On a visit to Hungary 10 years ago, Andy Szekely bought a piece of furniture that would become the inspiration for both the design of his home and the start of a new trade.
Today it sits in his basement, collecting dust.
Szekely bought the antique Biedermeier secretary over the phone, but when it cleared customs, it looked nothing like the one he had seen in a shop. He took it to Gerd Klinke, a local cabinetmaker, to have it appraised.
"How much did you pay for this?" Szekely says Klinke asked him. "My friend, you were ripped off. Here, let me show you what real Biedermeier furniture looks like."
Not only did Klinke show Szekely his life's work, he then for the next five years taught him how to build furniture in an Old World style - by hand, without electric or machine tools.
Two years later, when Szekely and his wife, Szilvia, moved away from his father's 80-acre farm, he decided to replicate the feel of a Hungarian home in Lansdale, where he was raised.
Andy Szekely found a house that had lots of potential, and in a great area: within minutes of the town's main street and within walking distance of his chiropractic office.
With the right furniture, and the house's high ceilings and detailed woodwork, he knew he could transform the 1927 arts-and-crafts into the style of a 19th-century bourgeois Budapest apartment.
Hungarian style is closely intertwined with the Biedermeier philosophy of simple exteriors - equal parts practical and welcoming, much like the Szekelys' house.
The house isn't flashy outside - it's known as "the fortress" to neighbors for its cinder-block walls - but it opens to an inviting interior furnished largely with pieces that Andy built or restored.
"It's very warm and cozy," says Szilvia. "You know, the kind of place where you walk in and you don't feel funny sitting down, you just go ahead and sit down? I think that's what we've done here."
It took some persuading for Szilvia, who is from Hungary, to see in the house what her husband's "artist's eye" saw.
"But I don't have that artist's eye. I saw walls to be painted, floors to be replaced," she acknowledges.
The house wasn't large, just 1,500 square feet, and it needed work. But the price was right, and Andy wanted a place with character.
The Szekelys brightened the gray interior, painting the dining room light green with gold trim as an homage to the Café Gerbeaud in Budapest. ("The coffeehouse in Budapest," Szilvia says). Paintings by Andy and a neighbor - coincidentally, a Hungarian artist - added more much-needed color.
They finished the attic, dividing what had been storage space into a nursery, a sitting area, and an upstairs bathroom. The basement, recently remodeled for more living space, has taken on dual functions.
"It's supposed to be a playroom, but my wife keeps telling me it's just another place I'm putting my furniture," Andy says.
The Szekelys' 1-year-old daughter, Anna, has made her design mark already. "As you can see, right now we kind of have a Biedermeier-slash-Fisher Price decor," jokes Szilvia.
Andy was able to achieve the style the couple wanted without spending a small fortune by building and restoring furniture that otherwise might have cost them tens of thousands of dollars.
"When I look at how I can build something vs. what I would pay for it, I could build something that was much better quality than what you could buy at a furniture store," Andy says. Also satisfying is that each piece he makes has been crafted with care.
"When you go into a Hungarian home, it's all antiques," he says. "Every piece has a story behind it."
The stories of his furniture and that of his mentor have become inextricably linked.
After Klinke died in 2006, Andy purchased the cabinetmaker's unfinished projects from his widow, among them a secretary that Andy spent five months on.
"That piece became an obsession. I worked on it weekends and every day on my lunch breaks," he says. "I think Klinke would be happy to see what I did here."
The piece stands at the center of a family room furnished, in large part, with Andy's creations.
For all their efforts on the house itself, the Szekelys are equally thrilled to have a neighborhood in Lansdale that feels like an extension of home. Unlike the farm, where they could go weeks without seeing their neighbors, they now live in a welcoming, walkable community.
Andy was appointed Lansdale's mayor in 2008. Last year, he was elected to his first full term.
He sees his family as part of a trend in the town.
"Here in Lansdale, I think more and more people are choosing a small-town setting and homes with character," he says. "And this home's character was perfect for our style."
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