Working with his collection of 75,000 images, Christopher Wilcox of L.A.’s Natural Curiosities transforms rare finds into reproducible art. Wilcox and his partner, chef Sera Pelle, invite F&W to see their studio and urban farm and reveal plans for a new food-inspired venture.

May 21, 2012

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At home with Christopher Wilcox and Sera Pelle. © Paul Costello

Sera Pelle prepares lunch for the Natural Curiosities team. © Paul Costello

Lunch with the Natural Curiosities team. © Paul Costello

For lunch, we drive to the Natural Curiosities studio, which is housed in a defunct, 1920s-era, King-Tut-themed bowling alley in nearby Echo Park. (Wilcox’s grandfather was an Egyptologist for the British Museum, so he has a particular affinity for the building.) Inside, the space feels magical and eclectic, like a life-size Joseph Cornell box. One wall is hung with old fedoras and bowler hats, another with vintage duck decoys. Coral fronds are piled inside the type of massive rolling laundry bins used by movie convicts for prison escapes. An entire room is dedicated to butterfly specimens.

Wilcox founded Natural Curiosities in 2005, shortly after emigrating from England, where he worked as an antiquarian book dealer. “California is the most creative environment I’ve ever been in,” he says. “When I landed here, I literally kissed the earth.” He started the company with nothing but the portfolio of vintage botanical prints he’d picked up at auctions around the UK. As Natural Curiosities has expanded—the company now produces around 350 pieces a week—so has Wilcox’s collection. One week he might be wandering the Black Forest in search of antique keys, the next scouring local bookstores for campy Harlequin romance novels. These found objects are integral to the artwork Natural Curiosities started creating two years ago. On any given day, staff artisans might be affixing thousands of dried rosebuds to a blueprint of a 17th-century French garden, or scanning 200-year-old bottles dredged from an Alaskan river for X-ray–like prints that would look at home in a steampunk-themed cocktail bar.

At lunchtime, some 15 of us convene around a wooden table with built-in stools—a relic from an old bakery. The atmosphere is as buzzy and chummy as an art school dorm. Today, Pelle has prepared a salad of red cabbage, mandarin oranges, fennel, cilantro and pepitas, garnished with calendula petals. “A dish should show the colors of the rainbow,” she says. “Instead of this food group and that food group, just be sure there’s a lot of color.” It’s enough to induce a kind of gustatory synesthesia: Does the food taste better because it’s beautiful, or is the beauty a trick of its flavor?

Blurring the lines between food and art is the Tertius mission. Wilcox’s scanned root images might be the best example. Like a canner putting up vegetables, he is preserving something of the present for future enjoyment. It’s a telling departure for someone whose aesthetic preoccupations have, generally, been focused on the past. When I suggest as much, Wilcox thinks for a moment and finally nods. He agrees that perhaps now—with Pelle and their blended brood, heritage hens and heirloom seeds, one successful business and another in the works—he’s looking forward when he used to look back.

Lila Byock has written for The New Yorker and Mother Jones. She lives in Los Angeles.

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