First, there was the tour. In in 2014, locals Chelle and David J. Neff produced a self-guided, one-day cruise through some of the residential spaces that make our city irreverent, sometimes strange, and fun. They christened it the Austin Weird Homes Tour, and it was a rousing success from the beginning. (The tour has an additional goal of bringing attention to affordability issues that might be driving out those who make a living making art and donates a portion of its proceeds to local nonprofits that help address that problem. This year, it has partnered with Lifeworks.)
That success inspired the Neffs to expand to other cities that have their share of eccentric shelters (and, really, which ones don’t?)—first there was Houston, then New Orleans, and this year Portland, Ore., and Detroit have been added.
Next came the book, which documented Weird Homes in the tour’s original city with photographs by Thanin Virikayaki, who has been shooting it from the beginning, and delved into the creators’ stories and inspirations.
On the eve of the fifth Austin Weird Homes tour (it’s Saturday!), we thought it would be fun (and it was) to chat with David Neff, one of the co-founders of this new empire of weird. He spoke to us by telephone on Tuesday.
What was your personal experience of weird homes before you started the tour?
Chelle and I were interested in architecture and design from a very specific point of view. Chelle likes to describe our aesthetic as “Anthropologie meets [former Austin vintage store] Uncommon Objects”—sort of midcentury, but full of stuff.
We’d been in Austin for 17 years, and it seemed like a perfect inflection point for that. We were walking in the neighborhood we lived in [Crestview], and we saw a house that looked like the Alamo. We wondered why that person chose to design the house that way—and, of course, if there was a basement [Ed. note: See the 1985 film Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure].
What qualifies as a weird home?
It’s very subjective. We have collectors, who have hundreds if not thousands of a specific kind of object. We have artists who make their whole homes into pieces of art, their personal gallery. And we have homes that qualify architecturally—say, by someone who builds a working slide from the second to first floor and things like that.
What is not is shiplap, garden sinks, and beige boxes.
How are the homes different from those of the scads of Austinites who display odd memorabilia, enjoy quirky art and furniture, and in general have homes with an offbeat sensibility?
There’s definitely room for those folks. Like Eryln Hughes, the Queen of Weird [featured in the Austin weird homes book], they had funky, interesting collections that over time hit that next level and become art. It has a lot to do with obsession. Like Barbara’s Bird Cage [also in the book], it’s all found-object art and outsider art collected by a woman who is also a great artist. Every single home that qualifies is like walking though a museum.
How did you find the homes initially, and how do you find them now?
It remains a little bit the same. We’ve always had tremendous social media and marketing experience and those backgrounds, and we had realtors and others out on the street sending us leads. Over time, we’ve developed a great network of art dealers, artists, and art and performance festival participants, who all talk to each other. It’s sort of back-channel and word-of-mouth through artists. We now have similar networks in the cities we’re expanding to: Portland, Detroit, New Orleans.
How do you choose which homes to include every year?
This year we had more homes submitted than we ever had before, which is why you see so many new folks. We lean toward bringing on new ones. Kevin Shaw, our managing director, does site visits to the homes. I’d say there’s a lot of art and not a lot of science that goes into it: Is there a “Wow” factor here? Does it provide a through-the-looking-glass experience?
What parts of Austin are more likely to have a lot of weird homes in them?
78704 [central South Austin], because it has so many artists, so many longtime musicians. The older the homes, the more time they’ve had to become weird, so we tend to find them in the older parts of town. We’re also looking at small towns nearby—Lockhart, Smithville—because people from those towns contact us, and a lot of artists and musicians are moving there because they can’t afford to live in Austin anymore.
Why did you choose to call it the Weird Homes tour, and do you have any regrets about the “weird” label, which makes some old-time Austinites cringe?
I don’t think it does make a lot of old Austinites cringe. What the slogan might have become—commercialized—might make people cringe. A lot of them still want the experience—strange, odd, call it what you want to. They want to go out with the family and have a kick-butt design experience—to see what’s new and cool and weird. We don’t look back. We own it.
It’s hard not to notice some lack of diversity in Austin’s Weird Homes on the tour. So far, most of the homeowners seem to be white or Latinx. What are you doing to promote more inclusivity?
We’ve noticed the lack of diversity in homeowners—which, thankfully, is not the case with our attendees. What we’ve done is look purposefully at where we run ads, how we target ads, when we should micro-target a neighborhood. We’ve been thinking a lot about it.
Regular tickets for this year’s Austin Weird Homes Tour are sold out, but you can still purchase VIP tickets on the tour website.