Story by Lauren Helmer • Photos by Lee Walls
You may not know her face, but you probably know her voice. Dru Cunningham Backensto is Birmingham Mountain Radio’s DJ host of the “Flipback Lunch,” which airs weekdays during her 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift, and the soon-to-launch “She Show,” featuring all female artists and dynamic local women as guests.
Dru opened the doors to her and her husband, Eric’s, gorgeous condo overlooking the Magic City. It’s an eclectic mix of modern-meets-classical with layers of fascinating objets d’art, intriguing collections and antiques galore. It seems almost every item has a story.
“My parents were antiques dealers,” said Dru, “and I hated being dragged to antiques shops all around the country. But then, when I got my own place that I could decorate, I changed my mind. I used to be all mid-century modern in the ‘90s, before it got popular, but I’ve gotten away from that. I like a tiny touch of it now.”
The obsession with antiques is not one-sided.
“We both loved antiques,” said Dru. “That was one thing we liked about each other when we met.”
When they got married and were looking for a place to call their own, they initially wanted a home that captured that antique aesthetic. They had fallen in love with a big Victorian-style house, circa 1904, in Southside. But their Realtor asked them to be open-minded, showing them this 2,300-square-foot condo atop Red Mountain just above Valley Avenue.
“It was very 1980s, really cheesy” said Dru. “But it had this great view of downtown Birmingham.”
“It has good bones, and with Dru’s imagination, she could really see what it could become,” said Eric. “And we had a good contractor who listened and was creative and made it feel more open.”
The modernized space sets the perfect backdrop for their antiques, vintage pieces and contemporary art. Upon entry, large works of modern art capture the imagination and a glass chandelier from the 1800s, which has been converted from gas to electric, casts a warm glow from its naked Edison bulbs. An ornate antique French server near the entry is where the couple keeps keys and mail, but it also houses some of their most interesting collectibles, such as a pair of pre-Revolutionary War flint-lock pistols and the oldest item they own, a tool from 2000 BC for scraping and eating.
The living room is anchored by a modern sofa in white that complements the timeworn patina of the antiques, including an Old English bagatelle game table that doubles as a coffee table. A gorgeous Biedermeier secretary, circa 1820s, boasts a rich burled mahogany and opens to reveal little drawers and cubbies.
A hall tree intended for coats, hats, and canes features an antique top hat made of beaver fur, a ‘30s umbrella and a cane made of shark vertebrae. Over the wall of windows, a decorative shield from the Ottoman empire serves as the statement piece, and Dru’s beloved mid-century modern lamp, discovered on a recent trip to Vancouver, Canada, is proudly displayed on a side table.
“I carried it like a baby on the plane,” she said of the orb-like lamp. “We almost thought we’d have to buy an extra plane seat for it. I have lamp issues,” she said jokingly of her penchant for great lamps.
“I have clock issues,” said Eric. All of the clocks in the condo are from the 1800s. The one in the living room is an English casement clock.
“It’s like a grandfather clock where the guts of the clock are outside of the case,” he said. The exposed mechanics are themselves a work of art.
Nearby, a Venetian glass mirror hangs above the double-sided fireplace that connects the living room to the wood-paneled study.
The study is where Eric’s collections and curios shine. An antique textile serves as the backdrop for a beautiful shield depicting the Massacre of the Innocents from the New Testament. A bonsai tree is displayed atop an antique movie camera tripod. An old map chest and ship’s sextant suggest age-old nautical adventures. A solar system created by a modern artist features planets that are precisely sized and moving at the accurate rate in relation to one another. The beautifully colored spines of antique books line the shelves and stir the imagination.
On one shelf, Eric opens a cylinder music box from 1880s France that plays a tune, the tines popping against the slowly turning cylinder.
“I got a deal on this one because it was broken. So, I brought it home and fixed it,” he said. “Same with this German bird box.” He presses a button on the bird box and a circular lid pops open, a bird pops up, flapping its wings and tweeting. Then it goes back into its hole and the lid closes. Simple, yet amusing.
Jack of All Fixes
It should come as no surprise that a man who helps walk brain surgeons through the use of surgical machinery has no problem repairing an automated music box from 19th century France.
“He’s a biomedical engineer in the medical device industry,” said Dru. “So, he can fix anything from antique clocks and music boxes to plumbing problems to wiring up my crazy lamps to high-tech neurosurgery imaging equipment.”
He used that same creativity in an uber-cool statement piece at the end of their hallway, which is a spot they pass every day. It’s a ceiling medallion-turned-installation art.
“We got the idea to feature it as art with lighting from behind,” said Eric. The circular medallion with cherubs in bas relief seems to float in front of the wall and a cool white neon glow emerges from its edges.
The duo had to place boundaries on their antiques obsession. “It used to be a Saturday activity, but we had to cut back,” said Dru.
“Here’s the rule: If you see something you love and you just have to have it, you must get rid of something in order to bring it in,” said Eric. “It just gets too cluttered in here otherwise.”
Dru loves how quiet the condo is. “It’s got concrete slabs above and below, so we never hear a thing,” she said. “And it’s got a heck of a view.”
Eric’s favorite thing about their condo? Without hesitation, he said, “It’s got Dru in it!”