Eric Barker stands next to a Mud Hens wall hanging that his team of artists made to look like a vintage piece.
While presidential candidates and their surrogates have paraded through northwest Ohio with great fanfare over the last several months, the King of Cool Things has slipped in and out practically unnoticed.
That's the title on Eric Barker's business card, anyway. But who could argue? His collection of cool things - large and small, old and new - includes wood amusement park rides, dangling glass monkeys, Jeep hoods, croquet mallets, framed sports jerseys, used fire hose, yearbook photos, advertising paraphernalia, and hideous little ceramic dust-catchers.
Somehow, it all comes together decoratively in a way that offers hope to anyone who has inherited a hodgepodge of stuff from relatives.
Officially, Mr. Barker, 33, is director of interior design and decor for Max & Erma's Restaurants, Inc., and his decorating goal is something he calls "seek and find."
That means that, "every time you come in, you find something different," he explains. He wants to amuse people, maybe educate them, maybe stir up some memories.
Mr. Barker, who is based in Columbus, was in the area last Friday to install a few final pieces at the chain's new location in Perrysburg's Town Center at Levis Commons, State Rt. 25 near I-475/U.S. 23. The restaurant opens next week.
The decor at each location is a stew of a few common elements (a picture of the founder, for example), plus items with a local tie-in (a Wood County Tribune from 1894, Perrysburg High School yearbook photos, a lard tin from a Bowling Green company) and oddball stuff of general interest plucked from the floor-to-ceiling shelves and custom dividers in Mr. Barker's 7,000-square-foot warehouse. That category includes such items as pieces of an old carousel or a genuine red-and-white Pegasus that once marked a Mobil gas station.
Some of the pieces he buys himself on forays through the country; others come from teams of people he dispatches to scrounge bits of local heritage. What can't be found can be fabricated by artists who make an item look like it's been around for generations, Mr. Barker says.
At any one time, he's planning decor for five or six sites, he says. Each one has about 340 to 350 decorative pieces. Almost half are framed - calendars, feed bags, photos, or anything else he thinks should be protected - and about one-third are related to the store location.
It's not unusual for people to recognize themselves or relatives in photos on the restaurant walls, says Mr. Barker, who majored in theater design in college and made props for summer stock productions in the Catskills and the New York City Opera national touring company.
What would seem to be one of the working world's truly fun jobs is a lot of hard work, Mr. Barker says, with many hours spent shopping, unpacking his finds back at the warehouse, and assigning a number to every item. He says what he really enjoys is packing things back up, heading out, and arriving - like some rock-and-roll road show - to install it.
Four years in his job, Mr. Barker says he knows generally how many large items he needs and where he wants to place them before he leaves Columbus. He fills in with smaller pieces on the walls, hanging from the ceiling, and clustered (and glued) on shelves.
Mr. Barker also keeps an eye on his decor budget, but says he has a sense that tells him when enough cool stuff is enough.
"I know when I need to stop," he says.
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