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Wednesday, June 20,2012

Mill Supplies' mad makeover

Artist Tiffany Klein launches a gallery and workshop in a 102-year-old downtown Lansing building

by Lawrence Cosentino
When Tiffany Klein says “I need my space,” she means it literally.

Klein, a Lansing-based artist and interior designer, needs a laboratory more than she needs a gallery. In her hands, plaster becomes velvet, fiberboard turns into wood and PVC pipes aspire to the glory of Roman columns. Her wall-sized, multimedia art glimmers with gemstones and mirror shards, with frames made of textured cement.

She collects weird stuff like an 18th-century fishing chair from Spain and, to make ends meet, runs a seven-person custom furniture and design shop.

Klein is a paint-spattered being of almost pure energy, and now she has La Fille Gallery, four floors and 10,000 square feet, in which to run amok: the former Mill Supplies Corp. building downtown, across from the convention center.

“It’s a pretty big building for one person,” she admits.

It ought to do for now. Built in 1910 as the home of the Rikerd Lumber Co., the long brick monolith crests Michigan Avenue like the bulkhead of a Great Lakes freighter riding the steep slope of Museum Drive. Its huge windows, bowling-alley-scaled wood floors, medieval-looking freight elevator, brick walls and overall industrial heft make the perfect backdrop for a mad alchemist.

Klein loves to manipulate concrete, plaster, paint and other surface finishes, but most of all, she likes to mess with your mind. The Roman columns in her showroom are drainage tubes from a farm supply shop. Fake copper, complete with an instant patina of age, is a specialty. The first floor ceiling is not supported by thick, not-oaken beams, not held in place by not-wrought-iron buckles and not-nails. (It’s all plaster and paint.) By this weekend’s opening, the entrance will be graced by sumptuous-looking chandeliers made out of paint stirrers.

“I love chemistry,” she said. “I’m a pyro. I mix it, blend it, bleed it.”

Klein got her zest for messing with stuff from her dad, a fiberglass wizard who molded spoilers for General Motors and built parts of the DeLorean car. As a youngster, she frolicked with giant fiberglass bowling pins and more than one Big Boy (of restaurant fame).

Until last fall, Klein shared a 700-square-foot studio with Jason Belous at Against the Grain, an interior design and furniture studio in Old Town. She found out about the Mill Supplies Building from Camron Gnass, owner of Traction, a brand development company just down the street, at 617 Michigan Avenue. 

Mill Supplies closed shortly after CEO Joseph Newman retired in 2009. Gnass and a partner bought the building and threw an open house for friends, including Klein, last fall.

“I fell in love with the space as soon as I walked in,” Klein said. When she had a moment of doubt, an owl painted on the bottom of the toilet seat helped persuade her the move would be wise.

For over 50 years, the building’s last tenant, Mill Supplies Corp., built and serviced heavy equipment for GM and other big clients. “They cleaned the building impeccably,” Gnass said. “Took every bit of inventory out of here.”

Aside from removal of carpeting, drop ceilings and paneling, little rehab work was needed. 

When Gnass and Klein peeled the carpet back, starting at the front door, they found a nifty tile mosaic advertising Norton Abrasives, a supplier. They left it there, along with other historic nuggets like the weathered letters “BER” (from “LUMBER”) on an interior wall.

Design showrooms and a gallery for 60-odd works of art fill the airy ground floor. Upper floors will house a fabric shop, Klein’s master workshop and a space to sell her finds from travels around the world, including her Spanish fishing chair, a baroquely detailed Beatles “Sgt. Pepper” sofa and an Egyptian “thing” from the 1770s with blue wrought iron squirrels.

Klein has been pouring herself into the interior since November, weaving a semi-transparent web of creative chaos over the building’s sober industrial bones.

“She brought out the best of what was there, and hid what was an eyesore,” Gnass said. “This building is the most amazing canvas for her.”


La Fille Gallery

Opening reception

4-8 p.m. Friday, June 22

Regular hours 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays; other times by appointment

336 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing

(517) 526-7150


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