Every year, Community Forklift joins reuse centers across the country to participate in The ReUse People Of America’s National Reuse Contest. Anyone can enter by submitting a project to their local participating reuse store (that’s us!) in one of two categories: Construction & Remodeling, or Art & Furniture. We’re waiting to find out which 2017 entrants won at Nationals, but in the meantime – check out Community Forklift’s local winners!
This January, my mom asked me to restore my grandmother Lorraine’s secretary, which she purchased at an antique store in Manhattan sometime around the 1960s for her new apartment. We believe it is from sometime between the 1910s and 1920s, and it was originally calamine pink with a grey and green leaf detail. My mom acquired the piece when my grandmother died in the early 1980s. For as long as I can remember, the secretary had been sitting in our basement, collecting dust. When I asked my mom why she never brought the piece upstairs, she told me she just didn’t want the big, pink piece of furniture hanging around her house, and besides, after all this time in the basement, it just kind of smelled, and that was that.
But for whatever reason, this year we both agreed that it deserved some love. While I hadn’t initially planned to spend my last break from grad school (in social work) restoring furniture, I ended up seeing this project as a great opportunity to honor my grandma, who was way ahead of her time and never shied away from risk-taking or a good pattern. Here she is looking characteristically alluring and mysterious in my favorite picture of her. As for me, I’ve been doing different types of art since I was little (of late mainly ceramics, silkscreen, and mural painting), and have always loved art deco symmetry and geometric designs, as well as bright, bold colors. So, with my daring grandma in mind, I set out on my first furniture restoration adventure.
From the beginning, we had the idea to put the secretary in our newly redone den/guest room, which, frankly, was a bit stark and lacking in character. With that in mind, I chose the bright turquoise base color for the piece (interior house paint). Then I designed and created the geometric stencil used behind the shelves. I first drew it on graph paper, then transferred it into Photoshop, printed out a series of 4 images, and cut them out of stencil paper. I debated at length what color to use for the stencil. I ultimately decided that Lorraine would never have chosen to blend in, so I decided on a contrasting color for the stencil and other highlights. I finally settled on silver and red as accent colors, using them strategically to create a cohesive design. First, I painted silver behind the shelves with high-opacity acrylic paint. Then, using spray adhesive and a stippling brush, I painted all of the red stencils first, followed by the turquoise. After that, I used the red and silver accents in different places to tie together the color scheme, first on the letter organizer, then on the decorative wood elements and around the keyhole.
As for salvaging original elements, I always planned to reuse the original beautiful brass drawer hardware, but once it came time for the re-install, I realized something was missing. Cue Community Forklift, where I picked up new glass drawer knobs and the salvaged glass bulb cover that sits atop the piece. I cleaned, painted, and reinstalled the original drawer hardware (silver acrylic paint and a spray clear lacquer finish) along with the new knobs. At that point, I completed the last painted element on the piece, the claw feet. With a final burst of inspiration from my grandma, who I hear never took things too seriously, I decided to “glamorize” them, painting them with acrylic paint and sealing them with clear lacquer for easier maintenance.
Lastly, from the outset I felt that the pedestal at the top-center of the piece needed something on it (hence the wind-up feet that appear in some of the pictures). But at some point during the restoration, I figured that if someone were going to sit and read in the den, it might be nice to have another light in the room, so I called on my lovely electrician neighbor for help. I’m really glad I decided to go this route, since along the way I got to learn a little bit about electricity (my neighbor sent me with a list to the hardware store to get all the right pieces, and then let me do part of the installation). By adding in another salvaged element, the piece is even more functional. Ultimately, I am proud of the final product, especially when I imagine my grandma seeing it and smiling.
While we wait on the results of the 2017 National Reuse Contest, check out the entries of past Forklift winners here! The submission form for 2018 is not yet live, so check back later in the year if you have a project you might like to submit. They say that the greenest building material is anything that’s being reused…we urge you to consider using salvaged or surplus materials for your next home improvement or creative project, and be sure to document your progress with lots of photos along the way!