find your confidence,” he says, “it's like 'Whoom!' and you're over this hill. When you stop trying to do what you think you're supposed to do and learn to express who you are without caring what other people think, that's when it happens.”
(This article was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 3.23.12.)