Ever since the ink dried on my first rent cheque I have always left my personal touch on the spaces I’ve inhabited.  I’ve surrounded myself with lovely, obscure or whimsical items that made me feel at home.  However, as our awareness of the things we consume (and throw away) evolves, it may be time to rethink how we adorn our dwellings.  I maintain that we can still create magnificent spaces without compromising nesting for future generations.  To this end, it is becoming increasingly clear that secondhand is not synonymous with second-rate.

My oldest and dearest friend recently hopped on the property ladder and bought a slick new condo at hip downtown Toronto address. Last week I was honoured to visit him during his first full day in his new place and was awed by the sleek kitchen, the exhilarating view and the happening neighbourhood.  Impressed by their spring catalog, we decided to venture uptown and check out some wares for his new pad at Restoration Hardware.  From studio lamps to Parisian cushions to factory cart coffee tables, surely we would be inspired by unique pieces to embellish his space.

When we arrived I was thoroughly disappointed to find myself in the midst of a soul-destroying shopping experience.  To my right was a selection of factory worn towel rings in a multitude of finishes.  To my left a couple with way too much disposable income debated the placement of scuffs on a “vintage” desk.  And all around “one-of-a-kind” pieces repeated themselves in a multitude of reconfigured arrangements.  It was clear I had been disillusioned by contrived authenticity within the catalog.  After a few moments of stunned silence my friend outed the elephant in the room: “You know, I would rather have a home that is ugly and filled with character than one that looks like it’s straight out of the box.”

As a former marketing guru for Herman Miller, I was certain that my friend would insist that his home be filled with the latest pieces from high-end retail chains.  Instead, I entered his condo to find charming, worn looking pieces that had been carefully collected or handed down from previous generations.  A pair of lovely beat up mid-century chairs.  An authentic chest gone missing from mother’s attic.  And my personal favourite: a picnic table dining room with carved signatures of visitors gone by.  His collection reinforced a growing suspicion of mine: paying full retail for furniture is passé.  And all this time I thought I was just being cheap.

I prefer that each piece in my home hold a rich history.  There is a gorgeous antique clawfoot mahogany table in our dining room that we eyed for months, strategizing on how best to talk the dealer down to a steal.  A pair of antique wingback chairs that we negotiated for $300 seats us by the wood stove.  We own a mid-century bedroom set passed down from the in-laws.  Tess’ nursery holds a beautiful used Pottery Barn Kids change table and sleigh crib that I scored from an ad on Kijiji for under $400.   With antique dealers, flea markets, and online tools like kijiji, craigslist and freecycle.org abound, sometimes I wonder why I engage in the unsustainable practice of retail furniture and decor shopping at all.

There are countless innovative and beautiful ideas emerging from designers who base their philosophy on readaptation.  Companies like Urban Tree Salvage in Toronto manufacture products using only local wood from trees that perished due to storm damage or insect infestation.  Similarly, Brooklyn’s Scrapile generates stunning designs based on discarded, recovered and repurposed wood.  A quick visit to Inhabitat reveals hundreds, if not thousands, of designs that contribute to sustainability.

Beyond purchasing furniture and decor, dealers and designers are increasingly capable of incorporating second-hand goods into a remodel.  Reclaimed wood or fixtures from old unused industrial buildings add a unique and impressive touch to residential spaces.  Looking to other people’s remodels may also generate some great finds and reuse centres like Habitat for Humanity’s Restore facilitate these choices while generating revenue for a great cause.  Where salvaged items aren’t an option, there are alternative products derived from renewable resources like cork and bamboo, and materials like VOC-free paints and recycled glass contribute to a much healthier indoor environment.  With the shift to reuse catching on, students of interior design would be well served to start sourcing, developing relationships and specializing in readaptive design.

Whenever I feel romanced by savvy marketers or designers on home and garden television I remind myself that I will not find happiness in an overpriced out-of-the-box ottoman.  As much as I admire page 56 of the catalog, the eclectic mix of pre-loved items make my place feel much more like home.

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