Brad Brautigam has always had a passion for functional art.
For most of his adult life, the palette for his work was the old houses he and his wife would buy and renovate, where he reveled in the chance to give new life and purpose to neglected, hidden or even discarded amenities. That was before the discovery of an avocado-green rotary telephone at an antique mall several years ago.
Suddenly, his artistic drive had a new purpose, though it would take a few years to refine.
“I just knew there had to be a way to make something useful out of it,” Brautigam says while standing in his basement workshop surrounded by a menagerie of old telephone boxes and discarded musical instruments and the acoustic horns from antique phonographs and gramophones. “I eventually made it into a functioning lamp.”
From that first phone conversion to a lamp, Brautigam was hooked. A firefighter with the City of Appleton, Brautigam took advantage of his work schedule — 48 hours on followed by four days off — to pursue his new hobby.
He also discovered something else: People wanted to buy his creations. The interest was so strong, he created a side business under the name B. Brad Creations and opened an online store in 2010. Urban Evolutions in Appleton carries a few of his creations on consignment. Indeed, demand is nearly outstripping his creative output.
“As soon as I make something, it sells,” he says.
Brautigam has an art history degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He previously worked as a commercial fisherman in Home, Alaska, which is where he met his wife. The couple later moved to Minneapolis, where Brautigam took up the family profession of firefighting. He is a fourth-generation Appleton firefighter.
While never knowing what treasure he might find at area antique malls and flea markets — or how long it might sit until he figures out what to use the piece for — his work has evolved around lamps and his trademarked uPhonium. A cache of discarded instruments from the Milwaukee Public Schools inspired a line of lamps made from flutes and clarinets. The uPhonium marries the antique phone boxes and acoustic speaker cones to create a functional sound system for modern mobile phones.
Some of the latest versions use old brass instruments such as baritones, bugles and French horns to accomplish the same effect.
“It’s pretty interesting how each one sounds different depending on the materials they are made of,” Brautigam says of the uPhonium pieces.
For the past few years, his uPhonium sculptures have been the trophy awarded to winners of Pulse Young Professionals Network’s Future 15 awards.
While about six years away from retirement with the Appleton Fire Department, Brautigam sees B. Brad Creations as the perfect business to supplement his pension. After selling hundreds of his creations on a part-time basis, he knows there is a larger market to be tapped.
“There is a kind of renewed interest in all things old,” Brautigam says.