A visit with PMA Store director Sally Struever in her family’s Deering bungalow
Sometimes I spend as much time in art museum stores as I do looking at the art itself. No matter how little time I have at the Portland Museum of Art, I am inevitably drawn to spend a chunk of it at the PMA Store, where I can count on finding accessories unlike any I’ve ever seen before—blown glass that looks plucked from a Dali painting, and little wooden toys so beautiful they are like pieces of art themselves. I always leave with a thank-you card or five. Now I know that I have Sally Struever to thank for that.
Struever is the director of the PMA Store, which means—among other things—that she does all of the buying for the store. I already knew I loved her taste, so you can imagine my excitement on my way to visit her in the Deering home she shares with her husband, Peter Eiermann, finance coordinator at the Portland Symphony Orchestra, and their five-year-old son, Jasper. Approaching the door, I run into Eiermann carrying a canvas sling of firewood from the garage. He gestures for me to follow him up a narrow staircase into the open-concept, horseshoe-shaped kitchen and living space. Just back from the gym (“it was an arm day”), Struever’s standing at the kitchen island, unwrapping and arranging a selection of cheese and sausage on a cutting board. Jasper is playing on the floor near the sleek wood-burning stove, watching the logs catch and burn through a large glass window. Everything about this home and the people inside it conveys a sense of calm.
Hundreds of little details catch my eye. From my stool at the counter, I note the large, textural abstract in one corner of the living room and a fabulous hammered-metal dresser nearby. The space is also filled with objects I might find at the PMA, pieces that showcase Struever’s distinctive taste—colorful, alternatively graphic and detailed, a mix of high and low, sophisticated and whimsical. But this environment lacks that austerity so delicious in art museums and potentially chilling in a home. This place feels lived-in. On the kitchen island scraps of paper and Star Wars action figures sit alongside a tall, striped ceramic vase made by a family friend, Providence, Rhode Island-based artist David Allyn. As it turns out, most of their furniture was handed down from family and most of their art was made by friends, making a tour of their home a biographical experience.
Struever was born and raised in Baltimore and studied graphic design at Rhode Island School of Design. She was working on a nonprofit development project in Providence, renovating old mill buildings into artist workspace, commercial, and mixed-use developments, when she met Eiermann, who was running an industrial arts center in an old steel fabrication plant at the time. After growing up around the Northeast, Eiermann attended Hartwick College, where he majored in business management and minored in art. As evidenced by their eclectic resumes and the collection of silkscreen prints adorning their walls, they are both artists with broad interests who gravitate toward places where art, culture, politics, and economics intersect.
While they loved Providence, by the mid-2000s, the couple was interested in making a move. “Right now, small towns, small cities, seem to be really interesting places to be,” says Struever. “You don’t need to be in big cities anymore to get the exposure to culture.” From 2008 through 2011, the couple ran their own store on Congress Street, Eli Phant, which featured artwork, tableware, home goods, and accessories. While running Eli Phant, Struever came into contact with lots of Maine makers and has built upon her relationships with these local artists as director of the PMA Store.
When it came time for them to buy a house, Struever and Eiermann were willing to take on a project, and to do a lot of the renovations themselves. “We didn’t want something that had been recently renovated, but we did want something that felt manageable,” says Struever. After purchasing their 1,332-square-foot bungalow, built in 1920, they opened up the first-floor plan and got to work on the most important room—that is, the kitchen—first. Struever designed the space, a carpenter friend built cabinets, and Eiermann and his brother installed them, including the beautiful (and affordable) wooden countertops.
Knowing they would spend a great deal of time in the kitchen, Struever and Eiermann decided against upper shelving in favor more wall space. They removed the fake wood paneling from the walls and found a creative way to deal with the scuffed surface underneath. American Clay plaster saved them months of sanding, and the gritty, off-white surface makes for a warm and earthy backdrop. The little red rocking chair in one corner belonged to a great-aunt; the rolltop desk in another corner was Struever’s as a girl. She refers to her eclectic collection of pillows as “jewels for the couch.” The upstairs rooms are even more playful than those on the first floor. Scraps of vintage cloth serve as curtains, and the beds are topped with artfully mismatched bedding by designers like Angela Adams and Donna Wilson. On the second floor, art ranges from Maine landscape paintings to framed poems to prints by fellow RISD graduates to a large work by photographer Abelardo Morell, which has—to my delight—found a temporary home on a wall surrounded by glow-in-the-dark stars before securing prime placement downstairs.
Struever and Eiermann tell me that their home is still a work in progress. A mysterious leak has torn a hole in the kitchen ceiling, and they have yet to renovate the bathroom. But to me, their house is a reminder that art is not meant to be the cherry on top of a perfect home—it is far more important than that. Art is meant to be enjoyed. The paintings and cups and couches we live with can be beautiful and meaningful without being so serious.
In Struever and Eiermann’s whimsical home, Jasper’s toys become part of the decor. Struever laughs when I point to a piece of paper resting on top of a table near the bathroom. “That’s called Daily Toothbrush and Flossing Chart,” she says in a mock-serious tone. “A piece of functional art.” And the “sticky guy” action figure from DeLorme Map Store who appears to be walking across the ceiling? “We had a bet going how long it would stick up there,” she says. “It’s been four months now. It’s also our reminder that we still need to take this ceiling out.”