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Create original decor by repurposing vintage objects

Posted by David Hill September 19, 2010

When professional appraiser and auctioneer Ruthie Winston walks into a home, she’s there because someone needs her advice.

Photos by Eliot Kamenitz / The Times-PicayuneTwo oak chairs on a bedroom wall in Mary Bopp’s home support planters with cascading foliage. ‘It’s all about seeing something and not being bound by tradition in how you use it,’ Winston said.

Perhaps they just bought an antique desk and need an appraisal for insurance purposes. Maybe they can’t figure out what to do with a wooden chair that was given by an aunt — too much sentimental value to pitch, but not enough style to use as seating. Or it could be that they are downsizing and need to know how much their dining table might fetch at auction.

“It’s my job to help clients get the most out of what they have in their homes,” Winston said.

“Sometimes, that means helping them decide whether to sell a piece of furniture, use it like it is or even to alter it. When I got started in the auction business, I was told, ‘You think you’re in the antiques business, but first and foremost, you’re here to counsel.’”

Winston will be sharing her insights Sunday at noon in a seminar titled “How to Reinvent Your Furniture” at the New Orleans Home + Interior Design Show at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

She recalls being asked to help a couple solve a dilemma about what to do with a set of bedroom furniture they had inherited. Should they sell it, give it away, or somehow adapt it to use for their daughter’s bedroom?

“It was an early 20th-century set, big and brown without a lot of charm,” Winston said.

Winston examined the set, observed the joinery and the quality of the craftsmanship and came up with a recommendation.

“I told them to buy some white glossy paint and just paint it instead of buying new,” she said.

“That was a better choice than spending a lot of money on new furniture that would not be as well-made. They could spend a hundred dollars on paint, buy some knobs and pulls from Restoration Hardware and, for very little money, have something really attractive that would last a good long while.”

In the course of hundreds of visits to clients’ homes, Winston has seen many examples of how homeowners — sometimes at her suggestion, but more often on their own — have repurposed furniture and objects in ways that create dynamic and interesting environments.

And … voila!

Home-organization consultant Virginia Barkley is one such homeowner. A friend of Winston’s since their days at the Louise S. McGehee school, Barkley called upon Winston to appraise her antique furniture after moving to a new home.

Homeowner Virginia Barkley, right, repurposed an early 20th-century Mission Oak writing desk as a vanity, creating a look that is completely original. ‘When I walked into the bath, the vanity hit me right between the eyes,’ says professional appraiser Ruthie Winston, left.

“Hurricane Katrina taught everyone that having a professional appraisal of your antiques is essential,” Winston said.

“They learned that if you didn’t have it documented and in writing, the insurance company would reimburse you only pennies of what it would cost to replace the piece.”

Winston meticulously documented the French gilt mirror over Barkely’s living room mantel, the late 19th-century American mahogany tables at her bedside, the Classical Revival flap-top breakfast table used as a sideboard in her dining room and other treasures that Barkley had collected or inherited.

“But when I walked into the bath, the vanity hit me right between the eyes,” Winston said.

Self-inspired, Barkley had decided to use an early 20th-century Mission Oak writing desk as a vanity, rather than for its intended use. She found a Mission Oak medicine cabinet to hang above it, as well as Craftsman-style wall sconces to flank the cabinet.

Using her imagination and a repurposed writing desk, Barkley had created a look for her bath that is completely original.

Free thinking

Cast-cement tree stumps from a garden store are topped with a thick piece of repurposed glass from the Green Project to make a one-of-a-kind coffee table in Mary Bopp’s home.

Winston says she wants to assuage the guilt that purists may feel about adapting a piece of vintage or even antique furniture for a new and unintended use.

“Had Virginia sold that writing desk, she might only have gotten a couple of hundred dollars for it,” she said. “But now she has a vanity that sets the theme for her entire bath.”

That said, Winston cautions using care when contemplating the alteration of antique furniture.

“Before doing anything that will alter the essence of a piece, have a professional examine it,” Winston said.

“It’s true that the inherent value of your belongings is in how they make you feel, the joy they bring you. But if something is rare and significant, you may do better to pass it on rather than alter it.”

Even if after having a piece examined you decide to go ahead with modification plans, Winston has a tip that can help preserve its future market value.

“Before you cut off the tester on a bed that is too tall for your modern house or chop off the legs of a chest that you want to use as a coffee table, promise yourself that you will save the pieces you removed so they can be re-attached later,” she said.

“Without the original pieces available for restoring the piece, it will be valueless on the market.”

It’s in the mix

A grid of multi-colored Fiestaware plates hangs on the wall of Mary Bopp’s dining room in lieu of a more traditional piece of artwork.

If modifying vintage or antique objects seems like too great a sacrilege, Winston says there are plenty of brand-new items that can be mixed with antiques and used in inventive ways to personalize an interior.

“One of my favorites is the coffee table at Mary Bopp’s place,” Winston said. “She took some cast-cement tree stumps from a garden store, then put a thick piece of oval-shaped glass on top that she found at the Green Project.”

Bopp also used random dabs of reindeer moss atop each stump — visible through the glass top — to cushion the repurposed glass and confer an organic quality to the arrangement.

The coffee table isn’t the only clever invention of Bopp’s that Winston finds inspiring.

In Bopp’s dining room, for example, a grid of multi-colored Fiestaware plates hangs on the wall in lieu of a more traditional piece of artwork.

A wire basket in the living room holds an assemblage of bisque doll heads and vintage tea cups, making a whimsical sculpture.

And in the bedroom, two oak chairs hang on the wall, supporting planters with cascading foliage.

“It’s all about seeing something and not being bound by tradition in how you use it,” Winston said.

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R. Stephanie Bruno can be reached at .

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