Thrift stores aren’t just for the basics anymore. With a little creative vision, you can decorate your entire home with secondhand finds — and decorate it well.
After 25 years of reselling what I find in thrift shops, flea markets and estate sales, I’m continually amazed by the quantity and quality of what’s out there. From contemporary items from West Elm and Williams-Sonoma to one-of-a-kind vintage pieces, today’s secondhand markets have the goods.
Here are some ways to transform your home with secondhand finds.
1. Stick to a color palette
Secondhand stores are filled with a random assortment of items. And if you buy without a plan, your home will look equally random.
Enter the color palette. A well-defined color palette establishes a decorating “guardrail” that prevents spaces from looking too eclectic. When shopping, keep your color scheme in mind and buy items that complement it or neutrals that provide the perfect backdrop for the hues you’ve chosen.
2. Mix old and new
The best interior designers have mastered contrasts of color, light, texture and era. Mix secondhand items with new pieces to create a more interesting look.
For example, build a collection of vintage Asian-inspired blue and white vases, but display them on a contemporary, minimalist console table like this one from Wayfair. The contrast will elevate both the vase collection and the table.
3. Broaden your definition of art
When you’re open to a broader definition of art, flea markets and thrift stores become galleries in the making. Instead of paying retail for mass-produced prints, consider these creative alternatives:
- Fabric: Upcycle old fabric by stretching and framing it. Bold textiles from the 1960s and 70s are pieces of art in their own right.
- Wallpaper: Context is everything. When matted and framed, vintage wallpaper remnants create reflection-worthy works of art.
- Clothing: When hung on a wall, vintage skirts, scarves and kimonos can really dress up a room. Learn how to frame vintage clothing with a little help from Apartment Therapy.
- Book illustrations: Used children’s books are often heavily damaged. Create a fresh, lighthearted look by salvaging colorful illustrations. Pro tip: Matted and framed illustrations from classic children’s books make a unique baby shower gift!
- Small collections: Use shadowboxes to display your favorite finds. A good friend of mine transformed a hallway into a gallery that features her collection of midcentury costume jewelry and antique game pieces.
4. Recycle old paintings
While we’re on the topic of art, have you seen the price of canvases lately? A pack of two 36-by-36-inch stretched canvases can set you back around $120 on Amazon.
Instead of buying new, pick up a “pre-painted” canvas at your local thrift shop. Lightly sand the existing painting to even out the surface, apply a coat of primer, and then channel your own creative genius.
Not confident about your artistic chops? YouTube has dozens of easy-to-follow videos on painting for beginners. The finished piece will add a personal touch to your home decor.
5. Choose your projects carefully
It’s easy to get over-stimulated by low prices and the thrill of discovery. The guys on the TV show “American Pickers” call it “junk drunk.” But know your DIY limits and choose projects carefully.
For example, used furniture is one of my favorite things to buy at estate sales. But detailed wood restoration has never been my forte. No matter how great the price, I limit myself to pieces that are either in excellent condition or need only minor TLC.
To put it simply, know thyself. Choose pieces you can confidently save, transform and enjoy for years.
6. Embrace the weird
Sure, you could walk into HomeGoods and walk out with an assortment of coordinated furniture, rugs and accent pieces. But where’s the fun in that?
Thrift stores are wonderful because they’re filled with items you can’t find anywhere else. Add interest and dimension to your space by seeking out secondhand oddities — a child’s sculpture, a quilt made from old jeans, a frayed rug in a shade of blue you’ve never seen before. Besides being affordable, finds like these make homes distinctive and entirely personal.
7. Reupholster like a realist
Considering a DIY reupholstering project? Let me offer one piece of advice: Choose furniture with simple shapes. No matter how low the price, trying to reupholster a camelback sofa will only end in frustration.
Stick to pieces with 90-degree angles like a dining room chair, bench or large ottoman that can double as a coffee table. These simple upholstery projects are an easy way to coordinate colors and fabrics quickly.
8. Create a feature space
Though you love all of your secondhand treasures equally, some deserve their own spotlight. Don’t be afraid to elevate your favorite finds by displaying them on a mantle, pedestal or wall that’s unencumbered by competing items.
Several years ago in Wyoming, I found a folk art image of a dog that was hand-painted in 1958. One of my favorite buys, it has a place of honor on my mantle. Featuring the painting by itself under an art light gives it more visual weight and drama. People are inevitably drawn to it — and they’d never guess its humble origins and $5.99 price tag.
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