Reduce, Reuse, Rethink Old Furniture

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We simplified this space by removing an unnecessary chair and lamp, decluttering the table set up and eliminating a hodgepodge of knickknacks. The result is a more elegant and functional dining room.
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Chair, after.
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New upholstery turned these chairs from drab to darling.
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Dining room, before.
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Inspired by the idea of the Hopi sun, this chandelier incorporates stones, crystals, fossils and pearls on a metalworker’s frame.
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The cart, before.
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Side table, before.
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Mimicking the ornate nests of the bowerbird, this piece is made of driftwood collected after a spring.
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Shelf, before.
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A coat of paint can be a cure-all for wood, metal and other hard surfaces; choose paints low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to avoid outgassing.
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Jen transformed a tired chair, which had been damaged when it fell off the back of a truck on the interstate, into a graphic showpiece.
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The chair, before.
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The 13-foot chandelier she made for Denver restaurant Z Cuisine was inspired by the organic lines of Art Nouveau.
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Revive a termite-damaged table: We took apart this table, trimmed away the most damaged parts (which meant cutting down the legs) and sanded off the old paint (after testing to to be sure it didn’t contain lead). A coat of low-VOC paint and new hardware make a piece perfect for the playroom. Total cost: $60
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Reinvigorate a vintage cart. To fashion a sleek new wine cart, we disassembled and sandblasted this tired model, then we powdercoated the like-new surface with a bold color, replaced the worn-out bolts and reassembled it. Total cost: $45

When remodeling, working with what you already have is one of the most eco-friendly things you can do. “Our desire for new, new, new, and to consume, consume, consume leads to our fast depletion of resources,” says Lili Wright, a Philadelphia-based interior designer. “We make the best use of things in their creative reuse.”

Rethinking how, where and why you use the furnishings you have, then doing a little cleanup here and repurposing there, can give your home a brand-new look–same old stuff and all.


So it’s not ready for a magazine close-up? Don’t throw it out yet. Many quality pieces just need a little cosmetic help.

A coat of paint can be a cure-all for wood, metal and other hard surfaces; choose paints low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to avoid outgassing. Decorative molding is inexpensive and adds style to wood furnishings (look for solid wood molding, not synthetic). Or toss a pretty throw onto a tabletop, chair or dresser to create a new look.

Recovering chair cushions in look-at-me, eco-friendly material is a fast fix in the dining room, Wright says. “You will feel like you have a whole new dining set,” she adds.

Erin, a homeowner who turned these old shelves from plain to pretty, explains: “My husband and I received these beautiful handmade shelves as a gift from some friends a few years ago. When we moved to our new apartment, we decided that we needed more color in our lives. Being a huge fan of all things DIY, I wanted to show my husband how easy it was to make ‘old’ things new again. This project was perfect. It proved to be budget-friendly and fun.” Erin was thrilled they reused the piece they had rather than buying new. “I’m currently on a mission to convince everyone that a little low-VOC paint goes a long way….It’s definitely one of the greatest things I’ve learned from my mom,” she says.

Jen transformed this tired chair (right), which had been damaged when it fell off the back of a truck on the interstate, into her own personal heirloom. She explains: “The chair was in bad shape–the legs had broken off and the fabric was scuffed all over. I don’t know how the upholsterer did it but, wow, it looks so great!”

Paula says she loves “finding chairs that everyone else is passing over or frowning at, getting a great bargain and getting a great upholsterer to work magic on them.” She looks for classic chair shapes and combines them with bold, modern textile designs. “I think there is often fun and humor in the tension between different styles,” she says.


Simply removing a little-used table or clearing away clutter can completely change a room. But be purposeful in what you remove, advises Sharon Hanby-Robie, an interior designer and author of Decorating Without Fear (Rutledge Hill, 2007). “Start by writing a mission statement for each room,” she says. “What do you want this room to do, and how do you make that happen with the furnishings you own?”

Evaluate each piece in the room. Is it functional? Does it serve the room’s purpose? If not, maybe you could donate it or repurpose it elsewhere.

When it comes to accessories, less is more. “Our rooms often look like we’re wearing all of our jewelry at the same time,” Wright says. “When you dress, you have different seasons, outfits and moods. In the same way, keep your space alive by changing it up every once in awhile.”

To help clients let go of possessions, Hanby-Robie takes photos of their spaces. “When you live in a place, you lose perspective. A camera can give it back,” she says. Shocked at how much clutter the photo reveals, many clients are motivated to clear away extraneous stuff.


Sometimes, all a tired piece of furniture needs is a new venue. As you clear out excess items, keep each room’s mission statement in mind. Could pieces from one room help fulfill another’s purpose?

Hanby-Robie likes to use furniture in unexpected ways. She suggests putting a dresser in the bathroom for towels and makeup, shortening a table’s legs to create a game table, or using a rug made of natural materials as a table runner.

Even good change is hard. “I have a rule that clients can’t call me for 48 hours after I’ve done their home,” Hanby-Robie says. “It’s like getting a new hairdo–even when you know it looks good, you have to get used to it.”

Artist Tracey Barnes has always been inspired by nature. She collects found bits of treasure: stones, shells, leaves, pods, bugs, beetles and butterflies. She explains: “I started creating art pieces to showcase my collections, bringing nature inside and creating light pieces to show the beautiful color and texture of crystal, fluorite, amethyst, calcite, topaz, aquamarine, pearls, and other semiprecious rough and uncut gems. The structure is often created out of old tractor parts and wheels or found pieces of branches or roots that are then finished with copper or gold and tarnished.”

The 13-foot chandelier she made for Denver restaurant Z Cuisine was inspired by the organic lines of Art Nouveau. The piece is delicately bejeweled with sea green and champagne fluorite, cream and black freshwater pearls, moonstone chips, orange calcite and red coral, all from Barnes’ collection. “Even though it is such a large piece, it has an airy, floating feeling,” she says.

6 new spots for your old stuff

Sometimes it’s just better to put Grandma’s wall cabinet out into circulation for someone else to enjoy.

1. lets you trade something you don’t need for something you do.

2. has more than 3 million members around the world who exchange items free of charge; chances are you’ll find a taker for Aunt Edna’s old chairs.

3. Newspaper classifieds and many weeklies have a “freebies” section where you can list furniture for the taking.

4. Consignment shops save time by letting someone else do the selling for you. You might find something to take home that suits your purposes better than the piece you left.

5. and are free online sites where you can sell or give away unwanted items.

6. Charitable organizations and thrift stores such as the Goodwill, the Salvation Army and women’s shelters are usually happy to take your items. Call ahead–they may come pick them up.

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