Most of the furniture in our apartment has come into our possession second, third, or unknowable numbers of hands ago. Most of that wasn’t bought restored or refurbished, but rescued from the curb on trash night, scooped up from tag sales, brought in from neighbors or taken in after abandonment by someone else. This is to say that most of the furniture we have is totally serviceable, not totally perfect.
We have one dresser with a top that lifts off convertible-style (not by design). We have cabinet doors that require a shoulder and a hip check to wedge them shut. We’ve lived with coats of paint where there shouldn’t be and no paint where there should be and mismatched finishes on lots of things. In case anyone has forgotten, everything on social media tends to appear slight better than it actually is, vintage and pre-loved furniture included. Still, with some effort and some time, we’ve been able to furnish our apartment with a collection of pieces that we like, that feel more or less in harmony with one another, and that have cost us very little at all in terms of actual dollars.
In the context of my work here and elsewhere, folks often ask questions about how I happen into these pieces. I’ve written about lots of this furniture individually (here’s a roundup of furniture project posts), but in case it’s helpful, here’s my best attempt at putting my own haphazard secondhand furniture acquisition strategy into words.
I try to always approach new pieces by acknowledging my own bandwidth for projects. Sometimes I see something lovely, and getting it to serviceable takes a lot of time or energy. Other times, I bring home pieces that are serviceable, but that will need some work to make them lovely. I find that as long as I commit to only bringing home furniture that *can* be fixed, then when the mood or inclination strikes, I eventually will. In January, I tackled both cosmetic and functional upgrades on the large wardrobe that we use as our coat closet. One hinge was snapped clear through and another was about to go, so I bought six new ones. The holes on the replacements—these self-closing steel hinges from Lee Valley Hardware—didn’t line up precisely with the holes on the originals, so I jiggered their location slightly and patched the old holes with spackle that I sanded and painted. I removed the paint previously covering the latch and key hole hardware. The hardware finish isn’t a perfect match but the difference is subtle enough to go unnoticed. Most importantly, every member of the family can now properly open and close the wardrobe door without an assist from a parent. The wardrobe was fine before and it’s better now and it took me more than a year to get to it.
Don’t get too attached.
I’ve given away more furniture over the years than I can count. In the process of looking for the just-right thing, there’s a whole lot of experimentation and a whole lot of not-right things that have cycled through our apartments. I’ve lugged bookcases home blocks only to realize the fit wasn’t right. I’ve lived with something for years only to decide on a whim that I like something else better. I’ve adored certain things but decided to go for practicality instead. In the past few weeks we’ve welcomed a new twin bed into the kids’ room for Faye and bid adieu to Calder’s mini crib (another secondhand find). This week I’m parting with one beautiful old dresser and finishing up painting a less beautiful but currently more useful dresser. Without getting too sappy, because none of these pieces of furniture required significant (or any) financial investment, letting go of the old and welcoming the new feels like an exercise in embracing abundance. Years of bringing things home and letting them go again means I feel acutely aware of how much goodness there is circling around out there, if I’m just willing to wait a bit, work a bit, and part with things that aren’t right for me but that might be perfect for someone else.
Look without looking.
There are lots of people out there who collect furniture with specificity in mind. This is not generally my approach. I’m furnishing my home more than I’m collecting for my home, so I try to keep a generally very open mind about what might work in a given space. I tend toward a certain general style, but it’s very rare that I get caught up on looking for a very specific item. For me, this approach is the least stressful and most rewarding. It also means that my searches can be fairly passive. Faye had been asking us about the possibility of a new twin bed for several months, and so James and I both kept an eye out. We mentioned it to friends and family. We scrolled our local listings. After a few attempts to bring home various beds for free, we eventually found one in the neighborhood for a very steep bargain and after some quality time with an old toothbrush and Sals’ Suds, it cleaned up just fine. Similarly, we’ve been hunting for a solution to our lack of a linen closet since moving into our apartment a year and a half ago. We’ve tried a few different solutions, but when we came across a narrow and tall dresser through Buy Nothing, we decided to try our luck at another. It needed a coat of paint (or three) to fit in with the rest of our place, but for now anyway, it’s working out well. I think treating furniture acquisition more like a game of good luck than a hunt makes it ultimately so much more enjoyable.
Like humans, furniture that’s been around awhile tends to show signs of age. Paint dulls, finishes wear, hinges crack, children are sometimes incapable of using napkins and decide, inexplicably, to wipe their greasy hands down the sides of freshly painted dressers. Why?
I fix what I’m able to, but I also fully embrace the quirks.
What about you? Are you furniture hunters or gatherers?