Expert Advice on Turning Secondhand Items Into Funky Decor

By Betsy Lowther
Thursday, October 15, 2009

DIY decorating once was simple: Pick a style (modern, shabby chic, country craft), acquire its key accoutrements (chrome accents, weathered finishes, "Little House on the Prairie" ginghams), repeat until complete. But now savvy nesters no longer want to be defined by one look. Instead, they're fusing high and low, old and new, classic and oddball for an effect that's both chic and cheeky.

The trick to this aesthetic is a healthy collection of vintage pieces repurposed in unexpected ways, such as an old classroom map hung as artwork or laboratory beakers used as flower vases. We consulted four local experts to learn the secrets to nabbing secondhand scores at a flea market, at a thrift store and online.

Flea Market: Courting Color

When Janet Morales and Stu Eli decamped from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Northern Virginia a few years ago, the married couple realized that the quirky-cool pieces they were collecting for their new house might appeal to other hip homemakers, too. It wasn't long before their Reston-based Web store, Three Potato Four (, earned a devoted following for its mom-and-pop feel and well-sourced selection of eclectic vintage objects unearthed at flea markets, antiques malls and other troves easily reached via the duo's minivan. Sample wares: retro letters that once belonged to 1960s-era storefronts and Fiberglas classroom chairs.

On a recent Sunday, Eli and Morales unpack two strollers, their two toddlers (Holly, 4, and Otis, 1) and a few reusable totes to tackle the Georgetown Flea Market (1819 35th St. NW, 202-775-3532, Eli's eyes quickly dart across the crowded tables. "I start by quickly scanning for anything brightly colored," he says.

Within minutes, he snags an oversize red Tonka jeep for $18. "The bold color and retro shape make it a great display piece on a bookshelf," he says. Working quickly around the market, they add two wooden lanterns ($18) and an antique washboard ($5). "I like that every piece has a story," Morales says. "This washboard used to clean laundry, but now, it will be hung on someone else's wall as art."

Best advice: "Don't get discouraged. It only takes one really great booth to make it a good day," Eli says.

More ways to score: Eli uses free pamphlet-style directories by Sunday Driver ( to suss out antiques malls and dealers up and down the East Coast.

Thrift Store: Reuse, Rethink

As the owner of cozy Old Town Alexandria decor den Red Barn Mercantile (, Amy Rutherford has a reputation for stocking a mix of hard-to-find new items and nifty secondhand finds. Shoppers can find such pieces as Thomas Paul's vibrant patterned pillows and salvaged library card catalogues.

"I hit up any resource I can: thrift stores, flea markets, antique malls, auctions," Rutherford says while pawing through piles of housewares at Look Again Resale Shop (900 King St., Alexandria, 703-683-2558), a neighborhood thrift store where she regularly stops.

She pauses over a selection of silver serving dishes. "These pieces might be older, but they're still very classic," she says. "Stores are making reproductions of them now, but it's easy to find the originals on the cheap." Sweet antique teacups (about $5 each) also catch her eye; she'd use them as teensy planters. The busy shop overflows with small and big buys. One bummer: An iconic Eero Saarinen marble-top tulip table ($995) that dominates the furnishings area wears a "sold" tag.

"In thrift stores, patience is key," Rutherford says. "You've got to scour the sections, move things around, look underneath them. That's where you'll find your treasure." She pounces on an antique bank safety deposit box ($9) -- "They're great for storing everything from pencils to papers" -- and two retro children's records whose vibrant, illustrated album covers she plans to reframe as art for a kid's space.

Best advice: "Always think outside the box on how to use an item. In fact, don't even think about what it was made for; think of what it could be instead."

More ways to score: Rutherford leads shopping expeditions to area antiques markets. The next outing has yet to be scheduled; contact the store (703-838-0355) for information.

Craigslist: Key Words Are Key

D.C.-based interiors maven Sally Steponkus doesn't do dirty. "I'm not the kind of person who likes to dig around an antique shop," she says. Instead, she lands her deals the new-fashioned way: via the Internet. On the D.C. site of classified-ad service Craigslist (, Steponkus browses for high-quality furnishings and display pieces being sold for little money. It's where she scored the oversize, gilt-bamboo-framed mirror over her couch for just $25. "I would sell this myself for $4,000," she says.

Her trick to shopping multi-merchant sites such as Craigslist or eBay: Be as specific as possible for what you're looking for. Steponkus favors design-centric search terms such as "bamboo," "antiqued," "gilded" or "Greek key." "Just looking for something like 'lighting' is too vague," she says. "You're going to end up clicking through listings of junk. I'd try 'sconce,' 'chandelier' or 'pendant lamp' instead."

Like all secondhand sources, the selection online is hit-or-miss, so it helps to check often. "No one has the time to stop by a store every day, but it's easy to go online," she says. Persistence helped Steponkus recently score a vintage bamboo dining set -- six chairs, table, sideboard and bar -- for $400, which she relacquered to be spotlighted in a designer show house.

Best advice: "Everything can be redone. A coat of bright paint, new upholstery or adding trim or gilding can dramatically refresh an older piece."

More ways to score: Steponkus checks out such local blogs as Homer's Odd Isn't He ( and My Notting Hill ( for news on area auctions and store sales.

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