farm fresh wood grain

I love creating a beautiful home. It’s vital to me that no matter what happens outside these four walls, when I step in the door I am enveloped in calm, warmth, and peace. It took a while to find my decorating groove, so when I was younger I relied on others to tell me what looked good. I’d pore over glossy magazine spreads and then imitate what I saw. I bought the latest trends in home decor from big box stores and my home looked good – if a little conventional.

Reduce Waste — It’s Easier Than You Think

Secondhand marmalade jar
This ceramic marmalade jar found at a secondhand store now functions as a pencil holder. What would you use it as? Image credit – Jen Collins (Flickr)

As I grew older, I noticed how little this design style served me. While things looked great at first, my big box store purchases weren’t meant to last and didn’t age well. Wood veneer furniture began to chip and develop wobbles in its sleek modern legs. Cushions lost their stuffing and upholstery began to look faded and dingy. The old me would have simply done what we are all trained to do when our possessions get old – go shopping.

But, by this time I was living in a small town in British Columbia, Canada. There were no big box stores. I was flummoxed, and looking through glossy magazines didn’t help me anymore because they were advertising a look I simply didn’t have access to. What’s more, I began to realize that not only did big box-style decorating not serve me, it was causing incredible damage to the environment.

The popularity of disposable design – where the trends fly fast and the products aren’t expected to last more than a season or two – contributes to vast amounts of furniture and decor items landing in the landfill each and every day. Is there a way to reduce waste? Absolutely! Choosing a style that is simple, clean, and well-made means you can choose pieces that will look good (in every sense of the word) for years. Decades! You just can’t go wrong by filling your home with pieces that are simple, natural, and lovingly handmade.

I came to this realization slowly, during my decorating dilemma. And as I became more design-conscious (and increasingly eco-conscious, too) I decided to toss other people’s ideas out the window and instead I began visiting the town’s many (many) secondhand stores. Inside I found old cabinets, kitschy lamps, one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture and a design sensibility that was both classic and unique. I’ve long since moved back to a big city, but I still find myself drawn to hunting around secondhand stores and flea markets. In doing so I’ve found many ways to create a beautiful home inexpensively and with little impact on the environment.

Below are a few of my favorite ways to create a simple, handmade home. They’ll help you reduce waste, save money, and your home won’t look anything like a spread in a glossy magazine – the older I get, the more I realize just how valuable that sort of authenticity is.

Vintage Revival

Antique Quilt
Antique Quilt. Image Credit – Jennifer H (Flickr).

I am always dumbstruck when I find vintage quilts at secondhand stores – who on earth would get rid of a handmade quilt? Cozy, soft as your favorite t-shirt and some painstakingly hand-stitched, these are more than blankets, they’re works of art, perfect for folding at the end of a guest room bed, draping over the top of an overstuffed sofa, or nestled in a basket next to an armchair, waiting for a chilly night and a good book.

Do it Yourself Glam

Cake stands have been coming back in a big way, and the only thing cooler than seeing a cake sitting pretty, is knowing that you made the darn thing. I like to snoop around the dishware section of secondhand stores searching for cute plates and crystal candlesticks. I take them home, give them a good wash and then glue the candlestick to the base of the plate. It’s dead simple, cute as a button, and the perfect addition to a party (or even your Monday morning, really. It’s always a good time for cake).

Bohemian Rhapsody

One of my favorite parts of this design aesthetic is loosening the white-knuckled grip on perfection. It doesn’t matter if your couch doesn’t match your drapes, or your art is modern in some rooms and traditional in others. Colors seem jubilant and happy instead of thin-lipped and restrained. Gathering a bunch of mismatched plates and bowls lends a fun bohemian style to your table, and collecting mismatched frames to display your favorite artwork is a great way to utilize secondhand items, while creating a home as unique as you are. (If you’re more of a less-is-more-type than a earthy bohemian, you can collect all-white dishware, or paint your frames in a uniform color for a more cohesive, understated look.)

It’s Only Natural

Antique Danish credenza
Antique Danish credenza. Image Credit – Ahoova (Flickr).

Natural wood pieces have been gaining in popularity lately with the rise of Scandinavian-influenced style and eco-friendly design. We’re moving away from glitz and gloss and gravitating toward texture, substance and natural materials. All of this is great news for someone hoping to save money, reduce waste, and create a beautiful home. Flea markets and secondhand stores are brimming with solid wood pieces looking for some love.

Prepare yourself – some pieces will look pretty beat up, but with wood furniture, there’s very little which can’t be fixed with sandpaper, elbow grease and a little TLC.

If the raw wood look doesn’t do it for you, just close your eyes and imagine a rainbow of possibilities by painting a piece in any color of your choosing. That beat-up red dresser could be redone in a warm antique white, that dingy old piano could pop in a vibrant yellow. The sky’s the limit!

Shift Your Thinking

This, to me, is the best part of being able to create a style for myself rather than have it dictated to me by what’s available on the shelves. You’re able to take risks to make an environment that reflects you, instead of a mass-produced version of you that a sales team decided to sell.

My approach to eco-friendly living has always placed a great deal of emphasis on creating things for yourself, whether it’s a DIY all-purpose cleaner or a home that speaks to you, and that’s been intentional. As much as my goal is to encourage waste reduction, limit the drain on natural resources and promote sustainable living, I also want to shift our default mode from consuming to creating.

One is passive, the other active. One puts you at the mercy of a company’s (often questionable) manufacturing and environmental practices, one allows you to take responsibility for virtually every step of the process. When you consume, you have things handed to you, but when you create you see possibilities everywhere. Think…

  • How would that lamp look paired with a modern shade?
  • How would that couch look reupholstered?
  • Could I use that old window as a picture frame?

Asking the questions, reframing the possibilities and being able to see old objects in a new light. It adds up to far more than an interior design aesthetic, it’s a tangible shift in the way we choose to live.

I hope to bump into you at a garage sale soon – just save some quilts for me, okay?

Feature image courtesy of Jason Trbovich (Flickr)

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.