The split-level, 1950s brick-and-stone house sitting on a wooded acre in Paoli looks like any ordinary suburban spread.

Behind the front door, though, home-sweet-home has vanished.

The living room is stuffed with dozens of oversized, oddly shaped pastel pillows. The master bedroom is carpeted with 25 bags of dead leaves emitting an earthy aroma. And someone's mowing the Astroturf lawn laid down in a spare room.

This is HausWerk, a surreal, multimedia show that turns the inside of an empty three-bedroom house into an exhibit of college art offering wry cultural observations on domesticity, comfort, suburbia and more. It opened Saturday.

For three months, 15 students from the Tyler School of Art in Elkins Park have had the run of 1497 Sugartown Rd., slated for demolition next year.

HausWerk - a name chosen for its goofiness, said one artist - is a culminating project for "Sculpture Techniques and Materials." The class required students to act as curators and find a space off-campus to mount a show. They got down to the nitty-gritty, designing the catalogue, writing the news release, and organizing the food for Saturday's opening reception (a "haus wärmen" barbecue, of course).

In the past, said course instructor Jennie Shanker, students have chosen a warehouse and gallery. "This is the most unusual space."

For that, the students can thank a bit of serendipity.

Senior Athena Christakis, 23, a cocurator for the overall exhibit, suggested the venue. Her parents - Chris, 55, and Cheri, 57 - live next door and bought the property two years ago for about $280,000 as an investment after the elderly couple who lived there passed away.

In the future, the Christakises said, they plan to build a grand abode on the site "for the kids" or sell the new house for a hefty price. Another teardown on the street fetched plenty.

In the meantime, the welcome mat is out at this unlikely, temporary gallery. (The exhibition runs through Jan. 4, by appointment only.)

Eight rooms, including the bathroom and crawl space, are filled with peculiar but intriguing installations. Even the yard outside is a scene, as the residual sounds of life - children chattering, a young man grilling, a dog scampering - resonate (from a tape) along the driveway.

"We're giving this entire house a second life," said Laura Hricko, 22, a senior from Northern Liberties and another exhibit cocurator.

The living room, repainted an olive green, explores comfort. The multiple pillows - made from wool blankets donated by a convent near the school - evoke a soft, warm coziness, so powerful "that it's uncomfortable," said Hricko last week as the artists feverishly worked.

Students were given individual rooms to manage, either creating pieces themselves or commissioning others.

Amanda Schmitt, 22, a senior from Baltimore, arranged elongated figures reminiscent of tribal art in the kitchen cabinets, creating vignettes that, she said, show women's place in religion.

"I was drawn to the kitchen," she said. "It's the center of the house, where everyone congregates. It's also very feminine."

Upstairs, the master bedroom houses one of the most emotional, visually arresting displays. Two artists created a somber scape around the eerie, almost ghostly, smudges left on the faded white walls by the elderly couple's headboard and two pictures that hung above.

"This room comes with a lot of baggage," said Hricko, who oversaw the space.

Working with natural shadows on the walls, artists Megan Bartley-Matthews and Kati Gegenheimer, recent Tyler graduates, painted a swirling pattern of dark tree limbs invading the room. Brown, decomposing leaves spread over crumbling folds of yellow-and-brown shag carpet from downstairs "reflect life that's past," said Hricko. At the same time, the leaves serve as "a symbol of the life cycle itself" and offer hope to this old house.

Other, more subtle installations look at the subculture of suburbia (the attic), intimacy (the bathroom) and what it means to leave a space behind (spare bedroom). The show's Web site - hauswerkshow.blogspot.com - further explores these themes through artist statements.

One room, however, needs little explanation. It satirizes the American Dream in an extreme makeover that brings the outdoors indoors.

In what was a bedroom, a stretch of front lawn in all its green Astroturf glory beckons, complete with front porch that extends from a wall covered with aluminum siding. It looks like the outside of a typical suburban development, but it's installed inside - a jarring juxtaposition the suburban-raised artists use to challenge ideas of normalcy.

"A lot of porches are unusable," said guest contributor Laura Halkias, 22, of Bethlehem, a Tyler architecture student whose thesis tackled suburban sprawl. "They're just there for display." As is this faux one. "It becomes really absurd."

During the opening reception on Saturday, sculpture senior and curator Conor Fields, 21, of Allentown, N.J., planned to "mow" the lawn/carpet and then trade with Halkias, who planned to push a vacuum - questioning "the whole idea of the American lawn, the blood, sweat and tears poured into them," he said.

HausWerk, the students said, strives to respect the memories within these walls, but that does not dull the voyeuristic feel of the whole experience. Two installations are even viewed through peepholes.

"It's like an invasion into someone else's space," allowed Athena Christakis, "but not in a bad way."

Cheri Christakis said she thinks her late neighbors, who were friends, would "be thrilled" with the creative use of the property.

Said Chris Christakis: "It's amazing, just seeing them . . . take the house apart." As a structural engineer, he kept tabs on which walls, exactly, got torn down. "It's like building an ice sculpture."

An apt metaphor. The installations will be demolished when the house is torn down, though the ephemeral quality of this show doesn't seem to bother the students.

"Our work tends to have a life span," Athena Christakis said. "We understand that."


If you go...

HausWerk, at 1497 Sugartown Rd. in Paoli, runs through Jan. 4, 2008 by appointment only. For more information, contact Athena Christakis at 215-900-0175 or athena.christakis@gmail.com.

Contact staff writer Lini S. Kadaba at 610-627-0352 or Lkadaba@phillynews.com.