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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Wanna Be Green? Buy Antique

The other day Chicago designer Brion Judge stopped into the shop, and since Tuesday mornings are typically pretty quiet, we had a chance to sit around and talk. That's one of the nice parts about this job: sofas and pillows and--if I haven't drunk all the Pepsi, myself--being able to offer a cold drink on a hot day. Anyway, after we got to talking, we discovered that we have a lot in common. Like me, Brion A) is a Chicago transplant,  B) has a traditional approach to design (which viewpoint was considered heretical at C) the design school we both attended, the entity formerly known as the Harrington Institute of Interior Design,) and D) he's been wearing horn-rim glasses for years, too. Of course, a lot of designers have horn-rims these days but I've been wearing them--in style & out, although mostly out--for almost forty years now, ever since the summer of the Watergate hearings. I was the only art major in history whose sartorial role model was John Dean. 

Anyway, so when they make the movie of my life, Brion is now shortlisted to play me. I used to have either Matt Damon or Dean Cain in mind--at least for the flashback scenes
--but now I'm starting to think that leaving the casting up to the producers is just asking for trouble, so maybe it's best to go for local talent.

Besides having nearly-identical glasses, Brion & I also found out we have similar thoughts about the "Green" movement: not that, deep down, it's not a good thing, but that so much of what's out there is nothing but empty marketing hype. The truth is, no matter how natural or environmentally-friendly or how recyclable (or recycled) a new product is, the greenest choice of all is often leaving well enough alone. Don't get me wrong: I happen to love linoleum--real linoleum, that is. It's made from all-natural ingredients and given
enough time, it's totally biodegradable. So that's good. And a while back, I saw a brand-new solid-surface material made out of recycled newsprint. It doesn't sound all that exciting but it was pretty good-looking, even if, given the troubles at a lot of newspapers these days, newsprint seems like an endangered resource. But here's the thing: both of those products still have to be manufactured--their raw materials harvested or collected, then transported to the factory, then fabricated, then shipped to the job site to replace the perfectly serviceable (but ugly) mauve laminate or hunter green marble countertops being torn out & broken up &  hauled--expensively--away. Not quite as green as it first appears, you know?  Specious environmental claims are everywhere nowadays but the way that we furnish our homes generally reveals just how green we truly are. A letter-to-the-editor that I cut out of the Chicago Tribune a few years ago makes an excellent point for those conscious of their own environmental impact.

Until sitting on bamboo mats becomes mainstream, we all need furniture, but it's still possible to furnish & decorate our homes with stuff with zero impact on our physical world. That's the great thing about antiques: whatever environmental toll accrued from cutting the walnut tree that went into my 1840s bed, or grazing the sheep whose wool became my 1890s Persian rug, or feeding the silkworms that supplied my 1920 curtains was already paid a long, long time ago. And that's not all. Buying old stuff is often a hell of a lot cheaper than buying new. For the same price as a glued-up-sawdust-&-plastic dresser from Walmart, I went to Goodwill & got a hand-carved 1920s Louis XVI-style dresser with a figured marble top & gilt-bronze hardware. Guess which piece will end up in a landfill first. Wanna be green? Buy old. 

Words to live by, and I'd say that even if I hadn't written those words myself, back in the giddy, booming summer of 2007, the year before the economy fell off a cliff & four years before I switched from buying antiques to selling them. My timing could have been better.

Besides the environmental & economic benefits, there's also a solid, practical advantage to buying antiques, and especially if you have children. If a piece has already survived a couple of hundred years, it will probably survive a couple of rowdy kids. The top of a chunky Portuguese table from the 18th Century will laugh at the kind of dents & gouges that would destroy the micro-thin veneers & synthetic finish of a new table from the mall. Another coat of wax--real wax, rubbed in & buffed, not that spray stuff in the yellow can--and an old piece like this is ready for another go-round. I had a bored-looking kid in here with his mom over the weekend and when I told him how old this table was, he just started at me for a minute and then asked "Do you think...pirates...ate at this table?"  Every night, kid. Every night.

