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The Art of Repurposing

Updated: Jan 6, 2020

This article might seem a bit surprising coming from an interior design firm. I think the general perception is that designers want clients to have the latest and greatest—and to sell them these items accordingly. While in part that is appropriate for project needs, and we absolutely want your home to be current and the most wonderful version of you, achieving that goal doesn’t need to solely rely on new products and furnishings.

We firmly believe that when there is a good opportunity to repurpose an item, by all means—let’s do it!

I’m always fascinated when we move from time to time and people ask me, “Did you purchase all new furniture?” My immediate response is “WHY?” I’ve moved 5 times as an adult (not including college or ‘pre-family’ living), and each time I have kept the majority of our furnishings. Granted, there are always a few items that just don’t look right or won’t fit no matter where you try to put them. And as we mature, we desire certain pieces for aesthetic reasons, or to fulfill a certain purpose, but to this day, I still have pieces that I had from our very first home. In fact, I have pieces that were in my bedroom growing up—which originally came from my Great Aunt’s home in Connecticut! I love the history behind each piece and they easily find a spot with every move.

Amidst saying all this, I do also enjoy mixing in beautiful new pieces too, but to us, some history and a story is what truly gives a home its charm. A blend of the old with the new. And some pieces are certainly better at finding new life than others.

For example, chests, tables, well-made dining or occasional chairs, desks and cabinets can all easily be passed down through generations. Sofas, beds and upholstery are a bit more tricky. Reupholstering can be costly and should only be done for well-constructed, high-end pieces or something with a strong sentimental value. (Reference our previous blog: Is It Worth Saving? What to Consider Before You Reupholster). Antique beds are another story. Just as cars have evolved and become roomier to accommodate the larger human body, beds have as well. Occasionally, antique beds can be passed down and repurposed, but sometimes the scale is not only too small for the room, it is physically too small for the humans as well. A lot depends on how old and where you might use them. Because older beds do tend to be smaller, they often make great beds for children.

Recently, my mother passed away and our family acquired A LOT of furniture. Fortunately, we have several siblings and grandchildren who have an interest in preserving the past and not filling our landfills. Our youngest son and his wife took several pieces and have given them a new life! A pair of Jenny Lind mahogany twin beds that were my paternal grandmother’s were quite nicked-up, the finish was sun-faded and one post had come apart. We discussed the possibilities for them and making a long story short, we had the post repaired and repainted the bed frames white for their daughter’s room when she leaves her crib in a few months. In addition, there was my maternal grandmother’s bookshelf—they also had painted white to use with the beds. They turned out beautiful, and have such charm and character that often is lacking in today's modern furniture, especially children’s furniture. And you will be hard pressed to find solid mahogany in children’s furniture today, painted or unpainted.

Additionally, they discussed taking my parent’s solid cherry dressers from the 50s to replace the ones they bought at IKEA when they were first married. As you can see from the photo, the hardware and cherry finish are very traditional and not really appealing to most 30-something year olds.

Original Dresser Pieces from the 50s

The finish also had fading, cracking and pealing from years of use. Our son, however, liked the idea of having his grandfather’s dresser and appreciated that the construction is on par with today’s high-end furniture, only without the price tag since the pieces were inherited.

To give these a new life, we selected a warm, medium dark gray and appointed them with polished nickel hardware consistent with today’s vibe. What a transformation! So now not only have they preserved the memory of their grandparents, they have well-made, solid cherry constructed dressers with the look of today.

Repurposed dressers

Recently, a longtime client asked us to update their gathering room we did for them in the mid 90s. The upholstery had already been reupholstered once, and the client wanted a fresh look so we did select a beautiful new sectional. The cocktail table, however, still fit the space both in style and size, but the finish/color was no longer viable. Because the cocktail table was a beautiful piece from high end manufacturer Marge Carson, we decided giving it a fresh finish would be a great solution, and again, keep one less thing out of our landfills. The photos below show the before (c. 1996) and after, making the table relevant again.

Original cocktail table (circa 1996)

Refinished cocktail table

The next time you are updating, renovating, building or moving, take time to think about what can make the transition smoothly, but more importantly, give serious thought to what items with a little modification could also have new life.

Think outside the box. Just because something was in a living room before doesn’t mean it couldn’t work in a study, office, or bedroom with a new finish or other adjustments. I have a hutch-style dining room cupboard that was a natural stained pine in our first home and looked THAT house and at the time. At our next house, the finish didn’t work at all with our look, but the piece itself fit nicely into our new dining room. I gave it a black, washed finish and voila! It worked beautifully with all the black shades on the chandelier and buffet lamps. As we recently moved to Florida, not only was the black finish not going to work in our latest home, but the hutch no longer had a place in our open floor plan. BUT, I did need additional storage in my office for samples, catalogues, etc. So, with another fresh coat of chalky white paint and some distressing, the cupboard looks like I special ordered it just for my new office! Be sure to exhaust all possibilities for a new purpose before discarding something you think has no future in your current home.

And If you’re really ambitious, visit old salvage yards and find items that can be made into something totally new and different from its original purpose….an old interesting door can become a headboard, a window can be made into a fun mirror. The possibilities are endless, and we are more than happy to help you discover the world of artfully repurposing if you don’t feel you have the vision yourself.


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