Good furniture is not just for the rich. By cruising the streets of your city, or town, you can hunt down lovely pieces of furniture with good bones and aristocratic bearing that others have discarded for the council to take away. Whether you think of it as a treasure hunt or second hand style on the cheap, the street can be a great place to find the unexpected.
Amid the junk (such as water-logged mattresses and broke down shelving) we have found a classic 1930s sofa, a beautiful finely wrought brass door knocker in the shape of a hand, a French limestone mantel, faux bamboo chairs with a 1950s feel, old fashioned lamp bases and the most amazing ornately cared 10th century timber bedhead. These finds, when cleaned and polished, painted and reupholstered have turned out to the things we treasure.
The big secret is learning to see. Then you need to learn to trust your eye. Once you find something you like, you will probably find examples everywhere. We have salvaged three sculptural alabaster lamp bases from the roadside in as many months. And we got lucky with French style stools of all kinds. Some great finds have emerged from council pick ups. Unfortunately, there isn’t a schedule of these. To find out when a council clean up is happening in a particular area you will have to call the local council and give them a street name (and sometimes a house number) before they can give you a date.
Start by snooping around to get a sense of what’s out there. It’s all a bit like finding a new friend – you need to seek out pieces with the characteristics you value. The odder, the better. Don’t worry whether a piece is right. Be guided by things that bring you pleasure. Look for pieces that appeal for instinctive reasons rather than rational ones. You can get the rational stuff at any store in Sydney. The imprint of age can be beautiful. Second-hand finds are all about charm, eccentricity and character.
The big secret to selecting good pieces (and avoiding junk) is to stick to the age-old rules of style: proportion, quality and integrity. Shape matters, especially in modern, uncluttered rooms. Look for the curve of a leg, the slant of a seat. Always keep an eye peeled for things that are out of the ordinary – crystal door knobs, a Venetian-style mirror, old timber chests of drawer built to last a lifetime. You want pieces that say something.
You can shorten the legs of a dreary kitchen table, give it a lick of black paint and create a smart coffee table. It’s also worth keeping an eye out for narrow tables that you can disguise with a simple loose cover that has inverted pleats at each of the four corners – these look marvelous pushed against a wall (a favourite trick used by A-list decorators).
Embrace opposites, too. Locking into one particular period is boring. Look for classic Edwardian-style curves as well as crisp, modern profiles. Hunt down straight and rounded seat backs, taut upholstery and loose cushions. A successful interior is always in motion. Different elements and periods will keep your rooms alive.
A word of warning: make sure a piece merits the cost of the revamp. There is no point salvaging something that looks interesting but will cost too much to restore. Look underneath a sofa. If it’s stapled, forget it. Look for a solid hardwood frame and good support. The same goes for all upholstery. Test it outby shaking, bouncing and pushing – a good piece of upholstery is not weak, fragile or shaky. You’ve hit the jackpot if you find something with horsehair stuffing – because it keeps its shape and these days, is wickedly expensive. Don’t ever be put off by tattered upholstery. Fabric is always the first thing to go and is easy to redo.
Seek out old linen curtains in pretty, faded 1940s paisleys and vintage fabrics. Remember you can vavoom anything with paint. A splash of paint will instantly integrate a piece of furniture into its surroundings. Look at how clever the Swedes are with colour; the materials are often basic and their craftsmanship isn’t always extraordinary but their clever repetition of blue-greens, soft grey and whites work miracles. Try painting a second-hand kitchen chair a pale green, and popping it beside a pale blue sofa to see what we mean.
Equally, you can evoke Carribean style with a slosh of stong coloured paint – lime green will bring a contemporary buzz to most old pieces of furniture. The neutrals – brown, creams, caramels, work well, too.
Once you get the hang of salvaging preloved bits and pieces, you may find it is not what you buy, but the things you find that ultimately give you the most pleasure.