Which brings me to the self-serving reason for encouraging people to buy & use antiques: if kids aren't exposed to old things on a daily basis when they're young, if all they've ever known are paper plates & plastic chairs, they're not going to suddenly start buying bone-handled flatware and Royal Doutlton and Portuguese pirate tables once they're out on their own. That's why I always tell people to bring their children the next time they come in: those kids are tomorrow's customers. It's never too early--nor too late--to get 'em started. Ahoy! Dinner's served, matey! 

Who says antiques are only for tea parties?
 Meanwhile, back in civilization with the grown-ups...

* When They Make the Movie of My Life, performed by the wonderful Susan Werner

Photo of Susan

And if you're already as big a fan of Susan's as I am, don't miss her show September 24
Photo by Michelle Conceison
at the most gorgeous--and biggest!--cabaret in town, the stage of the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. Buy your tickets here.  You can guarantee that I'll be there, so come on over to my table and say hi-- I'll be the guy in horn rims drinking a sidecar.


  1. I am a long time advocate of antiques - and historic preservation - being at the top of the Green list. But there's not an easy-to-monetize corporate movement behind it. I am glad to hear your support for the cause!
    __ The Devoted Classicist

  2. Yep like you and Deb I'm a recycler of the old for the very reasons you listed, made better and it comes with life's knocks already in place.

    Enjoy your day!


  3. Agree 100%. When I moved back to the states, and thought I'd only be here for a year, I bought all old stuff, because 1) it was less expensive than new in most cases, and 2) it would have had a better resale value if/when I moved back to the UK. Fast forward six years, and almost every single thing in my house is old. I barely buy new items for the house.

    Have you seen this site?

  4. John, one of the reasons I decided on my current apartment--and I only rent--is that the kitchen still had its 1926 sink-on-legs and because, underneath a fascinating History of Postwar Design in the form of half-an-inch of stratified Con-tac paper, it still had its original Jaspe linoleum countertops. And, design hitory nerd that I am, I was sorry I couldn't have preserved some of the layers of Con-tac paper, too, although I did manage to save a sliver of a pretty cream-of-tomato soup/pearl gray/ochre abstract pattern for my color reference files. Every era has its own charms.

    Debra, that approch applies to vehicles, too. In the late 1980s, I bought my very first vehicle: a 1947 CJ2 Jeep. When I got it, it was painted shiny mailbox blue, but after an afternoon with a few cans of flat primer & a few tubes of earth-toned colorants, the thing looked as drab & dusty as if it had just been dug out of the desert. I even added faux mud-splashes (more paint) along the fenders so that they wouldn't wash off in the rain. It never had a top, so when it rained, the sets got wet and in winter, they sat under a mound of snow. Come spring, though, that baby started right up--assumuing, of course, that the neighbor kids hadn't stolen the battery again, since there was no hood lock and I had no garage. That was always an inconvenience. But there were compensations.

    One time, when I hit a patch of black ice on a bridge and slid into a guard rail at 30 miles an hour, the impact killed the motor instantly and destroyed the railing, but the motor, as always, started right back up, and if there was another dent in the side fender afterwards, well, it was hard to tell. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. I was crazy to ever sell it.

  5. Meg, although I always liked old stuff, price was the reason I started buying antiques when it was time to furnish my first post-college place: a scroll-armed mahogany sofa from the 1830s cost less than a brown plaid Herculon sofa held together with gigantic staples. Go figure.

    Not that brown plaid Herculon wouldn't have been a deal-killer, aynyway. Better to have nothing than something ugly.

  6. I have always loved the older things and .... they last much Longer than the brand new junky stuff in the shops now!!

    I think its a good thing to educate children - especially the appreciation of the vintage things in life and that goes along with manners! Hell, I sound like a old Grandma - LOL - well I am !!! I have two grandkids and they look at my collections of porcelain etc in the "Don't Touch--- Just Look" Front Room !!
    **May you have a pirate sitting next to you at the Susan Werner Concert!

  7. I was that kid wondering about a pirate eating at a table when I was a kid. I have always been around antiques and my youngest swears that my great-great granny's letter box is a pirate treasure. Its a really great illustration of the fact that antiques don't have to be fussy, "no-touch" furniture. I really wish more people felt this way about the impact of manufacturing in the first place.