All photos by Tanner Ellison
Open The Cellar Door’s most coveted pieces of jewelry are also the most polarizing. “It’s the chicken feet!” explains designer/shop owner Kristina Cullen over an appropriately dimly lit dinner at Capitol Hill’s Bleu Bistro. The feet in question are rooster and appear to have recently received the most glamorous manicure imaginable before being attached to a gunmetal tone chain. Salvaged and dried, each gilded brushstroke is lovingly applied down to the tiny razor sharp claws of gold. “I love the chicken feet. In the religion of voodoo they’re considered good luck. I like to make them beautiful, because they’re definitely not beautiful to begin with. It’s funny, they’re probably my number one seller but also the one that people do not want to touch.”
Cullen’s standard materials are unconventional: antique iron, cloudy crystal, and all manner of mammal, fish, or fowl skeletal bits are reimagined as hauntingly elegant statement pieces with the designer’s meticulous attention to detail. Gilded bird talon lariats, filigree tipped deer antlers, and painstakingly bejeweled raccoon jaws are reincarnated in a kind of macabre zoological appreciation society. Natural or bleached bison teeth capped with filigree – aka “witch finger” rings – are another hot seller, curving delicately if not menacingly along the length of a finger for an eye-catching, urban sorceress vibe. A tour through O.C.D.’s Etsy shop is a cavalcade of obsession-worthy fetishized objects. A menagerie of specimen jars contain petite skulls and vertebrae. Custom curiosity cabinets showcase dreamy amethyst and hooves. Black leather roses, deer antlers, and mink ribs intertwine in a headdress befitting a Frazetta priestess. Coffin nail necklaces (actually antique iron nails sourced from discarded railroad ties) cozy up to slabs of iridescent crystal. At first glance they’re striking yet strange; close inspection and a read through the item descriptions reveal the designer’s reverence for each tiny muse crafted into jewelry. These objets d’art aren’t for everyone, but for a darker aesthete they’re addictive. Many start tentatively with a gateway drug like a (relatively) petite deer antler necklace; soon they’re decked out in a full set of witch fingers.
The question of ethical sourcing comes up often when Kristina vends at local markets and is a detail explained on her Etsy shop.”I think people are more conscious here of the environment and animal welfare. We live in the most beautiful city; we have a reverence for nature. I think with that comes a reverence for animals,” she says. “It’s important for me to have all that information so people are really comfortable with what they’re buying from me, and I’m comfortable knowing that it’s totally cruelty free. I ask a lot of questions before I buy anything. Where did this come from? How did you get it? What animal is it? How do you know what animal it is? You find certain people that you know and trust to work with. I have a woman in West Virginia who just wanders through the woods, picks things up, cleans them…” As nature takes its course sometimes it’s unknowable what type of animal the bones come from, Kristina explains. “Lots of small mammal bones. That’s the fun of it. It’s like a macabre Christmas morning, and I’m opening this box of bones, I’m so excited…what is it?”
Growing up in Cleveland she recalls always having a thing for bones – namely dinosaur – and a soft spot for the abandoned buildings that nature slowly began to grow through and devour. Her fondness for unwanted, discarded things continued into young adulthood. A school trip to Rome sealed her love of art and magnificent ruins. Returning home, she began soaking up a subversive mix of music and fashion in late night MTV classics 120 Minutes and The Headbangers’ Ball. “My biggest style icons have been Stevie Nicks and Siouxsie Sioux. Completely opposite,” she laughs. “But I can’t wear enough kimonos or black leather. Those were the big ones, but I also got inspiration when I was a kid from The Addams Family and The Munsters. Morticia and Lily to me are like the most glamourous women who ever lived.”
Later she graduated from Indiana University with a BA in Art History, focusing on Ancient Roman Art – and like many with art degrees, ended up working in retail. Her love of fashion came in handy (by now, Kristina was well versed in the work of dark designers like Gareth Pugh, Rick Owens, and Alexander McQueen) as she worked her way through various outlets and ended up Manager/Head Buyer for Crossroads’ Broadway location for eight years, a position she credits with preparing her for many aspects of owning a business.
Then she was ready for a life change. “I knew it was time to leave; I wanted to run my own business. I took some time and just explored things and went back to what my original passions were in life. I’d never been a jewelry maker before at all. Suddenly I was just, you know, buying really weird lots of stuff on eBay…old rusty farm parts, I had no idea what I was going to do with it, I had no idea what was coming in the box.”
Eventually, ideas began to take shape. “It all just started with the materials. That’s always where I’ve been the most inspired. I dump everything out on my desk and just stare at them. Start picking up other materials and thinking ‘this wants to live with this, I think this goes here’. It’s putting together materials that almost just need to be together. Why does this crystal fit so perfectly in the opening of this skull? That’s the most exciting thing to figure out.”
These days, Open The Cellar Door is gaining momentum through a dedicated cult following in Seattle and online, culminating in a recent flurry of market vending and a capsule collection exclusively made for the Capitol Hill Urban Outfitter’s handmade holiday pop-up shop. Ghost Gallery, the Capitol Hill art space/boutique owned by Laurie Kearney, gave Kristina her first break and still regularly stocks her jewels and specimen jars.
“Kristina is a fashion forward, genuine, hilarious woman. Her personality comes out through her work. It’s dark, it’s edgy and unique, but it’s super approachable,” Kearney says via email. “I notice that people with all kinds of fashion styles buy her work – there’s an edgy appeal that is really strong – pairing an antler tip necklace with a cashmere sweater, or a skull bone terrarium necklace with a heavy metal t-shirt – there are no rules!”
After setting up a workspace in her new South Lake Union apartment, Kristina plans to continue scouring the planet for interesting new materials and experiment with tea-dying. At the end of our interview, I’m buying a few treats for myself and admire the brown bison tooth witch finger Kristina has fashionably paired with a draped All Saints cardigan, Sovrin muscle tee, O.C.D. coyote vertebrae harness, and leather paneled skinny pants. “Want this one?” she offers. “I’ll give ya the ring off my finger.” Find Open the Cellar Door online and watch for alerts on local pop-up markets in Seattle.