Plenty of artists live in squalor. What sets David Ireland apart is that squalor is his medium. Ireland has made a name for himself by turning a rundown San Francisco house—which happens to be his home—into a work of "social sculpture," a homage both to generations of past inhabitants and the workings of time. The well-worn walls and floors have been preserved under polyurethane the way some housewives seal their couches in plastic. A heap of old brooms has been mustered into the kind of sculpture that any sorcerer's apprentice would love. And on a pedestal in the study is nothing less—and nothing more—than a jar containing rubber bands removed from hundreds of daily newspapers over the years. Somehow the sight is nudged into poetry by a ghostly accompaniment that echoes through the room: the tape-recorded sound of rubber bands being removed from newspapers.

By propelling plain things on odd flights of fancy, the 58-year-old Ireland has launched his own name toward new heights in the art world. His ravaged walls and splintered chairs have even been featured in House and Garden, and since 1981, when he opened his place to the public on an appointment basis, hundreds of visitors have come by each month to marvel at yellowing plaster that receives the kind of tender loving care usually reserved for old frescoes. A sampling of Ireland's more portable work is now touring California galleries, and earlier this year he was given that most sought-after of showcases, a solo exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Says curator Linda Shearer: "He extends the definition of what can constitute an aesthetic experience."

Case in point: Dumburger, a more or less globular thing that Ireland fashioned from wet concrete. "The whole notion is that you don't impose arty design intelligence on it," he explains. "You just toss it from one hand to the other until it takes shape." And then there's Earth Quake Indicator. A slab of concrete fixed atop a metal wire planted in a concrete base, it requires the participation of the San Andreas fault. "When we had an earthquake in San Francisco a while ago, the thing started shaking," Ireland recalls. "I said to my friend, 'Look, it's working!' "

But Ireland's most audacious act of definition-extending remains his house on Capp Street, a place that is simultaneously ragged, inspired and poised just beyond the reach of description. "I never really planned this work," says Ireland. "It just happened." The happening started in 1975, when he bought the squat Victorian house in the Mission District from a retired accordion maker. It was badly in need of sprucing up. But while scrubbing the walls and clearing out rubbish, Ireland found himself reflecting upon the subtle charms of dilapidation. Every scuff mark, it seemed, was part of a trail left by those who had preceded him and called the place home. Every crack in the ceiling was the signature of time itself. In the end, rather than refurbish the place, he decided to make it a vivid testament to its numerous pasts.

At 6'5", in his blue jeans and flannel shirt, Ireland, who once supported himself as a carpenter, has the look of a man who could easily demolish a few rooms if he wanted. But the transformation his project required was more delicate. Like a household archaeologist, he tore away wallpaper to expose the stained plaster beneath and chipped at layers of paint left by decades of redecorating, while leaving some part of each layer in place. When he achieved just the right mix of venerable funk, he fixed it under protective coats of clear polyurethane. Meanwhile he was turning oddments from around the house into works of art that bespoke the lives that had been lived there. An example is Show of Sparks—two 8-by 10-inch steel rectangles covered with several years' worth of black residue that was left by sparks thrown from a grinding wheel in the basement. "A relic of prior actions," Ireland calls it.

His work has roots in the collages that the German artist Kurt Schwitters pioneered in the '20s—works on paper made from bits of torn envelopes and used bus tickets. Ireland also likes to cite his affinity with the Italian artists of the '80s who have called their work arte povera. It means "impoverished art" and describes the humble materials—like old clothes and dented teakettles—that these artists use to make strangely stirring concoctions. Like them, Ireland believes that art should take a second look at things that the world is accustomed to taking for granted. And in an age of neighborhood gentrification—the Mission District itself is very much in transition—he has taken a poke at the idea that renovation should make the old look born-again. "My work is intended to challenge values," he explains. "We have this notion of value being assigned by someone else in authority. But I'm not going to acknowledge those values. I'm going to develop my own."

The son of a successful insurance executive, Ireland grew up with his parents and three sisters in Bellingham, Wash. Even as a child he liked to fiddle with his surroundings, tying decorative strings around doorknobs, for instance. "Whenever we went camping out on the beach, David was never content with leaving a campsite untouched." recalls his sister Judy. "He was always moving logs on the beachfront." After art school and an Army stint, he took a few years to travel—with stops in Fiji, Afghanistan and Africa. Later, after a few restless years at his father's insurance firm in Bellingham and an unsuccessful marriage, he ran a San Francisco gallery devoted to African art and led photo safaris to Kenya and Tanzania. In Ireland's bedroom now hangs an elephant ear that resembles an outline of the African continent, part of an artwork called Three Attempts to Understand Van Gogh's Far in Terms of the Map of Africa. In fact, lately Ireland has been cramming his bedroom with his creations, which may be one reason his girlfriend. Susan Parker, a San Francisco photographer, prefers to maintain her own apartment across town.

After closing the gallery in 1974, Ireland earned a graduate degree from the San Francisco Art Institute and moved to Manhattan, where he attended a lecture titled "Architecture as an Art." He remembers it as a pivotal moment. "That's when I decided to devote the rest of my life to art," says Ireland. But not to traditional painting and drawing, which he saw as "too limiting." Returning to San Francisco in 1975, he set out to do nothing less than redefine the border between art and daily life.

In addition to his own house, Ireland has also transformed a smaller house just down the street, cladding it in corrugated sheet metal and realigning interior walls to catch sunlight in contrasting ways. (Now owned by a wealthy collector, 65 Capp Street houses an artist-in-residence program.) There are drawbacks, of course, to making whole dwellings the stuff of one's art. In the era of the artist-as-millionaire, not much of what Ireland makes can be fitted into galleries to be sold. What is for sale, however, is sought out by collectors willing to pay between $5,000 and $10,000 for something like New Shoes, a pair of construction boots set in hardened concrete. And never mind that it's hard to predict the resale value of old shoes. "People who collect David's work are not concerned about the market," says Damon Brandt, Ireland's New York dealer. "They're interested in owning an idea."

Ireland is proud to admit that he doesn't always know where his ideas might take him. "That's the difference between a scientist and an artist," he says. "A scientist has some logical reason for a certain conclusion. An artist works completely in the realm of personal inquiry." And he can't be sure how or when inspiration will strike. At his home on Capp Street, he says, it all started with housekeeping. And though what has happened there may not be your mother's idea of housekeeping, something important about Ireland's house has been kept. Chances are it might be its spirit.

—Richard Lacayo, Jamie M. Saul in New York