Rinker on Collectibles: Repurposed, a New Name for an Old Concept Part Two

Old wrenches belt and screwed into a wall have become repurposed coat hooks.

In Part I of this two-part column, I defined the concept of repurposing, talked about the 1950s and 1960s repurposing craze, and shared two “who in their right mind would do this” stories. Although historically, recycling was used to describe repurposing, Part I established that the two are not synonymous in 2013.

The “cash from trash” craze ended in the late 1960s. The new adult generation, forget the Beatniks and Hippies, favored new over the old. They made certain their children “kept up with the Joneses” by developing a greater and greater materialistic focus. Materialism helped drive the Golden Age of antiques and collectibles, a time when collectors dominated the market. Everyone collected something. Antiques rose in value. Collectibles joined antiques as a legitimate part of the antiques marketplace. Junk became expensive. “Messing with old stuff” became passé. Collectors valued wear and patina.

An old suitcase, repurposed, became a bathroom medicine cabinet.

The use of antiques and collectibles as decorative accents in country inns and restaurants dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1990s, chains such as Cracker Barrel and TGI Friday began decorating their walls with a combination of period and reproduction antiques and collectibles. The decorations focused on the Country and Sports looks. In the mid-2000s, the Look shifted to post-1950s memorabilia. Using antiques and collectibles for decoration is not repurposing. While the objects no longer perform the function for which they were created, they were not altered or used for a different purpose.

The Country Look continually repurposes. The stove-top, copper, oval laundry tub became a holder for fireplace wood or magazines. Ten- to 20-gallon oval crocks were given glass tops and used as end tables. I put a piece of glass on top of a child’s coffin bier and used it as a coffee table. It was a great conversation piece. Horse collars were converted into hall mirrors. A “make do” mentality, especially in rural America, led to unusual repurposed pieces, many created by necessity as opposed to designing something others would duplicate.

The Shabby Chic Look of the 1990s and early 2000s revived repurposing. Depression-era Colonial Revival furniture, especially dining sets with their buffets and china cabinets, kitchen cabinets and cupboard of all types, chairs, and picture frames were painted white. Some were decorated with hand-painted or decal floral arrangements. Occasionally, pieces showed up in light blue, pink (or rose; by whatever name does not smell as sweet) and yellow. Vintage wooden crates were used as storage drawers on open shelves. Shabby Chic was billed as “giving female entrepreneurs an outlet for creativity, commerce, even companionship,” a sexist statement implying, perhaps incorrectly, that males have more sense.

Repurposing in the 2010s marks a return to the cash-from-trash approach. No object is immune from repurposing. If an object can be painted, drilled, have an opening cut into it, have shelf brackets attached or be cut into useful pieces, it is fair game. Repurposing is not about aesthetics. Funky, ridiculous and imaginatively wild is the order of the day. The more elaborate or absurd the end product is, the greater its conversation value. “Who in their right mind” no longer refers to what has been done to the object but the mental state of the person who displays it in his/her home.

Old wooden water skis, repurposed, can become an Adirondack-style chair.

I became aware of the extent of the repurposing movement when I visited the Randolph Street Market in Chicago over the Memorial Day weekend. One booth featured 8-mm and 16-mm movie projectors converted into lamps by drilling a hole through them to hold a metal rod that allowed an electric cord to reach the mechanism holding the bulb socket and harp. Another dealer had a booth featuring late 19th-century and early 20th-century pressed ceiling tins that had holes cut in their centers to hold a picture or mirror. The tin was painted in 1950s/60s color schemes, some of which undoubtedly had more appeal if a person was high on something. A third dealer was selling 20th-century felt pennants, encouraging buyers to use them to create pillow covers and other furniture coverings. I was surprised she did not recommend using them to create a woman’s skirt.

My visit to the “Antiques at the Fairgrounds” show in Petoskey, Mich., on July 6 and 7 added to the list. The highlight of the day was a lawn chair made from cut down water skis. While talking with Ken Fadeley, a dealer who was selling takaans—Philippine carved wooden patterns used to make papier-mâché products—a woman approached. “Did you bring it?” she asked. Ken reached under the table and handed her a package. When she left, I asked Ken what the package contained. “She bought a wood pattern from me several shows ago to use as a lamp standard. She asked me if I would drill a hole through the center for her. I do whatever it takes to make the sale.”

During our stay at the Inn at Bay Harbor in Petoskey where Linda was participating in a Davenport University Board retreat, she picked up a copy of a local paper that featured an article on a jewelry artist in Harbor Springs, Mich., who used recycled chains, beads, wires and parts from other jewelry to create new pieces. One of the women in the group had visited the shop and recommended it to Linda and me. When I inquired about pricing, she replied, “Pieces start around $250 and go up.” We did not take the time to visit Harbor Springs.

Confession is good for the soul. Linda has been hunting a small lamp for use in the vanity area of the master bedroom of our condo in Altamonte Springs, Fla. During a visit to one of the buildings at “Antiques at the Fairground,” Linda and I separated. When we reunited, Linda exclaimed, “I found the perfect lamp. Come take a look.” As we walked toward the booth, I expected Linda to show me a 1930s to 1960s vanity lamp. Instead, she pointed at a lamp whose standard was a blue and white tea caddy. I assumed it was a 1950s/60s reproduction standard. When the dealer told me it was period piece, I cringed. The dealer pointed out that the tea caddy was simply sitting on a wooden base and that the lamp mechanism was independent of the object. It was not drilled. There are time when I tell Linda no, and there are times when I keep my opinions to myself and nod my head “yes.” This was one of the latter. The lamp is in a “take to Florida” box in Kentwood.

This old iron bathtub, once cut in half, has been repurposed into a love seat.

Over the years, I have tried hard to be a neutral reporter in the trade. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, junk is junk and stupid is stupid. The current repurposing craze has an emperor’s new clothes aspect to it. No one seems to be willing to stand up and say, “Are you out of your mind?”

A classic example is the claw foot, cast-iron bath tub that has been converted into a couch. There are dozens of examples on the Internet. In the past, I have seen these claw foot tubs used as water troughs for cattle and turned upside down and half buried in the ground to serve as a crèche for a religious figure. Neither of these repurposing uses bothered me. But, a claw foot tub as a couch is over the top. First, I cannot imagine a person of my height or weight sitting in it and (1) being comfortable and (2) being able to extract myself from it without having to roll onto the floor, get up on my knees, crawl to the end, grab hold and use the end as support as I attempt to get up.

My immediate reaction to many of the repurposing suggestions found on internet sites, such as these found on Bib Vila’s website, is that they verge on the cutsey-poo more than the practical. While the base of a garden rake can be hung on the wall to hold strands of jewelry, a visit to Bed, Bath, and Beyond will provide more viable and attractive alternatives.

My suggestion is that a thumbs up/thumbs down criteria be applied to these items. Do not be afraid to vote thumbs-down. The antiques and collectibles trade is not served by encouraging bad taste.

The proverb “this too shall pass” applies. Hopefully, the waiting period will not be a long one.

All photos are from the Twisted Sifter website.

Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2013

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