FEATURE Smart Home 2011
Image Credit: J.B. Spector Photos, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Scout’s Larry Vodak Gets ‘Smart’

by Kathryn Sesser
There are interesting people in this world for sure. And then there’s Larry Vodak, who simply takes the cake in the category. Call him charismatic, enchanting, refreshing, captivating, as these words all seem to define him. Just don’t call him an interior designer.




As the owner of Scout in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, one might immediately assume Vodak is right at home coming into yours to tell you exactly where that new painting needs to be. But Vodak’s heart is truly behind the scenes, out on the road finding furniture and other pieces to refinish and sell at his retail store.

Open for nearly seven years, Scout has built quite a reputation for it’s moving, yet industrial, pieces. Many Chicagoans have become a fan of Vodak’s work, including WGN weather guru Tom Skilling. “Tom has bought like half his house from Scout,” Vodak said.

But it was fan Anne Rashford, director of temporary exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry, whose eye led Vodak to his biggest project yet. Unveiled last week in Chicago, Vodak’s “Team Scout” were the masterminds behind the latest incarnation of the museum’s Smart Home. Designed by architect Michelle Kaufmann, the home has been toured by more than 250,000 guests since it 2008 debut. The home provides ideas for sustainable living while invoking a contemporary style to serve as a guideline for those looking to live a cleaner life.

“I wanted to keep the ‘green.’ I wanted a smart home,” Vodak said. “We didn’t put one thing in the home that wasn’t recycled or reused. You can’t change the walls, but it’s got to be damn-well different.”

And, thanks to Vodak, it is for sure. Although one shouldn’t really be surprised, as the love for what he does seemingly oozes from every pore. After working in the advertising field for nearly three decades, Vodak began to find himself restless.

“I couldn’t get up in the morning and do it anymore. [Advertising] was like throwing a bunch of Jell-O on the wall and seeing what sticks.” Obviously for Vodak, nothing was clinging.

It was a trip with his son to a furniture/flea market that changed it all for Vodak. Walking through the aisles of old pieces, he had an epiphany. “I just felt at peace. I felt ... It just felt right. As I struggled to find a new footing in my life, almost immediately I knew I should be doing this.”

So after tracking down his dream location, and a little bit of finagling with the landlord, Scout was born.

“I feel safer. That’s what it comes down to,” he said. “I love being there. I feel like a teenager. I am so inspired by the possibilities. The people, the artists ...

And it was the possibility of what he could create for the Smart Home (the exhibition closed January 2013) which made him step out of his proverbial bubble as just a “shopkeeper.” “I had a great team to work with,” Vodak said. “I’ll call them my A-Team. We did this without spending any money. I felt like the Pat Robertson of furniture. ‘Please give ...’”

And they did. Individuals and businesses came together to bring the Smart Home interior even further into the future, while taking pieces from the past. The lamps, by Ted Harris, incorporate salvaged items into spectacular lighting pieces; the rugs, by Oscar Isberian, were made from antique Turkish kilms that were cut into smaller pieces and stitched back together to create a more modern floor covering; and one of his employees at Scout, interior designer Nicholas Moriarty, helped Vodak bring it all together.

“I wanted an adult living room. The couch was bought at Brownstone,” Vodak said, speaking of the furniture store across from his Andersonville store. “I watch their trucks around 8 in the morning. They pulled off this grand piece, with the old plastic covers. The upholstery was in mint condition.” The only problem? That upholstery was orange with silver sparkles. Not really what he was looking for to put in the 2011 Smart Home, by any means. His solution was to find a faux leather to cover the furniture, a material he said the staff at Comfort Upholstery was pretty happy to work with. The original three-seater couch was also changed into a more-modern two seats.

Vodak perused the museum's vast artwork to choose framed photographs for the Smart Home. The large black and white photos line the walls in the living room, while other pieces of “found” artwork, including one by Michael Nicholson made of recycled bicycle tires, are dotted around the interior.

Possibly the most interesting find, the cabinets in the kitchen didn’t have to make too far of a trip. The science cabinets were rescued from a lab at the University of Chicago. After renovation by Furniture Revival, they were moved back to the Smart Home, just a few blocks from the school’s main campus.

“Anne remarked, ‘They’ve come home,’” Vodak said.

It took two and a half months from start to finish, but the endgame is a spectacular story in green living.

“I felt like the Smart Home was a chance for me to put up or shut up," he said. “It was a little stressful at the end, we needed a little bit of fairy dust to bring it together.

“We gave it our all.”

  • Kathryn Sesser has been a designer with The Times of Northwest Indiana for nearly five years, but a writer all her life. A Mississippi girl, this resident of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood is a Southerner through and through: Good food, good conversation and good music drive the soul. When not dreaming of grits, this lyrical junkie can be found wandering the streets of Chicago or searching for gems on vinyl. If the sun is out – and it’s above freezing – find her at Montrose beach with her dog, Huxley.