Saturday, January 7, 2012

Furniture Foraging for Ages

Foraged Table and Chairs.

I spent less than $1,000 to furnish a household for a family of four. Not spending money has been a necessity, a sport, and maybe an obsession of mine ever since I was a kid. Populating my various abodes with furniture that is used, found, and home-made has been a major behavior as a result. It's also more environmentally friendly than buying new furniture, and it helps the domestic economy more than purchasing something new from China or Sweden. When Messrs Jackson, Hamilton and Lincoln conspire to ransom themselves for a table, I'm happy having filled a need and the seller is pleased to have 35 bucks in her pocket.

The thrill of a score cannot sustain you for years, though, and furniture foraging requires patience, maybe even Buddhist detachment or archaeological sense of time. If the proverbial rich uncle drops a load of cash on you, I suppose you could hit the estate sales and thrift stores and be furnished in quick order, but let's say it ain't so. 
Like for instance, maybe you live in Olympia, on the frayed southern fringe of Pugetopolis, where yard sale fodder has only been piling up for a couple of generations (am I having a fond memory of Virginia, and it's 400 years of accumulated goods? egad). A place where things from the '70s count as antiques, and yard sales regularly present those free FTD vases as things to be paid for. With the discipline to slog out in all weather and rummage through every corner, you'll eventually find what you want, but you cannot expect to run out one weekend and acquire a house-load--or even an apartment-full--of furniture and housewares that have any sense of cohesiveness. 

Which is fine. Get what you need when you need it, as cheap as you can. Then sit back in your naugahyde chaise and wait til something more perfect reveals itself. Refinish or paint that crappy dresser in the meantime, because chances are you'll be able to sell it for what you paid (more, if you are good at spotting the diamond in the rough, or at turning elbow grease into a fine polish). The game becomes trading up, getting the basely functional placeholder while keeping an eye out for the sublime. This is maybe the one area of my life in which I am a relentless capitalist. Get hold of some abused furniture, fix it up, and sell it in a more profitable market (sometimes all you have to do is take your meatspace find to a major metropolitan craigslist). 

Whether you want to make a quick score or ensconce yourself in the finest outfittery, the greatest potential is in getting stuff for free. The housemates too lazy to take all their stuff. The free thing set out by the road (do I need to tell you that upholstered furniture does not count? in the NW, such stuff is worse than junk, it is a mold bomb, substrate for all manner of malady modalities). Sometimes, what you have to work with don't offer much potential for rescue, and you may be that last person squeezing  use from something headed to the landfill (or, if it's wood, the fireplace), but there is no shame in that. You may take solace in having kept something out of the trash for another year, amortizing its carbon footprint that much further.

Other times, you can turn junk into an antique, hand-me-downs into heirlooms. The profit goes into something more suited to your needs. 

But it ain't all about trading up. Sometimes the trash-to-treasure progression is a closed loop, furniture alchemy wholly within your domicile. This is how nearly two decades of keeping eyes peeled and elbows greased resulted in this all-oak office: desk, swivel chair, book-case and drafting table all of rich mid-century Quercusian glory. Looks like it was born together, but instead cobbled itself from broken homes spanning a quarter of the globe. Or, in the dining room, a table reconstructed from a cannibalized dinette and an intended but ne'er-finished desk-top, paired with mixed 5-dollar chairs rendered magically matching through judicious sawing and some cans of black spray-paint--people think it is a Swedish modern set.

Then there's the spotting of things being passed along. As the elders pass, so becomes available their stuff; sounds crass, but any worse than letting grandma's stuff being hauled off by a stranger, maybe in a dumpster? Be a decent person, and karma may reward you with furniture and gear from people you are not even related to. My memory is far from flawless, but I think that this is where most of the couches in my life have come from. 

So too should you pass things along. Nice as it is to pull treasure from the waste-stream, it is nicer still to toss it back into the flow so some kid coming up can catch something too. Sold, bequeathed, or given to friend or stranger, passing along the old chair or shelves keeps them out of the garbage. The energy invested in manufacture is stretched that much further. The good karma keeps flowing, the greenstead gains life.

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