“Necessity is the mother of invention,” as the old saying goes. However, in Stacy Walden’s life, this cliché unfolded into a beautiful illustration of ingenuity. When she and James, her husband, moved with their three boys from a 2,750-square-foot Lake Carolina home to a 1,700-square-foot home in town, a simple change in geography morphed into a paradigm shift. “Nothing from our old house fit,” she says. Because purchasing new furniture was simply not an option, Stacy had to allow her mind to grasp a new idea of design and decor.
It occurred to her to start “shopping” in her own home for pieces that she now needed in the new space. She transformed a dresser into a kitchen island by adding bun feet and a butcher block top. She created curtains from drop cloths, and applied a new tint to anything with potential. Wooden wine crates from a neighbor, turned aside, became shelving for the boys’ rooms. An old barn door serves as her master bedroom headboard, and a framed mirror became a chalkboard message center for the boys to see as they bolt down the stairs in the morning.
“I was on a tight budget, and I drew inspiration from catalogues and stores. Then I figured out how to transfer what I saw to what I already had,” she says.
Stacy prefers a style that is practical and eclectic, causing visitors to take a second look. In her living room, instead of a traditional column supporting the corner of the room, there is a handsomely rustic solid length of wood, retrieved from an old tobacco barn in Turbeville, S.C.
On a dark buffet in the dining room sits a pair of matching lamps, their shades accented with soft white rosettes. Stacy explains how she obtained them: “I was in the clearance section at T.J. Maxx, and there were matching lamps. I didn’t like the color, or the shades – but the price was right. So I brought them home and painted them a slate blue. To re-work the shades with items I already had, I used an old white t-shirt, which gave them a whole new feel.”
Stacy’s most recent project was done for Wil, her youngest son. A hand-me-down dresser was repainted, with a small square of chalkboard paint featured on the front of each drawer. On the chalkboard paint, she drew pictures labeling each drawer’s contents -– one for socks, one for shorts, etc.
“I’ve got to smile when I walk into a room. Some people don’t like painting over wood. But I don’t care if it’s the best mahogany in the world – if I don’t like it, then I am painting it!”
Professional artist Alicia Leeke can relate. She obtained shelving from a friend’s studio for her office. “Initially it was very industrial looking,” explains Alicia, “but it is amazing what paint can do. I painted them turquoise, making my office feel sleek and new.”
With items found at yard sales, Alicia fabricates other things as well. Teacups and saucers become bird feeders, and side tables are made new with paint and découpage. It seems that her artist’s hand yearns to create, whether that involves adding a unique touch to something practical, or brushing oil onto canvas.
While many folks might drive right past the old couch or odd piece of furniture on the side of the road, some, like Alicia, are inclined to slow down and take a look, to assess its potential.
Of course, reclaiming and re-purposing are not new concepts. Marna Hill remembers being buckled into the back seat of an Audi sedan, waiting, the engine idling, while her mom and dad heaved a piece of furniture into the trunk. “We wouldn’t hesitate to stop and pick something up,” she recalls. As an adult, it’s natural for her to keep her eyes open as she drives the streets of downtown Columbia, surveying for deserted furnishings just waiting to be given new life.
One of her most successful finds was a club-style chair found on the side of the road. “When I first saw it, it was disgusting,” reveals Marna. “It had an old, bright orange 70s fabric with cigarette burns.” Now it sits in the corner of her dining room, as if it were part of the interior design plan all along. Shortly after she snagged the chair from the roadside, another neighbor asked, “Did you pick up that chair already? I was going to get that!” In the end, Marna says that she probably spent $150 total on the fabric and recovering for a chair that looks to be worth far more.
After the old Keg O’ Nails on Rosewood Drive closed, some items from the restaurant were left on the roadside. One thing that stood out to Marna was a chrome cooler with a broken leg. “It was a $20 fix,” she states, “but now it is a conversation piece.”
However, not all of her efforts have met with success. She once picked up a rug, approximately 8 feet by 10 feet, that had a strong dog urine odor. “I washed, I scrubbed, I let it sit outside, and then I had it professionally cleaned. I probably spent about $50 on it and still ended up putting it back on the roadside. In hindsight, I should have just tried to get someone to cut it to a smaller size.”
Forest Acres resident Kathia Valverde also learned in her formative years the value of reclaiming others’ “trash.” Growing up in Costa Rica, Kathia observed her grandfather refurbishing pieces for his furniture shop. “As a little girl, my family did not have the means to always buy new things, so when I visited Abuelo, I saw what could be done. When I arrived in the United States, it was like hog heaven to me! There was so much selection! Here, I can get the materials and advice so easily.”
Now, her home has many re-done pieces – from a coffee table to a dresser to an upright piano – all beautiful and given fresh life. In a sense, each of these items are threads through her home that tie her back to her time in Costa Rica. Kathia says with a laugh, “I feel like I have to rescue things. It’s a good thing I drive a mini-van!”
Marna shares what keeps her open to giving a new home to orphaned items, in spite of having a few disappointing experiences: “There is a lot of satisfaction in making something old new again; I cannot make something from scratch, but I can take something that’s already there and make it usable.” Her advice to anyone who would like to try a little roadside shopping sounds like sage life advice as well: “Break it down to its simplest parts and figure out if those can be fixed. Look at the basic structure; be sure it is sound. Then you must decide from there if the piece has a purpose in your life.”
Tips for Instant Furniture Makeovers
- Be willing to use an item for a completely different purpose, based on the need. Don’t be bound by what the piece is “supposed” to be. Move things from room to room to see how they work.
- Painting is a quick and inexpensive update – the equivalent of adding new pillows to a couch. Quart-sized samples can be obtained from the paint store for about six dollars, and they usually contain plenty of paint for a piece of furniture.
- A lot of surfaces don’t take paint well. Learning how to paint different surfaces is key. For example, a typical cheap entertainment center is plywood and veneer and should be primed with Kilz, an oil-based primer, and painted with latex paint. Switch out the knobs and fixtures, and a questionable piece becomes a masterpiece.
- With a roadside find, be prepared to get dirty.
- Weigh how much time, effort and money is worth putting into a find. Do not bother with more generic roadside items or with things in really poor condition.