Art You Can Use

The line between decorative art and fine art grows ever fuzzier, with some declaring that it no longer even exists at all, if it ever did. I wouldn't go that far, but clearly what might once have been dismissed as elements of interior design can now more easily pass for, say, domestic art, for lack of a better, more all-encompassing term — not mere bric-a-brac or tchotchkes, but objects esteemed as much for their aesthetic grace as for their utilitarian value, whatever it may be.

Fort Lauderdale's loosely delineated Gateway shopping district increasingly rivals better known Las Olas Boulevard for galleries and shops that encourage us not just to decorate our homes but to curate them. The area doesn't have the unifying flow of Las Olas, but Gateway's cobbled-together quality has its own charms, including a general lack of pretentiousness.

Within easy walking distance, you can find a refreshing range of businesses with an artistic bent: the upscale furniture outpost Minimalista; the tiny Studio 19, a more traditional art gallery; Harmony Isle, specializing in American folk arts and crafts; Frieze, with an emphasis on Asian furniture and accents; the cheeky SassyBB, which invites you to make a fashion statement by designing your own handbags; and a couple of consignment stores where you can sometimes unearth a lost treasure. The area also includes a framery, a pet store, a used-CD shop, restaurants ranging from Sukhothai to Subway and Big Louie's, and more.

To that delightfully oddball mix we can now add Acacia, which opened just a few weeks ago in the spot once occupied by Frieze, before it moved to its much more spacious digs a few doors away. Like its predecessor, Acacia greets you with a welcoming wash of sensations when you walk in the door. From soft, atmospheric music to a pleasant mingle of fragrances from candles, potpourri, and reed diffusers, it's a subtle engagement of the senses that's hard to resist.

Owner Siegi Lindsay has an almost subliminal feel for juxtaposition that matches that of Frieze's Robert Rickard, for whom she worked briefly before striking out on her own. It was only on my second visit that I began to pick up on her deft placement, which includes an especially keen sense of color. Without making a fuss about it, she dots the space with clusters of objects that share similar (and sometimes contrasting) colors and textures.

Lindsay, a transplant from South Africa, was formally trained as a chef, and she plans to introduce additional culinary elements into the mix of gourmet pestos and olive oils and artisanal salts and spices she already displays. (She also sells a wide range of Garden in a Bag herbs.) She never anticipated running a retail operation. Acacia developed out of her own likes — she jokes that she ran out of room for art objects in her home — and it's informed by her nostalgia for Africa, which shows up in such items as a flamboyantly feathered hat from Cameroon, intricately hand-painted egg shells from South Africa, and elaborate ceremonial masks from Mali made of beaded metal and wood.

If she had to characterize her place, Lindsay says she would emphasize that she's drawn to found objects and organic materials. That covers three-foot-long pods from Philippine saba trees and blocks of ancient rock salt, a round mirror surrounded by reclaimed barrel staves, Italian cashmere throws and pillows. She also wants to expand her small but impressive selection of books such as Nick Brandt's On This Earth: Photographs from East Africa and the Natural Curiosities series, boxed sets of Audubon-style prints of insects, birds, and the like. All of which add up to a charming gallery run by an equally charming woman.

Organic materials and reclaimed wood are also de rigueur at Project Earth Design, at the opposite end of the shopping plaza where Acacia is located. When I first wrote about this combination gallery/home furnishings shop in early 2005, it had just opened as a one-room operation, supplemented by a small courtyard area, on the corner of Northeast 20th Avenue and Northeast Ninth Place, just off Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.

Now partners Peter Fedewicz, who's Ukrainian/Brazilian, and Fernando Dias, who's Portuguese/French, have more than doubled their space, expanding into what was previously a most unwelcoming used-book store/coffee bar on the other side of their courtyard, which still features fountains and statuary and big stone urns. (They're in the process of adding their own version of a coffee bar in the front room.) Fedewicz and Dias also opened an outpost in an Oakland Park strip mall, which has essentially the same merchandise but not nearly as much character as their Gateway site.

The guys still get the overwhelming majority of their inventory from Brazil, and they still emphasize items hand-made from sustainable and renewable resources. All of their spaces (especially the Oakland Park location) are dotted with pieces of furniture, some with natural finishes, others with "aged" surfaces: chairs carved in one piece from huge chunks of palm root, cabinets and tables made from reclaimed wood, lamps of all sizes and shapes with shades made from banana fiber.

Project Earth is big on banana fiber, a surprisingly versatile and durable resource. When it's made into thin lampshades, it diffuses the light and provides great textures, and it can be combined with papier-mâché to shape into bowls and trays. Both shops also carry an abundance of decorative abstract canvases made of the stuff, in panels of all shapes, hues, and patterns. Granted, these works are more craftsy than arty, but used judiciously they could enhance the look and feel of a room enormously.

Fedewicz and Dias have also expanded their selection of colorful work by Oficina de Agosto. This cooperative of Brazilian artists specializes in raw-finished frames that contain not canvases but grids of thick metal wires running through carved, painted wooden figures, usually of people or animals. One especially striking piece opts for the inanimate — bottles and glasses formed from wood.

Perhaps inevitably for a business that stocks such an amazing variety of merchandise, there is a lot of stuff that feels like filler. Some of the ceramics and glassware, for instance, isn't very interesting. And with so much competing for your attention, it can take some intense concentration to hone in on the items worth a closer look.

But just when you're on the verge of sensory overload, you might stumble upon something strange and fascinating, like the Raintree sculptures tucked away in one corner. These freestanding spires are actually the fossilized remains of trees that have been reclaimed 50 to 150 years after they were submerged under flood waters following, say, the construction of a dam. They've been shaped by aquatic creatures, the elements, and time, and they look as alien as something from another world, which in a sense they are.

A lot of what's best at Planet Earth is a similarly seductive blend of the familiar and the exotic, making the new expansion as welcome an addition to the Gateway area as Acacia.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Mills