2014 RENOVATION INSPIRATION CONTEST — Runner-up, New Commercial

Creative use of salvaged materials results in an unusual cheese shop in Pittsburgh Public Market

You can find some stinky cheese at the Wheel and Wedge Cheese Shop in the Pittsburgh Public Market. But not a speck of dirt.

"I wanted it to be super clean, so clean you could eat off the floor," said David Lagnese, who owns it with his wife Cristina.

It appears you could slice some cheddar on the floor, too. Like a cheese board, it's made from thousands of small pieces of wood painstakingly laid by hand. You'd never guess it was once the seats of old bleachers.

Creative design ideas and repurposing of salvaged materials earned the Lagneses' business at the market in the Strip District a runner-up award in the new commercial category of the 2013-14 Renovation Inspiration Contest. Sponsored by Dollar Bank and judged by staff from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Design Center and Construction Junction, the contest is in its eighth year of recognizing successful and sustainable residential renovations.

If the Lagneses look familiar, it's because they were runners-up in last year's contest for their restoration of a large house in Highland Park. Mr. Lagnese, a health-care consultant and former board member for Construction Junction, made frequent use of salvage materials from the nonprofit retailer on that project, too.

Contest judges decided to add a commercial category this year because business owners face many of the same challenges as homeowners when it comes to rehabbing older buildings. Pittsburgh is filled with old storefronts and other buildings turned into businesses. In fact, the Lagneses are in their fourth year at the East Liberty Farmers Market, which is open every Saturday in a 100-year-old former feed store. There they sell cheese, olive oil and shade-grown coffee from Jamaica.

Mr. Lagnese wanted this shop to be different, with a vibe befitting the new Penn Avenue home of the public market after it moved last year from the produce terminals on Smallman Street. They and the other 19 vendors faced more stringent health regulations in the new building. Every stall had to have a hand sink by order of the Allegheny County Health Department.

The other key piece of equipment was a cooler and display case with open racks that allow the 30 kinds of cheese, most of it made in Pennsylvania, to breathe. "Cheese can't breathe beneath plastic," Mr. Lagnese noted.

Woodworker Christopher Bandy, known for his artistic cutting boards made from salvaged wood, created the butcher-block counters by the display case.

Bright white subway tile adds to the squeaky clean but vintage feeling of the space, which was designed and built by Hugh Elliott with help from Mr. Lagnese.

One of their brainstorms resulted in the vintage-looking cabinetry that forms one wall of the 20- by 10-foot stall. Made from seven old base cabinets and This End Up dressers, its shelves display jams, dried fruit and other food items that don't require refrigeration. The piece was custom-made to hold a stained-glass sign by Daviea Davis of Edgewood, whose work can also be found in the Lagneses' home and at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Mrs. Lagnese, a jewelry designer, chose the cabinetry's color scheme, which became the palette for the entire space.

"I'm into colors. I wanted a Provence country look, that French blue and that yellow," she said.

Mr. Elliott, whose specialty is architectural and neon lighting, picked up those colors in the shop's distinctive sign. Neon was not in the Lagneses' original plans, but Mr. Elliott was persistent.

"When you work with Hugh, he foists it upon you," Mr. Lagnese said, laughing.

The self-taught craftsman who once ran a lighting business in New York City admitted he is a zealot when it comes to neon. In this sign, it's actually argon gas and colored phosphors that create the blue, gold and white fluorescent glow.

Mr. Elliott laments the decline of neon lighting in the face of LEDs.

"Who knows how long LEDs will last? I guarantee that Dave's sign will light for 50 years," he said.

Mr. Elliott, who lives in Linesville, Crawford County, also laid the unique 10- by 10-foot floor. But it was Mr. Lagnese's idea.

"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to have a floor that looks like a cheese board?' I told Hugh, and instead of telling me it was nuts, he said 'Good idea!' "

Mr. Elliott began to question his enthusiasm when he had to cut the bleacher boards made of Southern yellow pine into 4,500 pieces, each measuring 1 by 31/4 inches.

He estimates he spent 35 hours over three days arranging and gluing down the pieces.

"There is no pattern, no layout," he said. "I kept saying, 'I'm too old for this.' "

He estimates 70 man-hours went into construction of the floor, which was sanded and sealed by another man. "I didn't want to look at it anymore."

Mr. Lagnese said previous projects involving salvaged materials prepared him for the cheese shop at the Public Market. When he wanted unique cabinets for his commercial space, he got creative.

"We weren't looking for shelving units at Construction Junction. We were looking for pieces we could assemble on the fly," he said. "It was really fun."

Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.

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