NEW YORK — Mike Fontana is proof that you can live large, in inverse proportion to the square footage of your environment, and that the heart can take wing in the tiniest of spaces.
More than a decade ago, Fontana, now 51, was stretched out in a 6,000-square-foot former bakery in Jersey City, N.J. It was a place big enough to ride a bicycle in, where he could make the monumental pieces — the 70-foot-high balloons and floats — he had become known for when he was chief sculptor for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“I had a machine shop and all kinds of crazy foam-cutting equipment and a loft that I built a house inside of," he said. “The thing is, here, my whole apartment is the size of my old master bedroom suite, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. This apartment changed my life."
On a recent springlike morning, Fontana, a compact, powerfully built man with a deep basso profundo voice, was coiled up on a chair he had sculptured out of foam and epoxy and covered with hundreds of iridescent glass beads.
The chair is just one of the many fun-house touches in the minute but densely appointed living room of his 400-square-foot apartment on St. Marks Place. Drawing on his skills as a carpenter and an artist, Fontana has fitted it out like a boat and employed all sorts of perspective tricks so that each of the five “rooms" feels a lot larger than its actual dimensions.
Quite a feat, given how much stuff is packed in here.
In the living room, for example, there’s a drum set, 11 amplifiers, seven guitars, two mandolins and a ukulele; a keyboard that swings out from the wall; a sofa that turns into a work table; a 10-foot sign from his old studio that looks as if it were carved from granite and spells out “FONTANA" in 1 1/2-foot-high letters; a five-foot foam-and-epoxy replica of Horton, the elephant who kept his word (whom Fontana has taken as his mascot); a five-foot-wide, pneumatic-looking armchair tiled with 15,000 pennies, which he calls the “penny throne" (Fontana said he is an expert in creating “interesting furniture that’s not all that comfortable"); and a mirrored coffee table with a lid that comes off to reveal some of his daughter’s clothing. Not to mention many other objects, books, gewgaws, pieces of furniture and sculpture, most of which is handmade.
That Sonia, Fontana’s 22-year-old daughter, has made her home here is perhaps Fontana’s neatest trick. In the tiny 18-square-foot entrance alcove, he has built her a bedroom, with a desk, a loft bed, a “closet" (hooks on the back of the front door and shoe pockets on the wall) and a “bureau" (his father’s Korean War footlocker, painted white and fitted with casters).
Fontana’s rent is now $1,400. “I’d rather pay less," he said. “But New York is worth it.
“You don’t have to be a millionaire to be happy. Think of what’s been seen from this balcony." He gestured toward St. Marks Place, which in this millennium is mostly filled with Japanese dumpling and yogurt shops, and the odd tattoo parlor.
“I’m 51, and I’m like a teenager in my parents’ garage," he said happily. “I’m outrageously lucky."