It's Sunday morning, and David Hrobowski is rearranging the breakfast pastries in a corner of MorYork Gallery in Highland Park. "Even this has to be just so," he says, shifting a banana that serves as the dividing line between slices of pumpkin and zucchini bread. "It's like my popsicle stuff."
The "popsicle stuff" in question are frozen dessert sticks, thousands of them, glued together one by one to construct spiraling 3-foot-tall table legs and lampshades finished in the most improbable fringe. For the 56-year-old antiques dealer, these "riffsticks" — each popsicle piece like a short melodic note repeated over and over — have become more than a hobby. They're a rediscovery of the artist's childhood. The MorYork exhibition closing Saturday includes two dozen pieces: lamps, hanging mirrors, even a 6-foot-long dining table, all from one man whose inspiration harks back to childhood.
"It was like the floodgates opened when I saw popsicle sticks again," says Hrobowski, standing next to a photo of the first lamp he made as a 9-year-old in St. Louis. It all started when a neighbor brought over a few boxes of popsicle sticks and Elmer's glue. "She thought I could do something with them," Hrobowski says.
After the lamp landed him on the local news, the budding designer made a half-dozen more. "Then I just stopped, sort of forgot about them," he says.
Hrobowski worked briefly in a pharmacy, then moved into the antique business. Then three years ago …
"I was meeting a friend downtown who insisted we go to Moskatels before we ate," Hrobowski says, referring to the crafts store. "The first thing I saw in the aisles were boxes of popsicle sticks. It all just came right back to me."
Inside the gallery, Hrobowski leads Carol Sauvion, producer of the PBS series "Craft in America" and executive director of a local nonprofit of the same name. They walk over to an exhibition pedestal, where Hrobowski picks up a delicate-looking chair with midcentury lines and plops it onto the floor.
"When I was putting this together, I started out with this shape here," he says, tracing the shape of an archery bow with his finger. "Go ahead, sit."
Sauvion looks skeptical. "Oh, no," she says. "I don't want to break it."
Hrobowski says he doesn't design these pieces in advance, preferring instead to follow whatever comes from his fingers. Yes, looks are important, but functionality — building a chair that can properly support its occupant — is important too, he says.
"You just push down to see where it feels like it's not sturdy and use as few braces as possible to keep the design," he says, pushing firmly on the seat. "It's really not that hard."
He says one of the biggest hurdles in popsicle design is patience. He can layer three or four sticks before he must pause and allow the glue to dry.
The slow pace allows time for ideas to percolate.
"This mirror had been hanging with the corners unfinished for months," he says of a large two-tone piece flanked by 7-foot, New Orleans-flavored floor lamps that look like they were plucked from Bourbon Street. "One day I yanked it off the wall because I suddenly knew how to close it."
Two Art Deco-style lamp bases are topped with Victorian-inspired shirred lampshades. A screen nearby has a Japanese flair, its red-dyed sticks arranged like cherry blossoms.
Sauvion likens several pieces to tramp art, though Hrobowski doesn't rely on found objects to create his works. She studies a dining table made of more than 20,000 mahogany-stained sticks, and at Hrobowski's continued insistence, she finally agrees to sit in the loop chair. "Kind of a genius, really," she says, running her hand across the frame.
For Hrobowski, that's the joy — the creative process. "I don't count the number of popsicle sticks or the hours," he says. "I just live from color band to color band."