How to Design With Junk and Work with Reclaimed Materials

Reader Contribution by Elizabeth Richardson
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Elizabeth “Neko” Richardson is a licensed counselor in the State of Texas, a veteran, and holds a degree in Environmental Science. She currently lives in Hunstville, Texas, where she is building and designing her own home and studio using reclaimed and salvaged materials on a budget of $16,000 or less. She also works as a carpenter’s apprentice under the mentorship of Dan Phillips. Follow her building progress living experiment in design on her blog, Salvaged Homes

How do you use junk in design without it looking like…junk? Fear of making a project look like junk is what prevents many people from trying to use salvaged materials. This is a skill I have had to learn in order to work with reclaimed materials on my house and studio.

Rows of CDs create a pattern that the eye can make sense of. Photo Courtesy Elizabeth Richardson.

“Repetition creates pattern.” I had heard Dan Phillips, my mentor, say this mantra on how to effectively design with scrap several times, but I did not really understand it until I saw him give a short speech to some kids who had come to volunteer on a work project.

Dan looked around the work site and grabbed a handful of rocks of mortar that had been chipped off of old used bricks. He placed the pieces of mortar in a pile, which did in fact look like trash.

“When you look at this what do you see?” Various responses from the crowd.

“A mess to clean up,” someone said (which garnered laughter from the crowd).

“Junk,” another said.

“Yeah but..,” he rearranged the pieces quickly like a magician into the form of a circle. “What do you see now?”

In unison the group responded, “A circle.”

“Yes. We created a pattern out of junk and everyone here can see it.” He smiled. “What if we take out one piece of mortar and replace it with a different stone?” He grabbed another stone of a different size and color and put it in place of a piece of mortar. “What is it now?”

“A circle!” everyone shouts.

“Yup, still a circle. What about if I take out another piece of the mortar and replace it with…a stick?” He quickly made the swap.


“Yup, its still a circle.”

A light bulb went on for me, and I got it that day, along with all the others. To use discarded items in design, without making your design look like “junk,” you have to make a pattern that the eye can see and recognize. When we see that symbol or pattern, it doesn’t matter if the wood is warped or if the tiles are cracked because when we see a pattern, it makes sense to our eye. Once you have established that pattern you can even throw in a few odd pieces and still see the pattern. It doesn’t look like “junk” because it is in harmony to a greater pattern.

When we see “junk,” what we see is disharmony. Good design creates a pattern that gets us to see the harmony, the cohesion of the pattern.

Although there are many rules in art and design, this is really the only rule you need to successfully use found objects, salvage, junk or nature in design.

As a very charming aside to this piece, I was talking with Marsha Phillips, Dan’s wife, and found that as a university art professor, she was the one who taught Dan about art concepts such as “repetition creates pattern.”

As she told me this, we both smiled. Behind this man following his dreams there is a woman who loves him and nurtured him along the way. Dan Phillips, as great as his is, could not have done what he has done without Marsha and without the help of many people along the way. Dan and Marsha have helped me, and now I hope to teach many more people these concepts, until we have come “full circle.” Dan and Marsha Phillips have taught me that the mantra “repetition creates pattern” includes the pattern of love.

Warped wood creates a wave pattern. Photo Courtesy Elizabeth Richardson.