Salvation: How to Decorate with Found Objects

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The built-in dresser in the bedroom features a rusted steel top that John hammered into place and a yellow-hued drawer that he found in an alley. The blue trim is baseboard from the old post office.
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John seals flaking wood using water-based polyurethane and a touch of oil-based stain. The nails used for hanging objects were found on the property.
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Wainscoting from the old Durango post office forms part of a wall.
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The trim around John and Linda Thomas’s front room is made of iron from an old pickup truck bed. When a well-known national chain store decided to build in Durango, it had several old cabins torn down. John made a beeline to the site and picked up these pieces of metal from a couple of rusted-out old trucks he found there.
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These spice cabinets are made from old wooden trunks installed in the wall. One is deeper than the other, so it’s sunk into the wall, while the other is surface mounted. It gives that “fun, childish element of surprise, to open a cabinet and find a little cubbyhole,” says John.
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The tub surround is made of ham­mered metal, with copper tubing supporting the shower curtain. “And,” John laughs, “I purposely did the worst sold­ering job I could possibly do, to get the right look.” Because the room was originally an attic, the ceiling was too short for a shower. John cut a hole in the roof and lined it with hammered metal. While their only purpose is to hold the shower curtain, the copper pipes add the final touch.

Walking into John and Linda Thomas’s apartment, one feels a sense of symmetry. Faded old doors exhibit soft patinas of green and blue, while well-worn windows see new life as kitchen cabinets. Old truck parts and pieces of abandoned cabins serve as dressing tables, coat hooks, and spice cabinets. Upon close inspection, a pair of windows in the kitchen turns out to be an illusion; one is a window, one a framed mirror. A trio of pediment-topped windows with frosted glass let in tons of soft light. In this house, almost everything is old, but with a wonderful sense of irony, everything is new again.

John Thomas is a quintessential artist. No matter what he undertakes, he guides a project with his artist’s eye. His work has spanned several genres, including cinema, photography, and performance art. He has designed furniture, built homes, and taught college art classes, each with aplomb.

His most recent project is the Durango, Colorado, home he shares with his wife, Linda. One could more accurately call it a compound. He bought the house (now divided into apartments), a small parcel of land, and several outbuildings more than a decade ago from an eighty-year-old man who had lived there most of his life. “I asked him to stay,” recounts John. “But he decided to move on.” This gentleman left behind a decades-old accumulation of stuff: piles of old doors and windows, plumbing supplies, bicycles, bed frames, stacks of wood, and enough hardware to open a store. Others, less enlightened, might have seen the legacy as junk to be hauled away, but John saw only possibilities. “If somebody gave me a box of old paint, I would find a way to use it,” he says. “But what I had here was a property full of old stuff, so I’m finding a way to use that.”

It takes a special eye to turn a pile of debris into a cohesive design statement. “A basic principle of design is that similar things, grouped together, form harmonies,” John explains. “Dissimilar things tend to separate. What I’m doing here is taking dissimilar objects, found objects that have been affected by time, and these objects suddenly have a common simi­larity.” One of his favorite examples is an old car in a field; it’s an eyesore at first, but after a couple of years, it softens and blends with
the landscape. Time has become an element of the design.

Another trick John uses is to give dissimilar objects a similar function so that the mind groups them together to create harmony. The house entry area is a case in point. One door had part of the top rotted away at a strange angle, so John fashioned the frame around it to match the missing piece. Instead of looking broken and weird, the door looks like it was meant to be. John drew inspiration for the concept from an Anasazi granary ruin he came across while hiking in Utah. “The granary had a little door opening, about one foot by two foot, and right next to it was a flat piece of flagstone. The opening was made out of mud and carved to the exact shape of the stone. When you put the rock into that opening, it fit like a suction cup. The beauty of that, the detail, inspired me to come back and scribe things to fit other things, without using right angles.” To wit, light switches are affixed in old knotholes, and boards converge along wavy lines to form door headers.

