Recently, while thumbing through three major furniture catalogs that came in the mail on the same day, I couldn’t help but think that when it comes to home design, things are now too easy. With hundreds of two-page spreads at your fingertips, any person with a credit card and an Internet connection can have the dream house, from the floor to the finials, in a matter of mouse clicks. But what’s the fun in that? What about the thrill of the hunt? What’s so great about walking into someone’s Stepford living room and saying “I’ve seen this before”?
Shopping for consignment or secondhand furniture is a great way to furnish your abode on a budget. Let’s face it, many of us aren’t ready to take the furniture plunge anyway, and in this economy, we should all be saving money for a rainy day. Luckily, when it comes to thrift shopping, the options rival those at the big box stores. Just keep a few rules and guidelines in mind:
Quality Control: I think a lot of people believe that furniture is in a secondhand store only because it’s damaged. Actually, most stores won’t accept or purchase damaged items. That being said, do a quality check on each piece. Sit on the chair to see if it’s wobbly. Ask to plug in a lamp and make sure it works and doesn’t short out. Check to see how things are made and of what materials. Is it sturdy? Are joints only glued? Are any minor flaws or repairs easily fixable?
Much like older homes, a lot of older furniture was built much sturdier and with higher quality materials than some of what’s made today. You may be able to get a kitchen table and four chairs for $150 at both a consignment store and a major retail chain, but the piece at the thrift store could be solid wood, while the chain store’s is compressed particle board and requires assembly. Most secondhand stores will deliver, too.
See the Potential: A lot of pieces are true diamonds in the rough. For example, I stumbled upon a blue love seat for $85. Not only was it sturdy and comfortable, but it had clean, square arms and lines that would rival the sofas in any modern furniture store. With a few contrasting accent pillows, it could be the perfect addition to any loft or downtown apartment. Don’t forget how easily some things can be spruced up. I saw a great pair of solid wood dining chairs for $69 that simply need a fresh coat of paint. You can easily update a great vintage lamp with a new, clean shade, slipcover a chair, or even, if your budget permits, reupholster. Don’t be limited by your first impression.
One-of-a-Kind Finds: When thrift shopping, you will see furniture and accessories from almost every decade, from primitive crafts to postmodern furniture. Seek out the one-of-a kind pieces that really help make a house a home—the touches that you can’t find at the big box stores. I fell in love with a pair of vintage gunmetal gym lockers for $145. They are already retrofitted with shelves from top to bottom, making them not only a perfect conversation piece, but practical storage for a mudroom, bedroom, or home office.
An antique ice chest provides the same unique opportunity. Look beyond the intended purpose—it might not keep your Jell-O mold cold, but why couldn’t it hold your cookbooks?
Accessorize: From vases, to rugs, to artwork, thrift and consignment stores are a fine way to fill in the details. You can walk away with framed artwork for $5—maybe you don’t like the 16"x20" of the sad clown, but you can re-use the great frame on your next art project. $1 record album covers make great artwork framed. Your imagination is your true guide.
So, armed with these few simple rules, and perhaps a coffee and a good friend, you can spend a fun afternoon affordably furnishing your home. As always it’s an opportunity to support our local businesses, bring personal style to our spaces, and even save some money for that next rainy day.—Ed Warwick
For good measure
In an age of lasers and software-assisted measuring, how does an average D.I.Y.-er know how to get the numbers right?
The standard measuring tape is a good place to start (and possibly end). When it comes to precise measurements it’s important to be able to trust your tools. Heavy-duty tapes will last a lifetime (meaning: buy a good one). Rarely will the average homeowner need more than 25′ of measuring power, so I recommend sticking to a 12′-25′ length tape.
Measuring tapes are made of a flexible strip of steel (remember snap bracelets?) encased in a metal or plastic housing, often with a locking switch to keep the tape from recoiling. There is a metal clip riveted to the end of the tape, which is essential when you are measuring something by your lonesome. (Catch the clip on the end of the object to be measured and carefully walk the distance to be measured.) Often the length of the tape’s housing will factor into measuring and it would behoove the user to take note of that length, which is often embossed on the underside of the housing.
Some measuring tapes have digital voice recorders built in for remembering measurements, others are entirely digital, and many offer metric measurements as well.
For smaller feats of measuring, don’t discount a quality straight ruler. I use a 12" metal square and a 24" metal straight ruler frequently.
Regardless of your chosen method of measuring, the adage still holds true: Measure twice, cut once.—Christy Baker