Artist Tony Hornecker builds us a hole-and-corner by the sea
Words Jim Butler
Photographs David Hughes
Set designer to the stars, visual artist and theatrical restaurateur – Tony Hornecker is many things. He has made his life his art and his art a performance – which explains in part how he came to assemble this strange interpretation of a ‘hole-and-corner’ off the Kent coast…
From a distance, with the waves gently caressing the bottom of the wooden frame, the structure looks like a dilapidated wreck. An old fisherman’s net hut perhaps? The last remaining relic of a bygone age? A bulwark against the irrepressible tide of modernity?
On closer inspection, with sand underfoot setting off all manner of childhood memories, the hulk of the building, perched precariously against the comforting presence of a groyne… still resembles a dilapidated wreck.
But there’s something more. The compact, three-storey edifice is strewn with detritus of every description. Blankets are billowing. It’s housing the flotsam and jetsam of life in some bizarre bric-a-brac assembly by the sea. This strange construction seems at once grand, bold, beautiful and otherworldly…
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Tony Hornecker. Set designer to the stars, visual artist and theatrical restaurateur. A softly-spoken man whose actions speak volumes, Hornecker is – unsurprisingly – a curiously compelling character who has made his life his art and his art a performance… of which his house by the sea is but the latest act. ‘I called it the Displaced Place,’ he confirms the day after building it on the banks of the Isle of Sheppey, an island off the north coast of Kent in the Thames Estuary. ‘The frame is from the refurbishment of some flats on my road (in East London). Fifteen residents got thrown out last year.’
A month earlier, and in Hornecker’s magical Dalston home – more of which later – he explained the premise behind what eventually became the Displaced Place.
‘What I want to do is take a huge part of this house,’ he motions to his incredible jumble sale-on-acid home, ‘and build. A lot of my work is about homes and creating spaces and examining different ways to live. So I want to create a tower of all of my things, which will resemble some sort of living space. So we’ll build this tower in the sea basically – a symbol of my life and the things that I’ve created within my life – and it will also act as a beacon to the future in some kind of way.’
Which explains in part why in the last week of April, he and a colleague assembled a ramshackle collection of goods, packed them in the back of a Luton van and headed to Kent. ‘These are some of my favourite things,’ he says in his endearingly laidback manner. ‘A painting from an ex, a scarf made by the mother of another lover. My family heirlooms of silver. My captain costumes. It’s a sort of Robinson Crusoe at sea, a book I’ve oddly only just read.’
In 2002, Dalston was far from being the bohemian hipster enclave-cum-overpriced East London quarter that it is today. The Shoreditch crowd had yet to take that daunting trip up Kingsland Road, while the creatives above Dalston Junction hadn’t been priced out of Stoke Newington. It was here that Hornecker rocked up; his life’s belongings packed in the back of a van, from his previous home – a council flat over in freshly minted Angel.
‘I had no idea where it was,’ he recalls. ‘I’d visited a friend in Shoreditch and I walked up this dark, dark Kingsland Road and I was thinking, “Where the hell am I going?” And then I walked down this alley and there were people dealing drugs and it felt like I was moving to…’ His voice trails off but the inference is clear. For all intents and purposes, it was some kind of nefarious hell in the middle of nowhere.
His house is found towards the end of an alley running adjacent to the East London line, which brings in tourists, sightseers and culture vultures from across the capital every weekend. Its history – much like its present occupier – is colourful. Hornecker notes that it was originally a blacksmith’s, then a cheese factory and lastly a garage. When he moved in there was no plumbing, no walls… ‘No nothing,’ he smiles. He didn’t have money, so to fill it, he found things. For heating, he would find wood on the street, chop it up and burn it. He washed in a bucket and lived off cheese sandwiches for months.
Poverty, he says, became his aesthetic. Which, when written down, might sound like some hideously pretentious thing to say, but it captures some essence to what Hornecker attempts with his art.
‘It’s like constantly playing with the same puzzle and adding more pieces. I paint with things’
‘It was from not having things and not being able to go to Ikea to get some tables and spend a grand or whatever, and that became my aesthetic. And that works for me. It would be bizarre if that changed.’
In the intervening 15 years, the house has changed beyond all recognition. Hornecker is a modern-day Womble. Like those prescient eco-warriors from the 1970s kids’ TV show – the cuddly Uncle Bulgaria, Orinoco, Tobermory and co – Hornecker makes good use of the things that he finds; things that everyday folk leave behind.
To wit: behind the pale blue door and into his Tardis-like dwelling is an unforgettable Aladdin’s Cave of, well, stuff. An assembly of chairs provide a stairwell up to a mezzanine level that is framed by an assortment of doll’s houses. Wooden artefacts are nailed to most walls. Globes hang down, as do battered old trainers. Clocks, costumes and candelabras add depth. Paintings even Hilda Ogden would have turned down for being too gaudy hang in any spare square inch of space. Layer upon layer upon layer is the result of a decade and a half’s hoarding.
