The medieval-looking Medusa–head doorknocker on David Wiesand’s laundry-room door begins to tell the story. “This is my $20, cheap, hollow-core door like you get at Home Depot or any home-supply place,” says the 57-year-old Wiesand. “I used a router to cut the grooves in the door, bought these wonderful hand-hewn clavos nails, and installed one of these old rim locks my grandfather saved. The doorknocker is something my dad had—I’ve always loved it, so I copied it.”
It’s “Exhibit A” that the Baltimore craftsman and owner of McLain Wiesand is one-part magician (down to the red velvet curtain that serves as his makeshift master-bedroom closet door) and one-part artisan as he turns every corner of his 1855 Mt. Vernon home into a visual smorgasbord.
Then again, Wiesand—whose customers include Cal Ripken Jr., filmmaker Spike Lee, and clothing designer Alexander Julian—has always had a flare for making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. “I call it ‘upcycling,’” he says. “I like to make things look way more interesting with add-ons or alterations.” It’s an approach the Baltimore-born and bred artist developed as a young boy while trawling along Howard Street’s Antique Row with his paternal grandfather, William Wiesand Sr., a contractor whose passion for art, antiques, and artifacts was infectious.
“Because of the contracting business, my grandfather kept in touch with the people who were the movers and shakers of the time—Sumner Parker who built the Cloisters is one who immediately comes to mind,” says Wiesand. “He’d hang out with these people, and he saw everything they had in their house and thought, ‘You know what? I want that, too.’ In those days, we went to places like [Howard Street antique shops] Sam Pattisons and Gaultons, and we’d buy all this stuff for next to nothing.”
Tinkering alongside his contractor father, William Jr., in the basement of his family’s Dutch-Colonial-style home in Stoneleigh also had a profound impact. “Every evening after dinner, my dad was down in the basement,” recalls Wiesand, now the father of three girls, two of whom—Alex and Katie—work for the business as social media maven/shop assistant and project manager, respectively. “He always had a project going, and he’d always ask me, ‘Can you hold this clamp or keep this block from spinning?’ I was this hippie teenager, and I guess I mildly resented it, but it’s interesting that his hobby became my career.”
Wiesand went on to study art at Towson University, graduating in 1978, followed by a master’s degree in painting in 1981 from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Though armed with degrees, he wasn’t sure what to do next.
“After MICA, I didn’t know what the hell to do,” says Wiesand. “I thought, ‘I’ll go to a studio and paint,’ and that didn’t happen, and then I thought, ‘I’ll get a teaching job,’ but that didn’t happen. I looked in the paper and found this display job with the Hecht Company. It said, ‘Art background helpful.’ I got the job, and boy did I fit in. I did window dressing, lettering, signage, some fixture design,” says Wiesand. “It pushed me way beyond any limit I had ever known.” At Hecht’s, he also learned about lighting and antiques.
By 1986, Wiesand decided to start a business of his own, sharing a modest space with another vendor on Howard Street. “I started designing and building a few little nothing pieces,” he says. “A simple pedestal light and things that I would just mix into my growing inventory of antiques.” Things took off from there, and, in less than a year, Wiesand had his own shop on Howard Street, focusing on custom furniture and decorative arts. “Antiques Row was just rocking and rolling back then,” he recalls. “Sometimes it was hard just keeping stuff in the shop.”
From those early days, Wiesand’s business has continued to grow and his work—for sale through top showrooms across the country—has appeared everywhere from the Maryland State House to Las Vegas’s Bellagio Hotel. (He is also the go-to-guy for custom work for some of the best-known area designers such as Jenkins Baer.)
No doubt, Wiesand owes a large part of his success to his father who schooled him in the art of the deal. “Talk about someone who liked a bargain,” laughs Wiesand. “He always used to say he could squeeze a nickel out of a buffalo until it farted. Dad’s theory was to go to these auction sales and buy the stuff that was the best but was beat up and damaged so that you could get it even cheaper.” It’s a credo that helps explain where Wiesand is today.
In 1998, while searching for yet another new showroom with more studio space, he settled on a spacious, 7,300-square-foot dilapidated building in Mt. Vernon once occupied by Baltimore gentry but owned in more recent times by the Reliable Tire Company. “People would come here and switch out their snow tires,” explains Wiesand. “They’d come up to this floor and root around and find your tire for you. It stunk, and it was filthy, and the weight of the tires had caused the floor joists to sag.” Wiesand decided he had to have it.
“I offered $60,000, and they took it,” says Wiesand, his voice filled with pride. “That’s what I paid for the whole shooting match.”
