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“Repurposing” – A new name for an old concept

Cash From Trash by Edwin G. Warman

Everything old is new again: The repurposing trend of the ‘50s and ‘60s is back. Get Harry Rinker’s take on this collector hobby, and tell us what you think of the practice.

Repurposing antiques and collectibles is back in the news:  Kovel on Antiques and Collectibles introduced a “New Uses for Old Stuff” monthly feature beginning with its June 2013 issue, and it’s hard to miss the hundreds of repurposed antiques and collectibles that grace the booths at flea markets, malls, shops, and shows.  “Repurpose,” “repurposed,” and “repurposing” appear regularly in articles in antiques and collectibles trade papers and result in hundreds of hits when searched on the internet.  But now a controversy has arisen within the trade among those who favor and those who disapprove of the practice.  Is there a “right” position?

Repurposed Antique Lampshade - Kovels.com

A repurposed lampshade, one of the items featured in Kovels.com’s column on repurposed collectibles and antiques.

What does it mean to “repurpose” a collectible or antique?

Wiktionary defines repurpose as “1. To reuse for a different purpose, on a long-term basis, without alteration….2. to alter to make more suited for a different purpose.”  Reusing antique laboratory specimen jars to store dried pasta is an example of the first.  The same applies to the chamber pot from a toilet set that housed the meatballs at an Italian spaghetti dinner I attended.  The spaghetti was served in the wash bowl and the saucer in the hot water pitcher.  Converting the base of a treadle sewing machine into a side table or television stand by replacing the wooden elements and machine with a piece of glass is an example of the second.

Repurposing is not recycling.  Recycling converts waste material into reusable material.  One object is destroyed to create another.  Reuse, returning an object to its initial functional purpose, is not synonymous with repurposing or recycling.  Objects often are repaired or restored so that they can perform the function for which they were made.  Repurposing requires that the object be used in a different way than initially intended.

Everything old is new again – including repurposing antiques

When I became the editor of Warman’s Antiques and Their Prices in 1981, I received what remained of the Warman Publishing reference library.  A copy of Edwin G. Warman’s Cash from Trash was among the titles.  Reading it brought back memories of the 1950s and early 1960s repurposing craze.  The movement focused on converting older objects into more useable forms—a wagon wheel turned into a chandelier or a stoneware jug serving as a lamp standard.

Cash from Trash - Book on Repurposing Antiques and Collectibles

Edwin G. Warman’s “Cash from Trash” is a vintage tome that offers a great view into the repurposing craze of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Young adults who grew up in the Depression and experienced World War II with its shortages comprised the generation responsible for the craze.  “Waste not, want not” was a universally accepted maxim.  Objects that malfunctioned were repaired.  The post-war prosperity was still in its infancy.  The generation was attuned to finding new uses for objects that were too good to throw out.

While some of the suggestions in Cash from Trash preserved the integrity of an object, others took liberties.  Drilling a hole in the bottom of ceramic vase and a stoneware crock or jug for the purpose of converting it into a lamp was an accepted practice.  The low secondary market cost of the objects encouraged the practice.

Repurposing horror story: A museum-worthy piece, forever altered

While a strong proponent of repurposing, I would like to share two “who in their right mind would do this” repurposing stories.  The first occurred in late 1975 when I was the Executive Director of the Historical Society of York County in York, Pennsylvania. The Society had decided to mount a major exhibition focusing on Pennsylvania German furniture and the decorative arts as its contribution to the American Bicentennial.  A  Pennsylvania German Schrank, featuring a date and other decorative elements in sulfur inlay, from the collection of a Pennsylvania German scholar and retired museum director was included in the exhibition.

A member of the Board and I were assigned to pick up the Schrank along with several other pieces from the individual’s collection.  The Schrank was in the living room.  It was aesthetically pleasing and had aged gracefully.  However, in preparation for loading it into the van, the owner opened it to remove the television set and other articles on the interior shelves.  The period interior and back had been gutted to create a home

Penn German Schrank

Example of a Penn German Schrank, shared by Pennblog.typepad.com via Pook and Pook.

entertainment center.  I stood absolutely still, my mind unwilling to accept what I was seeing.  Fortunately, I also kept my mouth shut long enough to reflect on the disadvantages associated with offering a personal opinion as to what I thought of anyone who would be so stupid as to mutilate what I regarded a museum quality object!

Converting 19th and early 20th century armoires, chifferobes, garderobes, linen presses, and other wardrobe type furniture into home entertainment centers capable of housing a television set, turntable, high fidelity audio equipment, and/or a tape recorder was a typical 1950s/1960s repurposing project.  Furniture manufacturers produced contemporary pieces whose cabinetry mimicked these period forms.  Again, the period pieces were cheap.  The conversion saved many from the landfill.

(Click here to read a side story on this particular piece that explains why you should always check wooden antiques carefully!) 

Repurposing horror story: Authenticity lost

The second “who in their right mind would do this” story took place during a mid-1990s walk-through home appraisal.  As I entered the living room, I noticed four electric table lamps with exquisite late 19th century and early 20th century French cameo glass standards.  The lamps were marked Gallé or Daum Nancy.  There was no question regarding the lamps’ authenticity.   Each vase had a hole drilled in its bottom to accommodate a rod that allowed the electrical wire to reach the lamp hardware.

Daum Nancy vase

Example of a Daum Nancy vase, recently auctioned on Artfact.com.

“They did not,” she responded.   “When my decorator and I were trying to decide what lamps would look best for the living room, we went to New York.  There we spotted these cameo vases in an antiques shop.  We agreed they would make fabulous lamp bases.  I bought the four you see plus the others in the bedrooms.  My decorator had the bottoms drilled and the vases made into lamps.”

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, the quality of these French cameo vases was between an 8 and 9.  They belonged in a museum or a high quality collection.  My heart ached so much, I wanted to cry.  Uncharacteristically, I kept my opinion to myself.  Instead, I explained that the value of the vases had been seriously compromised.

“It doesn’t matter,” she replied.  “These are not the antiques I want you to appraise.  They are just decorations.”

Repurposed concerns

It’s these horror stories that raise concerns about blindly endorsing the repurposing movement.  Museum quality and high-end period objects should be preserved and treasured, not repurposed.  While an owner has the unquestionable right to use any object as he or she sees fit, common sense must prevail over bad judgment.

What’s your take on repurposing? Have you encountered repurposing horror stories?  If leave a comment below to share your thoughts and stories.

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