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Knob Appeal 

Martha Stewart goes bohemian.

Chris Jordan runs rings around other napkin folders. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Chris Jordan runs rings around other napkin folders.
Grand visions don't always need lots of surface area. If a thousand angels can fit on the head of a pin, just think how many can cram, Ellis Island-style, onto a stub of wood.

"A lot of people dream they're living in mansions," says Hudson knob painter Susan Terkel. "I dream I'm living in a dollhouse. I like things small."

The antithesis of mass production, Terkel is no ordinary craft slave slapping a periwinkle coat on a cabinet nub. A knob painter "in the tradition of Duchamp's urinal," she references the greats -- Henri Matisse, Milton Avery, and Chuck Close -- when outlining her personal knob aesthetic.

"I try to give each knob a piece of my soul," she says reverently. "I call it taking a dowdy old lady and putting a ball gown on her."

An author of young-adult books on ethics, Terkel entered knobsville via the "path of least resistance," one of her favorite places to take a psychic stroll. After much nudging from artist friends, one day she picked up a paintbrush and liberated her wooden banana holder with a checkerboard motif.

"I can barely look at it now," she admits. "So I started there. Then I had leftover paints and started playing around. Then it got to be that, if Pinocchio lived here, he'd be repainted every other day."

She soon graduated from banana holders to windowsills to staircase spindles. Her newfound passion, a nice break from writing, was a kind of homage to Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group. "They were always painting the bathtubs and everything. They used to probably take opium or something and then paint. I knew about them, so I just started painting everything."

Once the interiors were gussied up, "my son wanted me to paint the outside of the house. I didn't think in Hudson they'd go for that. They think we're liberal enough as it is. My lawn does have more weeds than anyone else's in town. We say it's the '50s retro look."

So Terkel camped out in the garage instead, painting vivacious furniture for a women's shelter.

"I don't know why my painting looks so cheerful," she laments. "I went through a really difficult year about four years ago. It was so depressing. And I looked at this painted furniture and thought, 'Oh God, you look like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. How saccharine. But that's just who you are.'"

Other furniture ensued. "I'm enamored with chairs. The funny thing is, of the dozens of chairs I've painted, I think I sat in two," she says. "I don't like to sit in chairs. If I had my ideal living room, it would be four chaise lounges. I always thought it was cool how the Romans would lie in their chaise lounges and eat grapes, whereas the English would sit in chairs or stand. I thought the Romans were further ahead, and that's probably why I eat too much pizza."

Terkel vowed to someday paint a piano, which would be her swan song, then return to full-time writing. But she loved painting the piano, "and I thought, 'Well, maybe I'll paint 10 more pianos.' After pianos, I was gonna paint coffins. But someone told me, 'Well, you're gonna paint it, and people aren't gonna see it for too long.'"

Living that large was a recipe for a charley horse. "So when I stumbled on the knobs, my husband really encouraged me to stick with them."

Adorned with roses in a Day-Glo palette reminiscent of Andy Warhol's Mao series, her knobs caused a stir. "A very large knob company urged me to market them," she breathlessly confides.

The orders poured in. "You've seen the [knob] catalog that my son designed? I sent it to my editor and told her why my book wasn't done. She said, 'That's really pretty, but you've had this contract for eight years.'"

But knobs wait for no one. "My lines are never straight," says Terkel of their moneymaking mystique. "My polka dots are never even. Some of my knobs have drip marks on them."

If Jackson Pollock had splatter-painted knobs, perhaps he'd be alive today.

While Terkel envisioned universes in a grain of wood, stockbroker Chris Jordan envisioned making her own napkin rings.

"Whenever I want to do something, I just go and get a book," says Jordan, who, like Terkel, has three grown kids. "I was really angry they didn't have one for me on napkin rings. It would've made my life so much easier."

But no one seemed to share her enthusiasm for the circular whimsies. "I sent out a proposal to some publishers for a book called No Naked Napkins." In this hasty-eating era, it proved too controversial. "I actually got a few letters of interest, but most said they thought the topic was too narrow. But a publisher in Canada said, 'Well, we do feel there's a market for napkin folding.'"

Rather than throw in the placemat, she heeded the Canucks and started whipping her linens into peacocks, candles, and every entertaining pontiff's favorite, the bishop's hat. The fruits of her fussing: a coffee-table book called Simply Elegant Napkin Folding.

Now Jordan's on the in-store demonstration circuit, tossing table-decorating wisdom like "If you don't want to iron your napkins, store them flat." And, "When it comes to accordion folding, the thing is you want the first and last pleat going in the same direction. If you want, you can finger-press it along the way to keep it neat."

One of her favorite folds is the banana split, which looks just like the real thing, but without the chocolate sauce. It works best with a yellow napkin. "If you want to get a little bit fancier, you could sprinkle some confetti in there or some M&M's."

The proud owner of more than 300 different kinds of napkin rings, Jordan's even transformed bagels into holders: "You just cook it really hard and put a hole-saw in it, and then dunk them in Elmer's glue and let 'em dry." Bon appetit.

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