What do a car and a refrigerator have in common? It depends on whom you ask.
Pete Gamen, 38, would say a lot. His business, Kandy Van, specializes in custom paint jobs for both. The Logan Square resident has applied auto paint—and sometimes candy paint—to fridges, kitchen cabinets, cars and motorcycles alike. Typically reserved for cars, candy paint is a transparent coating that can be meticulously layered to create vibrant, super-shiny colors: cherry red, lime green and watermelon pink.
“They’re basically the same as cars. You use the same primers and paints,” Gamen said of his small collection of vintage refrigerators, some of which he’s already painted and converted into kegerators. “They’re pieces of canvas where I can build my own style.”
Painting and repurposing vintage fridges is more of a hobby for Gamen, whose end goal is to return to painting cars and motorcycles for a living. For now, he’s articulating his own personal style—think flashy West Coast low riders and hot rods—on fridges in order to build a loyal following in Chicago. All the while, Gamen balances a day job at commercial printing business Bro’s Lithographing Co. in the West Loop.
When Gamen first started painting automobiles professionally five years ago, he developed a solid client base, and the word spread about his quality work. But his creative outlet quickly hit a ceiling.
“Guys would come to me and say, ‘Um, I want black,’ ” Gamen said. “I would have to do that. The ongoing joke now is that I hate painting black. Every biker, their creativity ends at black and flames, or red and white.”
Like tattoo artists, professional auto painters often are sought out for their unique styles. But it’s hard to build a following when you don’t have a pool of people who are willing to volunteer their cars for a customized candy paint job.
“One of the things you want to do in the custom paint world is create a style that people just want,” Gamen explained. “With cars and bikes, guys own them. They come to you with a vision and a plan. They see it with a flame job or black. It’s hard to say, ‘I want to do purple metal flake.’ ”
That’s where the fridges come into play. In Gamen’s mind, they’re big, blank canvases with endless possibilities. He can paint them however he’d like and find homes for them in local businesses. Two of his favorite fridges—Frankenstein and Purple Rain—are on display at Pete’s Barber Shop in Avondale and Rosie’s West Town Deli in Ukrainian Village, respectively.
It all started when Gamen and his girlfriend, Kate Sanderson, renovated their kitchen. They found a 1954 GE single-door fridge on Craigslist that they knew would fit the space perfectly. Gamen refurbished it with a sleek, aqua blue custom-mix automotive paint.
Gamen knew he could do more detailed work with the metal canvases.
To really get a feel for his one-of-a-kind style, look no further than Frankenstein, the beer-dispensing fridge he created for Pete’s Barber Shop. With the go-ahead to do anything he wanted from his friend, owner Pete Huels, Gamen knew it was his chance to show off his unique skill set.
“I wanted to hit the ground so hard with this one that I would paint it, sand the paint off and paint it again. I did that like five times just to achieve the color I wanted,” Gamen said of Frankenstein. “I wanted this to be my business card.”
After nearly two months of work—“he would go out there to paint it in the middle of the night,” Sanderson laughed—Frankenstein was transformed.
The original 1952 GE fridge is unrecognizable today, save for its unique shape and vintage feel. Its new dispensing racks hold 210 12-ounce cans. The exterior is covered in layers of glossy, rich paint. The perfect symmetry, intricate lines and intense sparkle reveal Gamen’s perfectionist tendencies—a personality trait he swears is necessary for the job.
Huels said he almost cried when he first saw the finished product, which he requested remain a surprise until its unveiling.
“It’s gorgeous. Everything about it is beautiful,” Huels said of Frankenstein. “It’s not just a refrigerator; it’s a piece of art. There are two focal points of my shop—the barber chairs and the refrigerator. They make the shop what it is.”
Gamen’s work goes deeper than paint jobs—he’s also a metal worker. “I can cut it and put a window in the front of it so you can see through it,” he said. “There’s so many things I can do to these things that you won’t even recognize them as fridges.”
Gamen said he looks to West Coast painters for inspiration, which is made easier through Instagram, Facebook and YouTube tutorials. Gambino Kustoms, a paint shop in San Jose, Calif., is one of his go-to inspiration mines. Closer to home, Gamen looks to his 14-year-old daughter for artistic guidance. The two have a collection of art projects, mostly on canvas, that boast glossy auto paint.
“Her room is full of paint projects,” he said of his daughter, Malia. “She definitely brought it back to me. I drew all the time in high school and airbrushed, but then I quit and worked and worked. She brought me back into doing artistic things.”
Although refrigerators are Gamen’s creative comfort zone for now, he’s discovering new things all the time.
“I’m getting my feet wet, creating my style and learning the different things that can happen,” he said. “I’d rather mess up on a fridge than on someone’s Impala.”
Morgan Olsen is a RedEye special contributor.Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.