Ask him why he lives like this and he replies instantly: ‘Necessity. I had to find a way to live within my workspace. This is very cheap. But I also have to survive as an artist and as a set designer. So within it, it’s a way of storing stuff. If I don’t know where to put something, I can just screw it to the wall.’
He laughs uproariously.
When he goes out to do a job – he’s exhibited in The Royal College of Art and The Royal Opera House, to name just two venerable institutions that have housed his imaginative art – parts of his home come with him. And when it comes back – from Glastonbury or Berlin, say – it goes back in a different form.
‘It’s like constantly playing with the same puzzle and adding more pieces,’ he jokes. ‘I always feel that it’s a cross between collage and painting. I paint with things. I’m constantly creating different paintings, I suppose. I’ll go back and add some other strokes, put some more colour in, or move it around.’
Initially, what happened in Dalston, stayed in Dalston. By his own admission he had two very separate lives. The set designer signed to a successful agency and was flown all over the world to work on campaigns for the likes of Kylie Minogue. And behind closed doors was the incorrigible collector; the self-taught DIY enthusiast with an extravagantly OTT taste. Except Hornecker wasn’t happy. He openly admits he suffers from depression and, while indulging himself in his pleasure palace helped, it didn’t alleviate the dark moments completely. So, despite admitting he was slightly embarrassed by his grand designs, he decided to open his home to the public and hold an exhibition. He built a labyrinth through the whole house and made a series of models that told the story of his life, from his traumatic childhood right through to his arrival in London and beyond. And people loved it.
‘I’m still surprised that people are interested in my aesthetic and find it as pleasurable as they do,’ he says. ‘It’s kind of a bit Granny-ish. Granny gone mad. But now I understand it.’
The exhibition, and the unveiling of his private persona, he explains, was cathartic. ‘It was hugely empowering, and it felt like it was starting to marry all sorts of things together.’ A year later, he decided to hold another exhibition, again exploring his life. This time visitors had to crawl up to the attic where a collection of little boxes contained 50 precious memories.
And then, in 2009, the agent who represented him went bust. Hornecker was desperate. He didn’t want to go back to set design, but he needed the money. When he first moved to London almost 20 years previously, he had worked as a waiter – in fact he’d only stopped waiting properly two years before. ‘I was 35 and I just thought that I couldn’t go back to another restaurant,’ he says. ‘I just couldn’t face it. So I decided to turn this place into a restaurant for the weekend. I got my assistant to make tablecloths and design the menus – she was also the waitress that opening weekend. I asked my friend [alternative cabaret artist] A Man To Pet to perform and it was… well, that was eight years ago. It’s been a phenomenal success.’
Thus London’s pre-eminent pop-up (before the word lost all meaning) supper club, The Pale Blue Door, was born. An immediate success – thanks to Hornecker’s innate sense of performance – The Pale Blue Door chimed with
Dalston’s creative rebirth. And – save for a period when it became the experience du jour and attracted people who were only there because it was the hip thing to do (‘Bankers from West London,’ Hornecker says dismissively. ‘It was quite painful. People would trash it and steal things’) – it has remained a defiantly joyous event. ‘It has given me a lot of creative freedom and I’m very grateful for it,’ he notes humbly. ‘It makes people ridiculously happy. People call it this and that, but for me it’s an installation, because it takes people away somewhere magical and far away for a few hours. The food doesn’t really change, the performance doesn’t change much, the space doesn’t change much… I mean, you can smoke, people do drugs, I don’t care, people can do whatever they want. People have sex upstairs.’
He giggles with mock prurience. But it’s true. Hornecker doesn’t hide anything. There are no explanations. People take from it what they want. He describes it as a magical way to finance his life – and he’s even taken it across the world, in cities such as Buenos Aires and Berlin, opening generally for three-week runs, and then closes it when he’s accumulated enough money to fund his other endeavours. The formula is simple and instinctive. Not a lot of overt thinking goes into his work. If he gets an idea and he likes it, there it is.
When he was nine, Tony Hornecker’s world was turned upside down. Born to an American father and an English mother, his comfortable life on a US military base in England was torn asunder when his dad had an affair with his mum’s best friend. His mum had a breakdown. Overnight he found himself the dad of the house.
‘My mum was working all the time – she was a milliner,’ he recalls, ‘and so she’d sew at night and sew all day. I was American, gay… in an English village. I didn’t have friends, I was bullied badly. My mother would come home and the house was always spotless. And the dinner was on. The weekends would be spent gardening, building…’
It doesn’t take a Poundland shrink to recognise that this cataclysmic event has shaped much of Hornecker’s adult life. He nods: ‘A lot of what I do is trying to recreate that home that was taken away from me over and over and over and over again. It’s a pattern.’
So while those pivotal and emotional events gave him self-reliance and independence, they did so at a cost. He says he’s still locked in a battle between being an adult and a boy that didn’t have a normal adolescence. And while he says he can build a life, he doesn’t know how to sustain it.
