New Uses for Old Treasures: Repurposing what you have

Text | Photographs: Lori Malone

We all have those odd pieces of furniture we relegate to the basement or the attic—too precious to get rid of, but too out-of-date and unappealing to use. Well, here is an alternative use for an old family heirloom—a bookcase—that will have you looking at your castoffs in a new light.
Sentimental pull
I am a strong proponent of repurposing and reusing furniture for a number of reasons. In addition to the cost effectiveness of using what you already have, your decor will seem more balanced, richer and warmer if you have older pieces mixed with new ones. Older furniture has character, patina and detail that new furniture does not. Most times, it is also better made, using finer woods and hand-rubbed finishes that would be costly to replicate in today’s market. It helps the environment to keep these outdated furnishings from ending up in landfills. And most importantly, if you’re hanging on to it, it probably has a sentimental pull.
That was the situation with my old bookcase—I loved it; I just never knew where to put it. It was languishing in a secondary room and when I moved, it wound up in storage. That’s where I noticed it— upside down on top of my old buffet. The lines of the piece, which I always liked, were clean and modern. Its only downfall was the color, a dark mahogany.
I thought of painting the bookcase white. I also thought about stripping it and liming the wood. However, because my great grandfather made it, and because the finish was applied by hand (including the thin gold piping detail), I decided not to. I left it dark, cleaned up the nicks and scratches with a translucent ebony stain and repurposed it as a china cabinet. The sturdy shelves hold my stacked tablewear nicely, and the sliding glass doors are ideal for the narrow room.
I can’t imagine another or newer piece of furniture in its place now. The dark color actually helps anchor the room and is a great backdrop for my collection of white dishes.
As for my old buffet, it may wind up in the master bedroom as a dresser. I’ll keep you posted.

Planning on buying something new?
Planning on buying something new? Before you do, look carefully around your home for pieces that you can reinvent. By thinking creatively and looking at your old treasures with new eyes, you may be able to imagine them in new ways and update them with new hardware and a fresh coat of paint.

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BOOKCASE: I love my new “old” china cabinet. I started by removing the wax with a soft cloth and rubbing until clean and smooth. Next, I gently sanded—just enough to let the stain seep in. Then, I applied an ebony stain with cheese cloth—wiping the stain on, then quickly wiping it off to ensure it wouldn’t get too dark or cover the detailing I wanted to preserve.

SIDE TABLE: This piece was a $15 yard sale find. I liked the carved legs and detailing. However, I was not in love with the “Shabby Chic” finish. I painted it black using matte finish spray paint. I replaced the old knobs with pewter ones. It took about 20 minutes to lightly sand and spray paint—a quick and inexpensive fix.

CHAIR: My Aunt Emma’s sewing chair  was another family treasure I wanted to reuse. First, I sanded off the old thick brown paint to reveal the beautiful grain of the oak, then I applied some white pickling stain sparringly to achieve a liming effect. I covered the seat with a vintage feed bag I bought from from River Market’s antique shop in Barryville, NY.  The old chair now has a weathered  farmhouse charm.

Here are some clever uses for a number of  things you may already have.

  • TV armoire: convert it into a kitchen pantry and microwave center.
  • Small dining table: cut the legs down to a suitable height and use it as a coffee table.
  • Dresser: convert it into a bathroom vanity. This may take a carpenter to retrofit, but in the end you’ll have a one-of-a-kind piece that is guaranteed to get noticed.
  • Wire basket: turn it upside down and cut out an opening for a pendant light to fit through—instant industrial chic.
  • Artist easel: a sturdy easel with adjustable clamps is a great way to display a plasma TV. You can also place a mirror on a French-style easel and use it as a dressing table in a bedroom.
  • Fabric shower curtains: reuse the fabric for outdoor cushion covers.
  • Vintage table linens: a large table cloth can be used as a bed coverlet. If it’s stained you can place it under your mattress and let it hang over your box spring as a dust ruffle. Linen napkins draped diagonally over a curtain rod make a nice valance.
  • Broken china and tiles: create a mosaic table top or serving tray inlay with the pieces.
  • Clipboards: use as picture frames. Use several old clipboards painted a contrasting color to your wall and hang in a group. The clip will secure photos, prints or children’s drawings and allow for easy changes.
  • Collections: hang straw hats, hand mirrors, plates, keys, knobs, hooks or most anything else in groupings on a wall for inexpensive, yet visually impactful, found object art.

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