PRESS: NEIGHBORHOOD NOTES

Taxidermy: Portland's Obsession With the Stiff and Stuffed

By Eve Connell, 'Neighborhood Notes', Jan. 19, 2011
Paxton Gate PDX in Neighborhood NOtes
The taxidermy trend is alive and well in Portland.
Stepping into Paxton Gate on North Mississippi Avenue is almost like stepping into my favorite natural history museums of my youth—except much more elegant and not at all musty. The space is open and airy with natural oddities galore, and yes, most of said oddities were once alive, and are now dead, stuffed, pinned on display.

A macabre scene? Nay. Paxton Gate Portland is the outpost of beloved Paxton Gate SF, which has been selling taxidermy, insects, shells, feathers, fossils and more natural relics for nearly two decades. Owners Andy and Susan Brown (longtime pals of the SF store's owner Sean Quigley) licensed his design and brand, share resources and vendors, to bring the taxidermy craze to Portland's retail scene.

Obsession With Dead Things Alive and Well

Paxton Gate PDX in Neighborhood Notes
Paxton Gate. Photo © Heather Zinger.
Over the past few years, we've seen stuffed dead things popping up all over—in bars, restaurants, homes, retail window displays—but the trend has been thriving in New York, among other hubs of hip, for many, many years. In the same DIY spirit as raising chickens, understanding where your food comes from, collecting your stormwater runoff, and other urban farming practices, taxidermy as design directly connects to the "mountain man aesthetic that runs rampant here...wear a plaid shirt, have a moose head in your living room. It’s urban chic," notes a local design maven.

Debbe Hamada of Tilde—a spiff Sellwood shop featuring designs for home and body—has had her eye on this trend, too. "It’s rolled in the mainstream, for sure. We’ve been seeing faux taxi-animals in ceramic and fabric forms made by mass manufacturer Roost. All the cool vendors at the home/design shows in New York and LA have been showing taxidermy in some form in the past five-plus years."

 Paxton Gate PDX

Bobcat with quail at the home of Heidi and Julian Bijsmans.
Photo © Heather Zinger
.

Quigley got started in San Francisco as a landscape designer with a "half office, half weird gardening store" He introduced insects in a small, natural display (think: cork bark framing iridescent beetles, butterflies), which became quite popular with customers. "We learned to relax them [the bugs, not the customers] and dry them in semi-natural poses, and this got us into the natural sciences realm of quirky store offerings,” notes Quigley. "Bugs led the way to mice and slowly more small creatures ended up in the store's displays". When the store moved to a more spacious location 11 years ago, "we started picking up larger taxidermy pieces here and there…I met a big game hunter who had all sorts of crazy stuff that was legal for him to hunt in the '60s and '70s—an elephant, a lion, a full standing grizzly, a walrus head. Some of those pieces became part of our collection so we covered our walls."

Bigger pieces are cool to look at, but typically only interior designers of lodges and restaurants purchase larger exotic animals for their clients, and only if legal to do so.
State and federal laws prohibit the sale of all sorts of animals—birds and marine animals in California, for example, are big no-nos.

Why Taxidermy? We Covet What's Verboten 

Antlers at the Savoy Tavern.
Antlers at the Savoy Tavern. Photo © Heather Zinger.
Quigley offers that taxidermy is sort of a backlash, a "U-turn from what's sleek, modern, too clean…that scrubbed down look is everywhere, and many people are interested in going back to things that had a rustic story behind them."

Charlotte Cooney, Alice Design/Domestic Arts, confirms that taxidermy is "a non-conformist aesthetic, opposite of what's hot in design now. What's streamlined, clean, antiseptic, metal, sterile, devoid of clutter or earthiness is, well, not full of personality…or, at least the kind of personality many people want to convey to others through their home aesthetic, an extension of the individual."

Other non-stuffed natural critters like fossils, shells, skulls, feathers "say something about you" when used as strategically placed home décor. I’m contemplative. I take walks. I notice tiny, natural details. Such elements conjure up certain nostalgia, linked perhaps to sweet childhood memories of hunting, collecting, beach combing, camping. The physical representation of such memories connects us to our experiences in a different, human, earthy way, perhaps.

Plus, face it. We're fascinated with death, what's off limits, or controversial, and a stuffed squirrel on the credenza taps into that "naughty" attitude, too. This fascination prevails even though we are so removed from it (we are no longer born and raised to live and die in the same house, the same plot of land anymore. Death and dying were part of daily life experience especially on a farm or ranch. Now it's all prefab and Ikea—just look at Dwell).

Taxidermy's Influence on Design and Fashion

Paxton Gate PDX in Neighborhood Notes

Designers help clients stage interior settings that touch Goth-inspired sensibilities and Victorian roots. To wit: this spring, a new, local wallpaper company, Paper Paint Press, will launch animal-inspired prints to adorn the walls of those wishing to bring nature into the living room in a less stiff or fuzzy mode.

Jim Staicoff IIDA, a local interior designer and principal of Staicoff Design Company,
sees "people looking for honesty in materiality, and the accessories in their homes reflect that search. Urbanites have often looked for ways to reconnect with nature, too, and this relates to materiality." Aside from elements of home design, there’s a trend in art and design in general that combines animals/nature, nostalgia, and irony. Local artist Amy Ruppel (and multiple other talented artists!) excels in this combo, especially with her amazingly stupendous fine art Mean Bird series.

Staicoff notes that this "trending [animals, irony] reinforces how important it is for some to extend these components of personality to your walls, hats, making statement about who you are through what you display."

And, actually, speaking of hats, taxidermy has made it back to fashion, too (to the dismay of PETA and In Defense of Animals, no doubt). Hamada keeps her eye out to what's what in fashion, noticing that "there are plenty of hip young ladies wearing vintage fur again. They always tell you it's vintage, but it seems to be everywhere, so it probably isn’t all vintage quality."

Tilde also carried feather earrings from Demimonde for years that were made from feathers of birds the Portland designer’s father had killed to eat. "Of course our customers thought that was cool." Today, feathers are hot again—everything from earrings to feather hair extensions.

Portland's a Natural Fit for Taxidermy

Paxton Gate PDX in Neighborhood Notes
Back at Paxton Gate PDX, Brown boldly states that "taxidermy fits the lifestyle and culture of Portland…it makes total sense." Reception has been great in the hood, but Brown notes that there was "some aggro at first, but it dissipated. Some neighbors weren't happy especially with foxtails that were used in a window display. So we took them down. We are reasonable people."

Taxidermy is (slightly) controversial, certainly not everyone's cup of tea. But what a great opportunity to learn about different animals: how they are raised, what their status in nature is (endangered, not) problems and threats in the wild. There are many great stories to be told, says Quigley, "and we focus on educating people with the stories and knowledge behind each piece. It starts with displaying signs that note the animal’s common name, genus, and species, and then the dialog can begin."