The result isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, although it hasn’t detracted people from lining up to rent apartments from the Thomases. “People come in to look at an apartment, and they either get it, or they don’t,” says Linda. “Those who don’t would never be able to live here.”

Instant Age

One of John Thomas’s secret ingredients is polyurethane with a touch of black-walnut Watco, an oil-based stain. He uses it to give a patina of age to almost anything new, and to seal old pieces. The polyurethane serves to protect the flaking paint and dirt that are already on an old piece, so it stays the way it is. “It still has that old look,” John says, “but it’s clean. You can wash it, and it doesn’t give you the creeps to use it.”

Start with one gallon of water-based polyurethane or a plant-based sealer (try Livos Natural Oil Sealer or AFM Safecoat) and 1/2 cup of stain. Use semi-matte or gloss depending on the finish you want to achieve. According to John, polyurethane is the universal protector; you can use it on wood, metal, almost anything. And one last word: “Don’t get hung up on doing a perfect job,” he says.

Found Advice

  • Find an object that you like.
  • Clean it with soap and water, but don’t completely refinish or repaint it. Seal it with a plant-based sealer.
  • Walk around your house, holding the object out in front of you in different places until it looks good. Everybody has a built-in sense of harmony or good taste, which are really the same things. Walk around with an object until you can say, “That’s cool…that’s where this belongs.” If it looks good, it’s in harmony, even if you don’t have knowledge of elements and principles and how they work together. Trust yourself.
  • Maybe you want to use a funky old headlight as a light fixture. You can put a battery in it and use it that way. You can cut a hole in the wall and wire electricity to it. If you put it in the wall, make it look as if it fits there. If it’s an odd shape, make it fit perfectly, using caulk to finish it.
  • Say you find an old metal bucket. It can be sealed to make it look hospitable, and then you can turn it into a wastebasket. Or turn it upside down, hang a light bulb in it, and make it a hanging lamp.

Likely Sources for Used Building Materials

Your basement. Your aunt’s basement. Your uncle’s workshop. Your neighbor’s shed. Let people know what you are interested in, and you’ll be surprised what will appear out of the dark corners of storage areas.

Flea markets and yard sales. This is stuff from the basements of people whom you don’t know well enough to approach directly. You will need to be prepared to accept an item and trust that you can use it. Carry a list of necessary dimensions and a tape measure with you at all times. Rarely will you have the opportunity to return an item if it doesn’t fit.

Used building material stores or salvage yards. Many people are making a business out of selling recovered material. Used building material stores are becoming the Home Depot of the salvage world, and they’re full of endless possibilities. Be prepared to pay sales tax, and be sure to inquire about refund policies. Many of these stores have websites on which you can view digital images and order items without ever having to leave your home. (But this isn’t nearly as much fun as combing through all the things in the store!)

Renovation and demolition sites. Before you visit these sites, determine exactly what you are looking for and be prepared to deal with people under pressure. Many construction sites are off-limits to the public. Some may allow people to view salvageable items if they are wearing proper safety boots and hats. Other sites may have a viewing room open during somewhat irregular hours, so that the public can view the type of material available from the building being demolished. Others may be completely inaccessible with no possibility for salvage. The diehard salvager needs to be pleasant and persistent, offering upfront cash and assistance in removing requested items.

Material exchange listings. With the growth of the reuse and recycling industries, the Internet now lists a number of exchanges for materials available and materials wanted. Each exchange operates differently: Some offer free listings, others charge members to view the site, and some charge a fee for the successful “exchange” of materials.

Newspapers or secondhand buyers guide. The classified sections of many newspapers include “Building Supplies” or “Building Materials– Used” categories, where homeowners or contractors list their surplus or recently salvaged materials. Prices can be better than at retail outlets, although variety and available sizes may be limited.

–Adapted from The Resourceful Renovator: A Gallery of Ideas for Reusing Building Materials, by Jennifer Corson. Copyright 2000, Jennifer Corson. Reprinted by permission of Chelsea Green Publishing Co.