CHICAGO - Agatha Wieczorek has never been able to keep her hands to herself. For most kids, this can mean trouble. In Wieczorek's case, it has served her well. It was, after all, her "tinkering" tendencies that led her to a career in architecture. The 25-year-old is working toward getting her license at the prestigious Chicago architecture firm HOK.
Wieczorek's Lakeview loft is another example of her handiwork gone good. The two-bedroom apartment, which she shares with 28-year-old Kevin Vonderberg, is an expression of herself, she says. Every object in the house has been altered, molded, adjusted or reworked by her.
She's a veteran Ikea hacker, adding artistic touches to a pendant and creating a sophisticated custom coffee table out of stock products from the bargain furniture retailer.
There's the gallery of pictures above her desk, each representing a place the well-traveled Wieczorek has visited: Helsinki, Warsaw, Scotland, Paris and Sri Lanka (where she and Kevin met). Four Chinese paper cutout advertisements from the Beijing Olympics hang above her bedroom headboard.
Sometimes her alterations have a practical purpose. Snaps sewn along the bottom hem of her bedroom curtains serve to keep the fabric from pooling onto the floor. A paper map dresses up and softens a pair of table lamps in the office.
And then there's the lampshade she crafted from old cassette tapes. The carefully assembled piece is yet another Wieczorek original, and it is layered with memories. Most of the 48 tapes used in the lamp are also homemade - they're mix tapes. "They're tapes I used to make when I was in high school and drove my parent's car, and old language tapes from when my parents were learning English," Wieczorek says.
Wieczorek's parents emigrated to Beverly, Ill., from Poland when their daughter was 2 years old. Her father was an artist by trade and probably accounts for the strength of her creative muscle. "He worked at a toy manufacturer where they sculpted and molded toys and game boards for mass production," she says. "He was always bringing home things for us to try out."
Even Vonderberg has caught a bit of Wieczorek's creative bug. For her birthday a couple of years ago, he created an abstraction by layering a photo of the two of them behind a text screen of all the e-mails they had sent to each other.
"I highlighted all the dates in red so that she could look closely at it whenever she wanted to find a date and see what we wrote to each other that day," Vonderberg says.
"From the time I met her I was struck by how naturally she adapted things - clothes, her apartment, her studio space, her jewelry - to fit who she was as a person," Vonderberg says. "Everything she did or had seemed to be an extension of herself."
Feeling creative yet? A house as personal as Wieczorek's is accomplished project by project. Here are three of her best to inspire you:
Many of Wieczorek's projects start with something personal, such as with the IKEA paper lantern above her kitchen table. Inside the shade Wieczorek placed a "nest" of wire, tiny red glass birds and foam flowers that she made for her mom's 50th birthday party. The simple shapes of lanterns such as this one could lend themselves to any number of creative projects, and paper construction means that add-ons are easy to attach with glue.
Arty Ikea hack
Another Wieczorek photo, this one of friends in Scotland, gets a new life as the funky top of the living room coffee table. The red-orange image is the result of experimenting with camera settings. Rather than trash it, Wieczorek enlarged the image to match the size of the table, spray-mounted it to the top, and then coated it in resin to seal in place. "It was a cheap and surprisingly easy way to make a simple $40 Ikea table a lot more interesting," Wieczorek says. Ready to try it? The special-effects features on photo editing software can be used to create an artfully distorted photo from one of your snapshots. Large-scale prints are available from photo-processing stores. Just mount to the top of a piece of furniture, then follow package directions to create the resin surface. (Wieczorek used Envirotex Pour-On, a two-part epoxy product available at craft stores and www.save-on-crafts.com.)
Mix tape masterpiece
The prize for most creative and interesting project goes to a lamp hanging in Wieczorek's living room - though for this one, think inspiration, not replication, since the construction is complex, meticulous and owes a lot to Wieczorek's architecture training. The pendant fixture's square shade is constructed entirely of old cassette tapes. Wieczorek spent hours fast-forwarding and rewinding the tapes into an aesthetically pleasing pattern. Jeweler's wire and other hardware holds them in place.
I'm very happy to say that after many construction attempts, I didn't use any glue on the lamp, so in theory it could be dismantled and listened to again," Wieczorek says.