Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Dumpster d'ecor. One person's trash is another's treasure in the serious business of city street scrounging

CALL it curbside chic. Or salvage style. Or gutter modern. But whatever you dub it, it is evident that people who are diligent scroungers can assemble some pretty nifty interiors from things that other people have discarded. It is particularly obvious in New York City that one man's trash can quickly become another man's treasure, and that you can pick up some real jewels right off the street.

New Yorkers dump their castoffs on the street to await pickup by city garbage men, but sidewalk sleuths often beat them to it. Al O'Leary, Deputy Director of Public Affairs in New York, says that the refuse picked up by city trucks is immediately broken up and taken straight to a landfill dump. So scroungers, who know a good thing when they see it and get there first, sometimes have a heydey.

About these ads

Young people who are furnishing first apartments have been retrieving and recycling other people's rubbish for years. One young businesswoman admitted that ``furnishing off the street had been an economic lifesaver,'' and that she hadn't minded investing in paint, finish remover, and glue and applying a lot of elbow grease in order to improve the pieces she had carted home. Her sister called the big, abandoned bureau that she had found on the street ``tacky,'' but she called it ``creative ingenuity.'' She also reminded her sister that ``the price was right. It was free.''

Artist Mimi Vang Olsen lives and works in a small Greenwich Village townhouse, which she has filled with fascinating sidewalk finds. ``I always feel I am rescuing things and saving them from a terrible fate,'' she says, laughing at her own penchant. ``I tell myself that they deserve another lifetime and that I owe it to them to provide it.''

You don't just suddenly become such a collector, in Mrs. Olsen's estimation. You are born one. She says that she has collected useful throwaways all her life, just as her immigrant parents did before her. But ``because I am a visual person and an artistic one, I have an eye for what is good and can be restored and will work in my house and garden.''

Although many benefit from others' castoffs, Olsen says she feels sorry that we live in such a wasteful society and that people throw out so much that is still useful. She finds that dumpster containers, placed in front of houses that are being cleared out or renovated, now yield the ``quality stuff.'' When she spies a treasure, she rushes to a phone and calls her husband, Bent. Sometimes they get a third person to help ``walk'' a piece home. Sometimes they use a little dolly.

``You have to be fast, because good things are gone in five minutes,'' the artist explains. We sat at a ``rescued'' antique pine table in her kitchen, which she says is now chic and fashionable because it is called country furniture. Then we toured the house and basement to admire numerous other curbside finds -- an old-fashioned claw foot bathtub, numerous old windows and wood doors, a mahogany drop leaf dining table, assorted chairs and stools, and old trunks that have been refinished to be both decorative and useful.

Olsen, who specializes in animal portraits, sits at her easel on an old oak swivel chair she found on the sidewalk in the garment district, and lays out her paints on a vintage enamel-topped kitchen table she discovered in a dumpster and set on casters.

Awaiting the sanding machine and all the Olsens' refinishing skills were three ornamental fireplace mantels, a paint-stained carpenter's tool chest with iron hinges, a Victorian bureau, and an assortment of funny-shaped wooden table legs that were destined to become interesting shelf brackets. Both Mr. and Mrs. Olsen admit to spending hundreds of hours in paint removal and repair as they carefully prepared their found objects for re-use. The beautifully completed pieces reflect their approach.

About these ads

``The object is beautiful. It has a history. We love it.'' They live with their recycled possessions with obvious delight and pride.

Barbara Shapokas, who works for NBC, feels she has a knack for finding really useful objects on the street for herself and her friends. She has helped furnish several apartments and now says she has refined her collecting interests and is looking only for really good things.

``I've trained my eye by looking at quality in the best stores and top magazines. I've taken courses and visited showhouses and I've gotten very choosy. Now, I only look at what is correct, appropriate, and the right style for my apartment.''

Just the other day she spotted just such a piece. ``It was covered with horrible paint but I said, `Good heavens, a fine Pembroke table lurks beneath all that gunk,' and I laid claim to it. Later I saw a great dresser with Queen Anne legs right on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 29th Street, and it was in great condition and had all its drawers. But in the end I had to leave it behind because I couldn't find a friend free to help me rescue it. The experience did inspire me, however, to purchase a collapsible heavy-duty hand truck which I can manage myself when I stumble onto such finds.''

She, too, says that raiding dumpsters is the newest style of scavenging.

``I've seen well-dressed people climb right into dumpsters on Park Avenue and poke around to see what's there. They often cart away very good stuff, too. And the other day I saw a lot of old-fashioned oak file cabinets outside an office building in downtown Manhattan. People were clustering around and hauling them off as fast as they could load them.''

She says she used to wear old clothes and a funny cap and pretend she was a student or an eccentric when she went sleuthing.

``Now, I have reversed the approach and try to look good. When I see an intriguing object these days, I act like a well-dressed connoisseur who has just spotted a treasure in the trash. The main thing is never to feel intimidated if you are seen inspecting and measuring things right there on the sidewalk. I always carry a tape measure, and a little notebook with color swatches and simple room plans that list all pertinent measurements. When I am looking for things for my friends, I often carry their room plans in my notebook as well.''

Another of Ms. Shapokas's secrets is always to think of her street finds as treasure. Then, she says, the search becomes an adventure.

``Besides,'' she says, ``I've met so many interesting people when I have been out scrounging. We all love to pull in things and clean them up and give them new life. I think theater people tackle the search with the most aplomb of all, and convert their finds with the most wit and flair.''

Glen Reed, a young sculptor, lives with his wife, Heather Dawson, in a fifth-floor loft apartment in an old industrial neighborhood. It is at least half furnished with street finds, piled into a pick-up truck and, more recently, into a station wagon.

``All the construction materials I have used to make the loft livable have come from dumpsters,'' he explains as we inspect his handiwork. This includes plumbing pipes and fixtures, French doors, windows, and all the appliances, from dishwasher to vacuum cleaner. He even finds on the street much of the wood, plastic, and metal that he incorporates in his sculpture pieces.

``I know where to look and when,'' Mr. Reed says. ``In an entrenched old residential neighborhood where attics and basements are sometimes cleared out, I know I will find nice stuff like furniture, lamps, and books. I have picked up chairs, desks, bureaus, rocking chairs, and Oriental rugs in such areas.

``In neighborhoods under construction or renovation, I will find building materials and old house parts being thrown out. In industrial areas, I look for industrial junk, and I go to the wholesale plant area to find plants that have been tossed out but that I can take home and nurse back to health.

``The other day I spied a great gateleg table on the street but had to go around the block to pick it up and when I got back it was gone,'' Reed continues. ``Anything good disappears right away.''

The variety of objects that are up for grabs is endless. The ways and means of re-using them are limited only by the imagination.

Those interviewed said they considered garage sales, thrift shops, and flea markets to be the next step up, and that they were also exploring these important sources of low-cost furnishings.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.