IN the world of collecting, restraint is rare. Flea-market junkies hang paintings behind doors because their wall space disappeared decades ago. Their homes are stacked to the rafters, transformed into personal warehouses of their favorite finds.
Not Ken Erwin. In flea-market parlance, Erwin is a "picker," a keen eye who shops on behalf of collectors, museums and other dealers. Though his days are spent navigating jam-packed aisles of furniture and cluttered tables of objets d'art, his nights are savored in a steel-and-glass house in Venice that is surprisingly spare, almost hollow. You practically expect an echo when he declares: "I have a passion for beautifully designed objects, but I'm not the guy who builds a pyramid of worldly possessions, then gets trapped in it like a pharaoh in a tomb."
Erwin and wife Julie bought their house from architect Tom Egidi, who built the structure as a residence and studio. These days visitors will find a lingering appreciation for design, now in the form of the Erwins' weathered walnut Eames stool on the deck or the steel Vladimir Kagan stool in the TV room.
Parsed throughout the three levels of the house are other prized finds: a Ilmari Tapiovaara stool that Erwin discovered in a Helsinki secondhand store for $20. There's a Frank Lloyd Wright wood-and-leather stool he spied at an estate sale, and a Tony Paul stool with pink legs and cane woven seat that cost less than $1 at a Hollywood prop house sale. "It's delicate, female," he says softly of the Paul.
Erwin's secret to living with a collection: Every time he buys something, he sells something.
"I've owned things for 10 minutes and I've owned things for years," he says. "I have no regret letting them go."
That's not to say letting go is easy. Erwin's weakness: Modernist footstools and ottomans. He owns more than 100. "Everyone has to have one emotional collection," he says. But like a museum curator, he keeps most in storage and displays only a few, on a rotating basis, in his home.
ERWIN read his first book on collecting as a UCLA fine arts student in the 1970s. He remembers flipping through the worn pages of "Art Deco: A Guide for Collectors" by Katharine Morrison McClinton, and wondering if he ever would see these pieces in real life.
Over time, he did more than see them. He hunted them down, and if he had the chance to buy them, he did. When his sport became his trade, it simply became good business to adopt a catch-and-release approach.
He kept the book, though. It's in a case built into his living room sofa, a James Mont piece from the late 1940s. A coffee table by an unknown designer appealed to Erwin simply because of its inset for a planter.
"I have always had an appreciation for design," he says. "I scan a whole room looking for something that someone put a lot of thought into making. It could be simple or complicated, but that person knew what he was doing."
So does Erwin, according to competitors and colleagues.
"You have probably heard the old phrase, 'He has forgotten more about this business than I'll ever know,' to convey respect for someone's knowledge," says Peter Loughrey, who started Los Angeles Modern Auctions 14 years ago. "This is how I feel about Ken."
Loughrey had been searching for an obscure Archizoom chrome-and-rubber chaise longue for an important client when he went to Erwin's Venice store, A.K. Eleven 14, and spotted one in the back of Erwin's van.
"I had only seen five examples of it in years of working in this business," Loughrey says, "and how Ken had one, I'll never know."
THE answer is that Erwin turns every day into a quest for quality castoffs.
"You can find anything, anywhere," says Erwin, who used to unearth riches at estate and garage sales in mountains and desert towns where sophisticated city dwellers had second homes. Now, he says, other dealers have discovered these sources, and owners are more savvy to their furniture's worth.
On flea market Sundays, he's still up before dawn, poking his head into sellers' trucks as they're unloading, dealing out $50 bills as if they're playing cards and dollying purchases back to his van.
Longtime Santa Monica client Michael Boyd, whose vast collection includes 150 pieces that were displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1998 to 1999, says his best items for the "Sitting on the Edge" show came from Erwin: a 1950s Charles and Ray Eames storage unit, a 1954 Carlo Mollino chair, a 1946 R.M. Schindler seat from the architect's Lechner House in Studio City, and a 1928 Le Corbusier chaise longue with its flawless, original canvas.
So many people think they know Modern furniture, Boyd says.
"Not all of it is great, and you have to have a feel for it," he says. "Ken does. He sees the value -- not financial, but the historic, educational and design value."
Boyd says it's funny that there are objects all over the world behind museums' velvet ropes with "Do Not Touch" signs -- pieces that Erwin might have found at a flea market or thrift store.
"It's the highest form of recycling, very advanced salvaging, a dedicated act of saving material that could have been destroyed," Boyd says. "If you really love this material, as Ken does, it's like placing an orphan in a home."
It's easy to believe Erwin when he says that more than 30 years after he started, he still gets sweaty palms discovering something in the raw.
"You see it and it could be worth either $10,000 or nothing," he says with a shrug. Regardless, if he likes its lines, he'll rescue it.
He bought a dozen pieces by Frank Gehry at an estate sale. He kept the cardboard chairs and donated several of the architect's photographs to the Vitra Design Museum in Germany.
"Long after I'm gone, I'll be remembered for that," Erwin says, sitting in his spartan living room.
"The money's nice, but it's better to put something back into an institution. The items I find will never fall back to the darkness of a flea market again. That makes me feel good."