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Modern Love

One Family Discusses Their Toddlers' Appreciation for Modern Art

You could say Cheo, 2 1/2, is being raised by MoMA and Dada. Dad Mike Worthington is a painter and works in the music business, and mom Patty Lie is a designer of CD box sets and clothes; together they've converted a former elevator repair warehouse in Brooklyn into a playful space where art's not just something to stick in a frame.

"A lot of the things we've done are part of trying to make a space that could have felt cold seem more friendly," Patty says. "And we wanted the place to be interactive, so we tried to fill it with ideas that would let people participate, ask questions, be curious."

Cheo may not be ready for art theory, but like most toddlers, he's a natural surrealist, fascinated with everyday objects like the wire hangers in the giant living-room mobile. Willy Guhl loop rockers may be high design (not to mention high expense), but Cheo loves them because they make great tunnels. "It's funny that we started out with this art-school sensibility," Patty says, "and ended up with a place kids love."

But it also makes sense. "Artists are always trying to go back to the way they used to think about things as children," Patty says. "That's why when you look at Jackson Pollock, a lot of people say, "Oh, a 5-year-old could do that.'"

Staying Mobile
Patty modeled the living-room mobile after the famous wooden one by Man Ray. It took a day to put the 70 or so wire hangers together. (She bought them on eBay for less than $5; shipping was about $10.) "It wasn't as easy as it seems," Patty says. "Every time I put on a new hanger, the mobile would tilt off balance." To keep the hangers in place, she used "snot glue," a.k.a. glue dots ($4 for 200, dickblick.com).

Patch It Up
The patchwork rug was inspired by an artist: jazz singer Shirley Horn. Patty art-directed a photo shoot at Horn's house, where "Shirley used carpet samples as coasters, mats, placemats," Patty says. "She said it was silly to throw things like that away." Carpet stores let Patty have the samples for free; she used electrical tape underneath to keep them together. A ready-made option: Skip Hop's Playspot mat ($80, skiphop.com).

Trainspotting
Mike and Patty used chalkboard paint (Rust-Oleum, $15, target.com) to turn a train table into an art surface. They created the table based on the shape of tracks they bought on eBay; other train supplies came from Cheo's grandparents and the discount site trainsgalore.com.

If These Walls Could Talk
Mike and Patty created the half-circle pattern on the walls by putting plates and bowls facedown and tracing the outlines of the rims, then filling in with latex paint. Are they bubbles or are they clouds? Cheo favors a literalist critique: "Big circle, small circle, big circle, big circle, small circle." Cheo's chairs are vintage Cosco booster seats, often found on eBay for around $40.

The World's a Stage
In Cheo's room hangs a bed of roses quilt that Mike's grandmother made; now it's an objet d'art that also functions as a closet door. It's made of thousands of gathered circles of fabric. Patty says, "I made a dress out of the same technique and can testify to the ridiculous amount of labor involved." Few things remain static here: Patty plans to refurbish the quilt for a homemade theater. "We're going to separate it in the middle so Cheo can use it as a curtain for staging plays," she says.

On the Down Low
Most things in Cheo's room are low to the ground, ready to use. He's appropriated an Offi overlap tray ($99, modernessentials.com) as an art table (a roll of paper fits in the groove). Cheo's into repurposing, Patty says: Toilet paper turns into roads, hangers into parking lots. "Most of the time when I absentmindedly pick up something to put it where it belongs, I hear, 'No, Mama, don't do that,' because it's part of some larger scheme, invisible to the adult eye."

See a Penny, Pick It Up
Mike's 4-by-4-inch paintings feature pennies he's found everywhere from New York to Iceland. He claims them only if they're face up (since those are the lucky ones) and ties in the history or date. (For info, e-mail misterworthington@earthlink.net.)

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