‘So, within my creative work and my personal work I guess there’s a lot of “create and destroy”. I have a lot of personal relationships that are very intense for short periods – and possibly I destroy them. And then I know what to do. I can build myself back up. I think I’m trying to protect myself from what I saw happen to my mother.’
And yet, Hornecker tries to remain resolutely upbeat. He says he has incredible luck. He thought The Pale Blue Door would be shut down on its first weekend. Last summer a neighbour reported his house to environmental health. (‘He thought I was the devil and that I’d stolen his cat’). The environmental health department sent an officer to visit. ‘He was this gay guy in his 60s and he came round for tea,’ he remembers, smiling. ‘And he was like, “Ooh, this is marvellous.” Of all the people they could send! He was here for two hours and we had tea and cake. I was really nervous about it, obviously. I think I have some guardian angel that watches over me. I think the place has an energy that somehow helps.’
Hornecker recently returned to set designing, although this time on his own terms, signed to an agency as a visual artist. His clients – Stella McCartney and Hermès being two notable recent assignments – know what they’re getting. They want him. ‘They know that I’m going to dip into this house,’ he notes. ‘They know I’m not going to be sending an assistant down to the prop hire shop.’
Through everything he does – the architecture, the written word, the sculpture, the performance – Hornecker’s life is his artistic statement. ‘One of the things I find interesting as I grow older is how everyone spends money,’ he says. ‘Everyone does it. You can spend it on your mortgage, or a car or a hi-fi system. Or you can spend it on travelling and going out for dinner, which is what I spend my money on.’
Most of the artefacts used in his work are either found, scavenged or bought for a couple of quid. He recently did a job for fêted fashion designer Ashley Williams. He’d already used up a lot of the materials budget, so he spent a couple of days driving around Hackney in his beaten-up Mondeo and found the whole set on the colourful streets of East London. ‘Rubbish basically. From skips. I found this amazing linoleum over a fence in Hackney Wick that had been there for I don’t know how long. Rotting beds… And I turned up at British Fashion Week and had to unload everything through these people arriving for the shows and they were like, “Are you sure?” Because I mean I looked like a modern day rag-and-bone man. That’s how I see myself. And I will have a horse one day. If I’m still in London trotting around on my horse and cart.’
So what is about other people’s discarded rubbish that he finds so alluring? ‘It’s two things,’ he says. ‘Firstly, I like to give things another chance. Give them another story. I’m not really a hippy, but some of these objects are things that people have cared about – but no one else does anymore. And I like to care for them here.’
He gets a lot of stuff from the Saturday market on Kingsland Road. One trader does house clearances: if it doesn’t sell on the day he’ll generally just leave it there. And along comes Tony… ‘It’s just dead people’s stuff,’ he gestures somewhat macabrely. ‘It’s everyone’s Great Aunt Sally’s stuff. I go down every Saturday, and the bits that no one else wants I will have a look at. So I get them for free.’
It all feeds into his rich and complex story. The shy extrovert. The reformed hellraiser (he recently gave up booze, adding – somewhat jokingly – that it’s given him an extra 80 hours a week). The exhibitionist that can’t be in the same room as other people when they’re looking at his art. The rootless bohemian transfixed by a continuing search for a home.
When he cooks at The Pale Blue Door, he can hear people outside his kitchen talking about him and sharing tall stories about who Tony Hornecker actually is. He giggles: ‘The best one was when someone said, “Oh, he’s in his 60s and he lives in Cannes”.’
And soon it will all be over. Well, this chapter anyway. The regeneration of East London has no artistic sympathies, after all. His landlord – by the sounds of it the most sympathetic landlord extant – has started work on redeveloping the building next door. For the past few years it’s always been ‘next year, next year’: a Damocles sword hanging over his head.
‘It’s a difficult one. A part of me thinks, “Yaay!”. I think I’m ready for pastures new. I’d love to build. I have no idea where I’d go. Absolutely none. I guess the process of that is so massive, until I have to do it…’
The one thing he says he’s discovered above all is to live however you want to live. He just needs a space. ‘And if I have to sit there and weave the grass for my first house, that’s what I’ll do,’ he says. ‘I’m not frightened of not having anything, because I know I’ll find a way to make it.’
Two days after his sojourn at the Kent coast, I receive an email from Tony telling me about the installation and how welcoming the residents on the Isle of Sheppey were. He enthuses about this collage of his life; his past works and the nod to the future when his Dalston space is finally lost. I ask him what, if anything, he’s learned living this way.
‘I suppose it reaffirms my belief that I’ll always manage to make a space for myself. It’s in my nature somehow. Whatever and wherever that may be. I’ll scavenge a few bits and knock up a wee abode. It’s like a relationship – the jury is still out on who will leave who. Perhaps it’s Dalston, whose heart I will break. Or I’ll be destroyed and pick up the pieces and rebuild again. As I’ve done so many times before. I’m off somewhere. Just not sure where. But the horizon feels golden.’