Tattered Jeans

Steve Minatra sees the gems among the junk: A true craftsman shares his secrets

Steve Minatra sees the gems among the junk: A true craftsman shares his secrets

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Meet Steve Minatra. Photo by Katie Oxford
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Minatra at home, with light fixtures he made with “junk” Photo by Katie Oxford
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Light fixture Minitra made from broomsticks Photo by Katie Oxford
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CD lamps Photo by Katie Oxford
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Protest signs Minatra made for friends participating in Occupy Houston Photo by Katie Oxford
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“Then I realized I could make signs for the other side, too.” Photo by Katie Oxford
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A standing light fixture made by Minatra Photo by Katie Oxford
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Check out his desk lamp! Photo by Katie Oxford
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Storage room for Minatra's next works Photo by Katie Oxford
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Bright ideas from Minatra Photo by Katie Oxford
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Steve Minatra makes things. He is the guy behind the scenes — literally.  

He has done everything, from helping to make set designs for film spots and window displays for Hermès, to creating a Ludwig look-a-like from Harry Potter the movie. He built the owl with high-density foam, and he has high-density brainpower, too. 
 
Minatra describes what he does as, “doing handiwork type stuff.” Some handiwork! He can create light fixtures and more using “junk,” he says. The end result looks anything but and is as brilliant in design as it is functional. His Montrose home illustrates this point perfectly. 
 
When I recently visited him there, Minatra laughingly described the interior, “like stepping into my mind.” Indeed it is. He has an artist’s eye, an engineer’s understanding and he uses both when making something. In my mind, this is magic.
 
Minatra's home is a building that he found 14 years ago while on a photo shoot. The structure was built in the '50s as an extension of someone’s home. Later, it became a neighborhood grocery story, then several beer joints. The story goes that at least two people, in separate instances, have been shot there. Supposedly in the large, open room where we were sitting.
When I asked him what drew him to Houston, Minatra immediately listed five things: “In the first place, my heart was always here,” he said. “Houston is entrepreneurial. It has a lot of physical and psychological space. It combines the best parts of Southern and Western, and … it’s not expensive.”
 
Born in Nashville in 1951, Minatra grew up in Memphis until he was old enough to run away from home at age 18. He came to Houston for a period and lived in different places afterwards, but liked Houston the best. “While I was living in NYC,” Minatra says, “I would wonder, ‘what are they doing in Houston?’ every day. I moved to Brooklyn where I could see the sky, but it didn’t make it better, it made it worse.”
 
So, in 1988, he returned to Houston and was hired by Dave Berman to work on TV commercials. “All the useless skills I had acquired through life,” Minatra explained, “suddenly connected.” He has been here ever since practicing those skills, none of which his clients — some of them interior designers — would describe as useless.  
 
When I asked him what drew him to Houston, Minatra immediately listed five things: “In the first place, my heart was always here,” he said. “Houston is entrepreneurial. It has a lot of physical and psychological space. It combines the best parts of Southern and Western, and … it’s not expensive.”  
 
Whatever Minatra makes, you can be sure it is original.  Using great shades of green, he painted protest signs for friends participating in Occupy Houston. He shares their views. “Then,” Minatra says smiling, “I realized I could make signs for the other side.” In colors of red, white and blue, he uses satire to convey the message, “I’VE GOT MINE.” Underneath the signage, he painted a pink pig.
 
Minatra's Christmas cards are original, too. They are my favorite every year.  
 
No family photo in his cards. Nor do they include a typed letter telling you who, what, when, where and why of the last year. They are colorful, honest and handwritten in words that hold not an ounce of fat and would bring Santa himself into belly achin’ laughter.  
 
Last Christmas, I took a fistful of Minatra’s cards to a small party of close friends and read them aloud. Everyone howled. Then, we read them again and howled louder. Here’s one he wrote in 2002 using thick red ink:
 
The seasonal labor is over. The homes of the rich and the luxurious stores are decorated. Now I can decorate my house, visit my Folks in Memphis, and rest up ‘til January 2nd when everyone will want all that crap out-a-there!
Mucho love and Merry etc., Steve
 
About a year ago, after eyeing Minatra’s owl creation, I asked him how he would describe what he does. Silence. “Okay then,” I pressed, “Would you send me a bio or something?”  He sent the latter, one sentence long. Vintage Steve:
 
"Steve Minatra realized at a young age that the best way to get people to do what you want is not be too particular about what you want them to do."
 Minatra has done everything, from helping to make set designs for film spots and window displays for Hermès, to creating a Ludwig look-a-like from Harry Potter the movie. 
 
 
Enclosed were a few of his business cards. On one side was a photograph reminiscent of the movie The Illusionist. On the reverse side were the following words, with a miniature graphic behind each: transport, assemble, install, furniture, exhibits, interiors.
  
As reflected in most everything he makes, Minatra is a minimalist. Interestingly, he studied to be a musician, receiving a degree in music from the University of St. Thomas  in 1974. He can play the guitar, violin and piano.
 
Altogether, it makes perfect sense. In a way, Minatra’s a wizard. Perhaps he said it best when he talked about the junk. “You know how you save things that you don’t know what you’re going to do with but they’re just too good to throw away?” he asked. "Sometimes, it takes years, but you begin to see the relationship between different pieces of junk. You see the way that stuff fits together.” In Minatra's world, things fit beautifully.
 
Like when he pulls broomsticks (wooden are hard to find) out of someone’s garbage and voila, makes a light fixture. So it goes with everything he makes. He sees stuff where others don't. “I could always see space,” he claims.
 
Pure magic.