Despite all appearances to the contrary, Warren Muller isn’t really a pack rat. Behind the gallery he runs with partner and interior designer R.J. Thornburg in Philadelphia’s Old City, the 61-year-old Bronx-born designer keeps a dark, cozy studio filled with found junk, his floor-to-ceiling industrial shelves stacked with color-coded glass jars, old-fashioned wind instruments, metal baking molds, denuded ceramic lamps, rope, string, and bulbs. Each is destined for one of Muller’s sprawling, industrial light sculptures. (One such piece, designed last spring for the Philadelphia Home Furnishings Show, strung tchotchkes and filaments around the 15-foot-wide shell of an antique Mini Cooper.) He’s surprisingly unsentimental about his carefully compiled collection of crap: "Anytime I think something is too precious, I’ll use it," he says. "I’ll look for the thing I don’t want to get rid of, and that’s where I’ll start."
Together, Thornburg and Muller run Bahdeebahdu. It’s a rhythmic, means-nothing name decided upon after surname combinations were deemed "too law firm." The two met nine years ago—"I had gone to Buddakan for drinks with a reporter friend who was interviewing R.J.," says Muller, "and I just never left"—and took over the Cherry Street space, formerly a warehouse for the Bulthaup showroom around the corner, in 2002. With the help of the building’s architect owner, Thornburg warmed up the original white box with beamed ceilings, hardwood floors, and a pebbled glass sliding door that leads to the studio, filtering the hazy glow of Muller’s bulbs. Out front, the gallery functions as a sometime office for Thornburg, a place to showcase Muller’s small-scale one-offs-like a wireframe dress form lit from within, or a chair with long tubular bulbs screwed into its exposed springs-and, lately, an exhibition space for local artists.
The duo frequently works on commissions together; last year, they were invited to refurbish the interior of the Stonewall country club, which sits on an old dairy farm in Elverson, Pennsylvania. To fit with the barnyard theme, Muller assembled two 12-foot chandeliers that he hung with milk crates and pierced with farm implements, like ladders and hoes. For Muller’s current project, however-rehabbing the lobby of the Philadelphia Building for developer Tony Goldman (the man who resuscitated Greene Street in Manhattan, among others) he’s flying solo. With the help of his flame-haired assistant, Rebecca, Muller is at work on a fixture so large it’ll have to be wheeled out in sections and reassembled on-site. With its deconstructed tripod, industrial mop frames, and oceans of glass, the sculpture ought to inject downtown with a little more sass: "You see these chandeliers all over Philly, colonial-style with these brass dippity-dos," he says, plucking from his shelves a naked singing Santa that used to shimmy to Brenda Lee’s "Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree" before Muller snipped its vocal cords and replaced its head with a small broom. "It’s like, enough already."
LIGHTING AND INTERIOR DESIGNERS PHILADELPHIA SQUARE FOOTAGE: 2,400 NUMBER OF WORKERS: 5
DECOR ELEMENT THAT SAYS IT ALL: The light sculptures
FIRST THING TO BE RESCUED IN A FIRE: The gallery mascot, Elbe, a miniature Chihuahua
ON THE STEREO: Verve’s Remixed 3 and Billie Holiday’s Speak Low
PHOTOGRAPHER: SETH LABENZ