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Standouts--Even in Venice

Tony and Karen Barone are the kind of people who make even the wildest urban professional feel hopelessly conventional.

Artists and designers of international repute, the Barones live in a three-story loft home overlooking the (nearly) duckless Venice canals. Their cavernous, art-filled living room features a table made out of an entire but roofless 1958 Cadillac, rescued from a Tennessee junkyard for $25. They think of themselves as 20th-Century Renaissance artists--hiring themselves out to the secular equivalent of Popes and bishops, making art for profit.

“Michelangelo was an architect,” says Tony, whose paintings sell for upward of $12,000. “Pope Julius’ tomb was product development!”

Tony, a big bear of a man, dressed in black and wearing small black plastic glasses, is high verbal. Karen, tiny and sinewy, with a huge mane of long brown and gray curls and raccoon eyeliner that makes her pale eyes stand out like headlights, is high visual. When their travels have taken them to places such as New Guinea, locals come out to touch and ogle her.

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“Karen,” says Tony with great admiration, “is a performance piece.”

In Venice, a town where the unusual is expected, the Barones (rhymes with spumoni) draw double takes wherever they go. Their exercise routine takes them to the boardwalk each morning--Karen always in full makeup, with pigtails and various coordinated states of semi-dress--where they have intrigued more than a few people. One of them was sausage king Jody Maroni, who hired them to design his new store at Universal CityWalk after his father, Max, struck up a conversation with them.

Jody Maroni’s Sausage Kingdom features--after that great product developer himself--giant aluminum hands, reaching toward each other Sistine Chapel-like, bearing giant sausages.

“Everything about them is interesting,” says Maroni of the Barones. “I had seen them on the street--they are something to look at--and I was like, ‘What is that? Who is that?’ My dad is a big schmoozer, and he met them first. They really won me over. I love what they did for me.”

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Tony is sitting on one of the dozen or so bar stools that ring the old Cadillac.

Before we start, he says, there are three questions we won’t answer: How old we are. How long we’ve been married. And whether we rent or own.

Understandably, they don’t want to be pegged by age or assets.

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As for the length of their marriage, says Tony, “People use that as a passion barometer. For us, the passion is still there.”

Indeed, their dedication to one another is of the fairy-tale, obsessive variety.

Karen is Tony’s muse. She is represented in every one of his paintings, including a series that depicts her as Freud, Einstein, Shakespeare, Elvis, Truman Capote, Gertrude Stein and Ming the Merciless.

Several of his bright paintings dominate the room. He works in a style that he calls “optically adjusted,” meaning that what you see when you stand at, say, a 15-degree angle to one of his paintings, is completely different from what you see when you face one straight on. The goal is an interaction, a sort of dialogue, between painting and viewer. Usually, it is Karen’s face and her wild locks that come into focus when you stand to one side.

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The couple is always together, and when Karen decided to start making videos in a room separated from Tony’s studio by a thin wood door, he installed an intercom.

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Natives of Chicago, they lived in New York and Tennessee before deciding that L.A. now exerts the same magnetic pull on artists that Paris once did.

They’ve had a kind of Midas touch, combining art with commerce. Their first successful venture took place during what Tony, a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute, will only describe as “hippie” days: He had worked for a restaurant supply house and Karen was a paralegal. They teamed up to open a restaurant with some other artists, which led to a blossoming career as restaurant designers and a decision to move to New York. In Manhattan, business dried up. New Yorkers thought they were too Midwestern; Midwesterners assumed they had become overpriced New York designers.

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But they had landed in SoHo just as that neighborhood was coming into its own as a haven for artists. They took a storefront on West Broadway and opened a retail business--Barone. They designed what Karen calls “sybaritic necessities"--throwaway satin napkins, silver lame Mercury wings for roller disco lovers. Their customers were as diverse as John Lennon and Henry Kissinger. They designed clothing for the quintessentially bland ‘70s group ABBA. Karen, whose painted face usually included feathered and sequined eyebrows, began to sell her own cleverly packaged makeup out of the store.

The makeup was a hit. Lipsticks came in tubes shaped like dynamite; powders came in Chinese takeout containers. The line was sold by Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Fred Segal, and ended up on the shelves of free-standing Barone boutiques in Japan. To oversee their expanding business, the Barones moved to a farm in Tennessee, where the cosmetics were produced. The model on the cover of the first edition of American Elle, in August, 1985, wore yellow Barone lipstick.

“We had done the ultimate packaging, taken it to a level we wanted,” says Karen. “And then we decided to get out.”

Five years ago, they came to Venice.

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And they seem to be living happily ever after, raising eyebrows wherever they go.


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