From the Archives…A Menagerie of Curiosities Finds a Home in New Jersey

A Collection of Natural Curiosities, Textiles, and Victorian-esque Oddities That Wes Anderson Would Adore.

Margot Tenenbaum greeted me at the door, as she so often does when I visit and treating me like anything but royalty chased me from the mudroom and to the kitchen where I was greeted by her humans, Zoe Bean and Sweety.

Zoe Bean and Sweety, married with one son, live in a 1924 center-hall colonial in South Orange, NJ. They are New York City-based tattoo artists, she at Eight of Swords in Brooklyn and he at New York Hardcore Tattoo on the Lower East Side, though they could just as easily be gainfully employed as interior stylists or art gallery curators. (Just wait until you scroll down to peek inside their treasure trove of curiosities.)

As tattoo artists, Zoe Bean and Sweety create permanent art that often reflects the memories and passions held dear by their clients. Their craft requires a keen understanding of color and symmetry, (or an artful lack of symmetry if the case calls for it), and weaves storytelling into imagery, symbolism, and form.

These finely honed skills show up effortlessly in the design of Zoe and Sweety’s home environment through the juxtaposition of exquisite and unique items such as wishbones from every bird they ever cooked amidst vintage family photos and an illustration featuring their wedding.  The result is simultaneously warm, and engaging, evocative and ambient.

A display of items and art–the natural and the created, the sentimental and the objectified, by-gone eras, textiles, textures, 2d, and 3d dance whimsically over the surface of Zoe Bean and Sweety’s walls in stylish vignettes. A particular theme may begin on a shelf in the living room and evolve over surfaces until it concludes on a wall in the dining room. A visitor can always find something new to focus on – even one who visits frequently; people tend to notice things at different times.

Conversely, Zoe Bean and Sweety are forever finding their new on road trips to Canada, Louisiana, Texas, and all points in between, offering them a way to pick through natural curiosities outside NYC where prices for precious peculiarities are jacked up. Their home is in fact a showcase for just a small portion of a collection that they have been amassing together for well over a decade. About 300 framed pieces grace the walls today. A detached two-car garage houses the rest.

Regarding interior design, when a home features a menagerie of styles and colorful decor, a backdrop of neutral palette is often recommended. Nope. Zoe Bean and Sweety don’t subscribe to that. Deep blue, inspired by a favorite painting can be traced back to every home they’ve ever owned and renovated. During a previous period of their lives, in between their current NJ home and their Chelsea NYC apt, they gutted and renovated a limestone in Brooklyn. The project was likened to the Wild West…

“I wanted our Brooklyn house to look like it was in the Royal Tenenbaums. That was sort of my dream – that our house would feel like a cross between a tattoo shop and a Wes Anderson movie,”  ~ Zoe

Their aesthetic has a strong Victorian influence; they both love naturalist painters.  For instance, the murals behind the dioramas in the Museum of Natural History in NYC were big influences on their work. It’s also just a combination of their experiences both as people and artists.

Their aesthetic has always been rooted in subculture and like Outsider Art, has a bit of folk art, punk rock, and tattooing. In the last 20 years or so all of those things have been co-opted by mainstream pop culture.

“I think anything that we liked it because it was weird and funky and kind of Outsider is all of a sudden really cool. God, there’s a painting we have with a polar bear eating a baby. It was in the dining room in our house in Brooklyn and people had a real hard time with it. I definitely remember when we first started with Taxidermy. I think people have warmed up to our aesthetic. It’s come full circle. It’s a little more in fashion to have dead things,” said Zoe.

This painting, four feet by six feet, that hangs in their family room was made by Emily Sartor a painter from Louisiana and who shared a studio with Zoe for almost 10 years. Zoe says she “basically forced her into giving it to me. I love this painting so much.”  The painting has a lot of blue; it depicts ships sinking in the ocean. Sardar gave them the painting right before they moved into their Brooklyn house. They designed the living room around it and have been drawing inspiration from it ever since. In fact, when they searched for homes in South Orange and Maplewood, many of the homes they toured didn’t have a wall that could accommodate this massive painting.

Zoe says that there have been a couple of artists in her life who defined and in some ways altered her aesthetic. “One of them is Sweety for sure. Meeting Sweety definitely changed the way that I saw the world… without being too dramatic.” Sartor and Zoe also shared their studio with fellow painter, Lisa Sanditz who also influenced her aesthetic. “I think like being around artists that inspire you it changes the way you want to make your world.”

Sweety got this real human arm at a store in NYC called Obscura Antiques & Oddities.  Shows like The History Channel’s American Pickers have helped normalize this kind of art.

Sweety says of his generation, “When we were in high school it was all about going through thrift stores to find cool bike flannels…or cutting out pictures from my skateboard magazines. Now that we’re older and instead of buying famous art, we have access to artist friends and things like monkey taxidermy which doesn’t require a large disposable income.”

Sweety studied cartooning, which is all about composing a page. To him, designing a wall in their home (and painting and tattooing) is a similar exercise.  The artist frames out the space using the materials at hand to arrive at an aesthetically pleasing design.

So where do you start? Zoe and Sweety suggest that to fill a room, just pick  one piece. It can hang on the wall or a piece of furniture. Build a room around that one object and the rest should happen organically over time.  “You don’t have to be an artist to look at something and know it looks good,” says Zoe.

Zoe laments, “People decorate their homes in this way that they think nothing can ever change. If something doesn’t work it’s not permanent.  Walls are easy to touch up. You know, you can move stuff around and try something out. Live with it for a while and see how you feel about it.”

Margot Tenenbaum, Sweety, and Zoe Bean at home in their living room.

Zoe’s Renovation Recommendations

  • Do your homework! Research contractors, interview them, get comparative estimates, and follow-up on references.
  • Order your textiles and fixtures in advance so they are at the job site when it’s time to install them.
  • Take inventory every time you visit a home you’ve never been in. Look at their kitchen and bathrooms. What do you like and what do you hate?
  • Meet with at least one super high-end designer just to hear his or her ideas.
  • If you want to incorporate a trendy design, makes sure it is easily swapped out.

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