Where some might have seen serious structural issues, lack of modern-day amenities such as HVAC, electricity, and plumbing, as well as plaster-cracked walls, Wiesand saw potential. “It looked like post-war London,” cracks Wiesand. “I never thought I’d live here. I kept walking around and saying to myself, ‘David, all you need is a space to work in and a showroom downstairs to put some product in.’”
Wiesand’s early life lessons helped him tackle what became his personal DIY project. “Going around with my dad, the most interesting thing for me was seeing all this furniture in a deconstructed manner,” says Wiesand. “How many people kneel down and see what’s under the table? What does the back look like on a chest? How is it inset into a cabinet? How are drawers made? The stuff my dad bought came in all smashed and busted up, and I saw it in its preassembly stage. I got to see the magic behind the curtain—and that was always interesting to me.”
So after a divorce, when he found he needed not only a new place to set up shop but also a place to call home, he reconsidered the space. “It has the most killer bones,’” he recalls thinking. “The shapes, the proportions of the rooms, the quality of the ceiling and the light. So I decided, à la the Europeans, to move above my shop. I can be a scaredy-cat, but I wasn’t scared.”
While making the space habitable, Wiesand washed in a portable shower for more than a year and used an electric blanket and a space heater when temperatures dropped. He also lived a double life, by day working downstairs in his studio on his finely handcrafted confections—benches, lighting, mirrors, console tables and cabinetry—and by night toiling on the second and third levels, trying to rehab his residence, even pouring concrete for the kitchen counters and restoring floor joists. “Basically, I did everything but plumbing and electricity,” he says.
These days, the home he shares with daughter Alex and Pinky, the Jack Russell terrier, is a showcase, best described as mixed not matched, elegant and eclectic. (IKEA kitchen cabinetry keeps company with heirloom porcelain from the Walters family). It’s heavily influenced by French and Italian country décor with museum-quality artwork and antiques (an Italian cassone wedding chest, an heirloom tapestry, an Etruscan vase) and neoclassical reproductions (a 19th-century china cabinet with cremone bolts, a pair of 19th-century bronze centaurs, a pair of 18th-century-style English-country sofas covered in Scalamandre silk) many of which are available through his McLain-Wiesand label. And though his home is fit for a king, Wiesand doesn’t take any of it too seriously, as evidenced by a museum-quality bronze figurine of Queen Elizabeth in his bedroom that does double time as a tie holder. “Like it?” he says with a smile.
The treasure hunter is also proud of his hard-won salvaged pieces, such as an industrial coffee table fashioned from a building grate.
“I dumpster-dive all the time,” confesses Wiesand. “A few weeks ago, I got a Saarinen Tulip table. And when we were moving Katie into her dorm room at Towson, there were these two life-sized neoclassical figures that were in a dumpster there. They stunk and were filled with food, but I got all my guys to meet me there with the trucks and get those statues out. Of course, Katie was horrified.”
Although Hecht’s is gone, to this day, department-store design remains a source of professionial inspiration. “I make it a point to go to Nordstrom and Macy’s,” explains Wiesand, who occasionally designs his own clothing, including a Sherlock Holmes-inspired bathrobe and a pair of neoclassic, “upcycled” Chuck Taylors. “I like to see what’s on the front rack. And I like to see, have they renovated the men’s department? Have they put in a new cologne area? What’s happening visually in the store? How do they make it interesting for shoppers?”
For his own work, Wiesand makes it his mission to keep things from being too predictable. “We have to keep coming up with new products that the designers can be excited about instead of the same old out-of-the-box stuff,” says Wiesand.
Likewise, on the home front, elements of visual surprise play out as one wanders from the vastly disparate spaces of his kitchen (the only modern room in the house) to the grand living room (Wiesand’s ode to all things neoclassical) to his “Moroccan room,” which includes such things as a handcrafted lantern Wiesand fashioned out of wood combined with inexpensive lanterns from Bed, Bath & Beyond. “Why Morocco? I don’t know,” deadpans Wiesand. “Doesn’t everyone have a Moroccan room? A few years ago, I had a party and everyone dressed in Middle Eastern garb,” he recalls. “And I hired belly dancers—it was killer.”
Whether he’s entertaining or just commuting up the restored second-floor staircase after a busy day of work, Wiesand has loved every minute of bringing his vision to life. “It’s like a visual offshoot of what I am and who I am and what I’m capable of doing,” he says. “I’ve poured so much of myself into this house, and it was such a blast doing it. I’ve always said I want to do another one before I get too old.”