It shouldn't have to take a global economic meltdown to inspire great, cheap home-and-garden-improvement ideas. But sometimes that's what it does take. Just ask homemakers who made the Great Depression slightly less depressing by repurposing no-longer-wearable clothes into rags, then sewing, braiding, weaving, and stuffing these to make quilts, rugs, toys, and cushions. To these masters of resourcefulness, we also owe sock monkeys.
Up against the wall these days? Why not festoon that wall with scavenged goods that cost nothing (or nearly nothing) to acquire? Can't afford professional designers (or even a Dwell subscription) anymore? Use other people's castoffs to create custom-built furniture, garden sculpture, and conversation pieces until all those conversations end and you're thrown out into the street.
Castoffs are everywhere. At thrift shops, yard sales, and flea markets, online at eBay, Craigslist, and Freecycle, and at local salvage emporia such as Urban Ore and the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, almost any type of item can be found for cheap or free. Some types of discarded goods — clothes, dishes, scrap wood, books, toys — are ubiquitous. Once you open your mind to their potential fates, life becomes Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
Dishes can be used as-is or painted, beaded, broken (place in bags, then beat gently with hammer) to make garden ornaments or (beaten into smaller bits) mosaic chips. The prevalence of castoff sports trophies and aquariums, while poignant, is inspiring. Transform trophies into lamps, or train plants to grow over them. Aquariums can become planters, minibars, and containers for dioramas.
Scavenged toys are goldmines: Game parts make great fridge magnets and drawer pulls: Glued onto headboards, furniture, and doors, they lend a fun retro or futuristic mien. They also look unearthly spinning, strung on fishing line, from the branches of trees. The possibilities regarding disembodied doll heads, legs, and arms are endless.
In the plush past, whenever anything went on the fritz or out of style, and whenever a remodel seemed necessary, the solution was almost always bought brand-new, often with the help of paid professionals. These DIY days, that "new" dining room comes thanks to thrift-shop sheets cut and sewn into curtains, their leftover swatches plaited into placemats on a table made from a discarded door, set with Freecycled dishes and utensils. Flowers grown from free seeds fill a homemade papier-mâché vase.
Buy those sheets at Goodwill. Nab that door at Urban Ore. Freecycle.org has chapters in Alameda, Berkeley, Hayward, Oakland, Richmond, Fremont, and Livermore. Track yard sales at Craigslist.com. Score free seeds through the Ecology Center's Bay Area Seed Interchange Library or Richmond Grows. Make that vase using flour-and-water paste and torn-up maps, books, posters, cards, or the Express.
East Bay artist Nemo Gould has made a career out of repurposing scavenged goods. The UC Berkeley grad, whose robotic, kinetic found-art sculptures have appeared on the Discovery Channel and other national venues, uses salvaged tools, toys, furniture, and more to make sleek, witty, eye-popping pieces that flash, glow, and gyrate.
Although most of Gould's salvaged goods end up as fine art, some find their way into his Oakland home. That's how he built a wooden frame around his new flatscreen TV, "so that it looks liked framed art on the wall." In the garden, "horse troughs came up as a really sturdy solution for a raised plant bed that would last through all the seasons, could be set into a hillside, and could act as a reinforcing element," he explained.
Although secondhand farm tools and agricultural implements are pricey in urban design stores, "once you get out of the city limits, they're cheap." In Berkeley they might be epic collectibles, Gould said, "but go to Petaluma and they're horse troughs."
One project that he ponders but admits would be "a little bit risky for the inexperienced" entails outfitting an otherwise unused fireplace with old radio tubes. "They glow and they're warm and they're woefully inefficient, which is why they were discontinued," said Gould. "But they would give you that analog glowing light and still put out a fair amount of heat."
The first circle of scavenging involves using scavenged goods in exactly the manner for which they were intended: The thrift-shop couch remains a couch. The second circle of scavenging involves using scavenged goods in the manner for which they were made, but altered or adorned: Paint, stencil, reupholster, cut, or collage scavenged furniture; replace its arms and legs with baseball bats and antlers; mosaic its surfaces with pebbles, marbles, shells, or shattered auto glass.
In the third circle of scavenging, goods are used in ways for which they were never intended. Coat-hooks began life as beef bones, driftwood, stiletto heels, bowling pins.
"We sell a lot of bowling balls," said Pete Glover, a materials handler at the Depot for Creative Reuse. "But rarely do people use them to bowl with. Most people use them as orbs to place around their yards and gardens."
Founded more than thirty years ago by a group of Oakland teachers who wanted to recycle school supplies, the warehouse-like depot now features a vast quantity of low-priced, ever-changing merchandise. All of it has been donated — mostly by individuals who are "just happy to have a spot where they can get rid of objects without having to throw them away," Glover said.
Along with countless raw materials for crafts and small construction projects, the depot also sells garden tools. But it's always a gamble. On any given visit, you never know ahead of time what you'll find in stock. Although the Depot's inventory moves fast — a barrel of beads, say, can vanish in mere hours — certain categories are almost always in ample supply: notably, greeting cards, wine corks, terracotta plant stands, patio furniture, paint, and discarded paintings.
"Why spend a couple hundred dollars on a new birdbath," Glover asks, "when you can have a hand in creating your own" — say, with a scavenged sink, toilet, or wok?
This is what inventiveness looks like.