Senses of Living® Décor

May 2004
© 2004 by Bret S. Beall


Before you ask, “Bret, shouldn’t a column about shopping be in your ‘lifestyle’ section?” consider that every aspect of GOD-DESS touches another aspect: EVERYTHING is connected! Even so, I’m going to limit this column to “décor” shopping, and therefore, it belongs under Senses of Living®.

Whether you are buying items to use now, buying them to store as replacements, buying items for a “some day” project (as in a redecorated room or a dinner party theme or other futuristic application [which is inconsistent with my simplification business]), you must organize your acquisitions [which IS consistent with the organizational aspect of GOD-DESS]. Use shelving, tables, closets, the Container Store, shoe boxes, et cetera, ad nauseum. Make sure that everything is labeled! You may even want to have photographs of the items in each area! (But now we’re getting into organization, and that diffuses the other information.

So, where do designers and decorators go where you also can go to acquire the items that we use to create wonderful homes? There are no pat answers, but here is an overview of what I do for myself and my value-conscious clientele.

Please don’t tell anyone, but some of my very best buys have been at thrift stores (resale shops, etc.; a rose by any other name smells just as sweet). My own home, Casa Beall, is decorated with about 80% thrift store finds. Of course, one has to make the decision to invest time to scrounge thrift stores. I’ve known several people who have asked me for thrifting recommendations, as they are familiar with my own successes. So, after giving them my favorite stores, they returned to me and suggested I had exaggerated the value of thrifting, and maybe had even held back the best sites! I set them straight immediately that my successes were the result of weekly foraging over years and years; you cannot expect to find everything you need or want on your first visit. But, if you enter with an open mind, with the spirit of a hunt, something will catch your eye! In addition to haunting local thrift stores, I really enjoy visiting thrift stores when I travel, because people in different areas have different types of stuff, and when I’m trying to identify interesting items for future clients, I like to have a large variety that I’ve accumulated from thrifting around the country (well, make that around the continent … I’ve visited thrift stores in Canada as well, with great success!).

Then there are garage/yard/apartment/estate sales. To be honest, I don’t go out of my way to these any more, because the selection is just so much less than in a thrift store (plus, most thrift stores are operated by charities, making donations tax deductible). However, if I’m driving down the road and see a sign, or walking in a neighborhood and see a sale, I’ll stop in; in fact, if I know there is going to be a ‘multi-family sale’ somewhere, I WILL go out of my way to visit. You cannot imagine some of the items procured from these multi-family sales: Danish Modern chairs; drafting tables; Inuit sculptures; antique cookware; and a variety of ‘natural history items’ (it’s best that you not ask too many questions …).

Do you eBay? I do, and it has provided me with a wealth of interesting odds and ends, some being real winners, and some being super losers (did YOU know that Hawaiian Hapa Wood was actually plastic resin? I didn’t, but I do now!). My dining room has a ‘southern Asian’ and/or ‘Middle Eastern’ feeling to it, and I decided one corner would look good with a large hookah in it; a large hookah can run hundreds of dollars, unless you find it on eBay; my hookah-candleholder is perfect in its corner. I’ve also picked up some interesting New Guinean carvings over the years that look fantastic in my living room, and I got them for a fraction of their value at a specialty shop. Be careful, though; I’ve been researching art and artifacts for decades, and even I get fooled on occasion.

I have also frequented antique stores and malls across the country. Now, I am the consummate bargain shopper, and I refuse to pay “collector’s” prices for décor items. Fortunately, with my organic style of design and décor, I don’t have to compete with those looking for French Colonial or English Edwardian brick-a-brack (but I do have to compete with collectors of orientalia, mid-century modern, and arts & craft era pieces). Luckily for my clients, and me, I have a knack for finding items that are under priced and undervalued, and that keeps everyone (except the store keeper) happy.

