On a crisp morning in early fall I happened upon a flea market in an open field in Connecticut. As I was strolling through the various stalls, examining old treasures, inspecting the wares, I came upon a woman who obviously was thrilled with her find. She had just purchased a turn-of-the-century oak sideboard. It had a low, bevel-mirrored backboard and was topped by narrow, self-supported, but sturdy, turned columns. It was indeed a lovely piece of furniture.
Then I heard her explain to the seller what she was going to do with the piece. She was in the process of setting up a nursery in her Victorian home. She already had found a white steel crib, and the sideboard would become the baby's changing table. She would add a bumpered changing pad and secure it with Velcro tabs.She demonstrated how the large bottom had leftover room for baskets filled with bath supplies. The two waist-high drawers would keep within comfortable reach blankets and pajamas. The top shelf was ideal for bottles and ointments, and the mirror was at exactly the right spot to amuse baby during the proceedings.
I thought her purchase was wonderful as she described it. Here was furniture that could metamorphose into a wide range of functions. Removing the changing pad, it could become an ideal storage unit for toys, books and childhood clutter. Later, the sideboard could be moved to a hallway as extra work space near the kitchen or even returned to its humble origin in the dining room.
- New uses add charm:
Sometimes the surprise element is the new use for an old piece. Antiques are great for re-adapting because many times the original employment has become archaic. The old steamer truck that was de rigeur for an Atlantic crossing is too unwieldy for modern transportation modes. But that old Louis Vuitton wardrobe is a fabulous accessory in a dressing room, as a unique storage area in the library or as an exotic coffee table.
Without a sunny porch, an old wicker plant stand can become the perfect extra shelving needed in a small bathroom. Small kitchens, especially in apartments, can be outfitted with marble topped washstands. The bottom cupboards hold over-sized bowls and equipment and the marble top makes an excellent surface for setting hot dishes and providing the luxury of a space for kneading bread and rolling crust. Many such washstands also have a built-in towel bar and wall-protecting backsplash.
- Juxtaposition of unlike objects:
The pleasure derived from the unexpected comes from the juxtaposition of seemingly incompatible objects - the lovely, ornate silver service displayed on the weathered wicker tray; the whimsical piece of folk art in an otherwise austere, modern setting; the full trappings of the electronically-wired home office set-up on a monastic refectory table.
The combination of the rustic and the refined works especially well when you want to incorporate an eclectic array of inherited, found or collectible pieces. You can gain a lively, appealing contrast by hanging an ornate gilt mirror above a simple country bench in a foyer. The painted pine dry-sink outfitted with potted herbs adds a touch of warmth to the sleek chrome-and-granite modern kitchen.
But don't be surprised if what you think is a pleasing collaboration of objects is met with skepticism by someone else. Take, for example, that worm-worn, countrified 17th century French pine sideboard I had tabbed for a place of honor in my living room. I took it as a source of enchantment that the same object could be devoted to practicality, beauty, or both, depending on the eye of the beholder!