Jonn Wallen
Jonn Wallen Credit: Andrea Bauer

A few months back, a one-line e-mail dropped in the Space inbox: “I think my apartment is pretty sweet.” Not much to go on. My curiosity was piqued, however, so I got all Law & Order to find out what, exactly, was so sweet about it. Turns out Jonn Wallen’s West Town abode is pretty sweet, actually, boasting a collection of vintage electronics and a whole lotta wood.

A musician and computer technician, Wallen began collecting synths when he moved to Chicago three and a half years ago. “I use analog synthesizers not because they’re analog, but because they’re unpredictable,” Wallen says. “I can’t make the same sound twice.” Among his collection he has a rare toy instrument called an Optigan, acquired during a late-night search on eBay.

Created in the 70s by a subsidiary of Mattel, the Optigan is an optical organ (get it?!) that plays loops of prerecorded music by reading celluloid discs. “Everything on there sounds like the time it was manufactured,” he says. “To me it sounds brown. It sounds like how polyester pants look.” (Wallen has a mild form of synesthesia, a condition in which hearing a sound evokes the visualization of a color.)

A nonworking analog TV sits with his record collection like a Duchampian sculpture. “On a computer, you can watch a bunch of garbage, but you have to actively go find it, whereas a TV will bring the garbage to you,” Wallen explains. “I like this TV because it can’t deliver garbage. I can look at it as a piece of art, so my interaction with TV is voluntary—appreciation as opposed to subservience.”

Wallen also has a penchant for wood—huge, solid wooden orbs rest on the floor, woodwork art hangs on the walls. He’s even modified the synthesizers to have wood paneling on the sides. “When I was a kid, I felt like wood was alive. It’s slow life,” he says. “It’s alive so slowly that humans can’t observe that it’s living.”

After moving in less than a year ago, Wallen feels he finally has his “nest” in place. “You should feel good when you walk into your house. It should be like an exhale. It should be like, ‘This is how I feel most comfortable,'” he says. “You’re in charge of it.”

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