Another tip is to buy décor items in “other” types of stores. Specifically, I have had some of my most amazing success stories in used bookstores. Of course, I happen to love bookstores, but sometimes I see the owners enhancing their space with various decorative pieces. In Ft. Bragg (CA), I got a turn of the century (104 years ago, not 4 years ago) wooden African pillow for pennies by being willing to pay cash. I obtained two turn-of-the-millennium (not 4 years ago, but 2004 years ago) Native American fishing weights and a tobacco mortar when I spotted them sitting around a bookstore in Vancouver and asked the proprietors if they were for sale; I was quoted great prices for each of the three individually, but then asked if I could get a deal if I bought all three; I got the deal, and these artifacts are getting the attention!

You can also get some great deals (and some one-of-a-kind items) from private producers. I maintain a listing of various artists and artisans around the country whose work I like to use in my own home and in the homes of clients. I have contacts from Maine and Massachusetts to Mendocino, and from Minnesota to Mexico, so all I have to do is pick up the phone or send an email, and a client can have his or her dream piece. Of course, I actually prefer visiting their workshops and galleries, but that isn’t always efficient.

Unless I am dealing with private artisans, I generally try to avoid paying retail, and I encourage individuals doing their own decorating to avoid retail as well. That said, sometimes you need a particular item, and you need it NOW (at least, you think you need it NOW), so what are your alternatives? Essentially, you have to shop retail. I tend to monitor sales, and sometimes pick up items that I think clients may find attractive (this is a type of “investing in the future.”). Other times, I try to scope out what various chains and bargain stores have to offer. Most of these times, I run shrieking from the store, because of the low quality of the merchandise and the piss-poor service, and sometimes I don’t even go to certain stores because of their horrendous record of employee treatment (because of these latter two reasons, I tend to avoid any chain beginning with “W”).

I had an epiphany (of sorts) during August of 2003 when a houseguest invited me to travel with her to IKEA in suburban Chicago (Schaumburg, to be precise). I had heard of this Sweden-based house wares chain, and had seen their commercials, but had never visited. I was impressed! In fact, I decided that THIS would be my source for those items that clients needed immediately, and that I didn’t already have in storage. Admittedly, the quality is really not that great, but the style is fantastic. To give an example: their standard white wine glass is one of the most elegant designs I have seen, and the bowl is large enough to accommodate either white or red wine with plenty of room to swirl. I bought 4 at $2.99 (or so) each, and will buy more the next time I visit (they were out-of-stock the last time I was there; others have heard the call!); despite their beauty, though, these glasses really are thin, and strike me as being very easily broken, but since they are only slightly more expensive than the large wine glasses I have bought at thrift stores, and because they are a standard design, thus allowing me (or my clients) to set a matching table, I highly recommend them. This is just one example of the exceptional design available at IKEA. If you have an IKEA in your area, at least give it a try. IKEA is FAR superior to other chains, at least in my (not-so) humble opinion.

Finally, you may be aware that I have previously written about the 7 Rs of Sensational Living (see http://www.god-dess.com/webhintsOctober03.html if you need a refresher course). The most environmental thing one can do with belongings one no longer wants is to “reuse” them in some way. That concept has been formalized as Freecycle, a national movement outlined in detail at www.freecycle.org . This service allows people wishing to give away their unused items to post the items’ availability online, and then receive emails (or other contact) from people interested in offering new homes for the items. I have personal experience with Chicago Freecycle, organized by Joanna Witting (a very cool person). You can visit Chicago Freecycle at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/chicagofreecycle/ if you are interested. Through this service, I have given new homes to a rice cooker, an extruding pasta maker and a sausage grinder, and I have found a new home for my languishing VCR. But … here are some caveats: there are specific etiquette guidelines for using Freecycle, and they include not treating the network like a personal shopping list. Furthermore, if you acquire something, it really ought to be for your personal use, not for resale; hence, people should acquire their own decorative items from this source. One can argue either way about designers accepting items with the assumption they will use the items on a future commission, in someone else’s home, in that the items will help them achieve profit, but the item is also being given a new home rather than landing in a landfill. Use your conscience!

I haven’t touched on a number of sources for décor items, so you can count on another column on shopping in the not-too-distant future. Meanwhile, let me know about your own shopping successes, or let me help you manage them, by calling 773.508.9208 or email me.