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Domestic Archaeology: The Art of Undecorating

Domestic Archaeology: The Art of Undecorating

Rescue, repair, reuse and rethink. These are the guiding principles behind the new book, Recycled Home  by Mark and Sally Bailey. The Bailey’s version of recycling is to uncover the potential of abandoned bits and pieces for a home by giving them a new lease on life and a new purpose. The Bailey’s farm property and home-based store in the Herefordshire countryside of the UK are the stars of this book. Unlike most decorating books, Recycled Home dares the reader to think outside the box and take a look at the stuff they already have. A pile of old apple crates becomes a bookshelf, an old baker’s table transforms into a kitchen work bench, and mismatched chairs give instant chic to an unexpected, but charming industrial table.

I am so aligned with the eco-friendly and truly economical philosophy the Bailey’s share about home design. Work with what you’ve got and be true to the structure of your house and what it’s made from. They sum up their attitude to home improvement in one word that perfectly describes what they do, “Undecoration.” The Bailey’s claim, “You don’t necessarily have to add to improve – sometimes it’s better to take away. Discover the honesty and history of your house by peeling back its layers of wallpaper and paint. This will give you the chance to see what your house has been through before you came along, and in this way the house itself gives the decorating direction rather than you imposing your will and endless paint charts upon it. Instead, you embark upon a voyage of discovery together and, by taking this course, you learn to appreciate the creativity there is to be found in imperfection – there is always a surprise in store when you undecorate.”

What could be more eco-friendly than reusing something that already exists? The Bailey’s philosophy is spot on, as they seek out environmentally-friendly materials in their “undecoration” quest. For them, this often leads to implementing old-fashioned techniques and materials, such as using lime plaster on their walls with yak hair teased into the mixture (the hair helps it bind together). It’s better than modern plaster because it allows the building to breathe. Their home is insulated with sheep’s wool. Recycling comes into play in every aspect of their home. They used 10,000 old slates on their roof. Discarded floorboard is used to make unusual mirrors and picture frames. Factory trolleys transform into storage on wheels, and fruit crates house CD’s and books.

If you don’t have a stock full of “undecorating” gems in your basement or garage (or in their case, a farm and a store), how can you impart the Bailey’s green decorating philosophy of using or reusing furnishings that you already have, into your EcoNest? Many home items have useful lives that can extend far beyond one owner. Craigslist, Ebay, Freecycle, garage sales and the classified section of the newspaper all provide quality merchandise at secondhand prices. Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices  provides lots of places to find the best secondhand deals. My personal favorite is acquiring vintage pieces and sprucing them up to fit my needs. The environmental benefits of buying secondhand, and keeping items out of local landfills with no new resources used in manufacturing and shipping are the stuff tiny carbon footprints are made of.

Could there possibly be a downside to all this “undecorating” fun? My digging around unearthed a bunch of studies  linking older upholstered furniture to the flame retardant, PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers). These PBDE’s are found in mattresses, in foam covered upholstered furniture, textiles and hard plastics. As they begin to break down, PBDE’s leak out into the environment and have been found in our bodies, and in the food chain (meat and fish). The Worldwatch Organization outlines more about PBDE’s here.

Here’s some online inspiration for decorating with reincarnated or reclaimed furniture:  Raval Warehouse, Nightwood NY and RG Furniture Design.

Although I never thought of my decorating style as “undecorating”, the Bailey’s “recycled home” with its many vintage and new items, share so many similarities to my EcoNest. “If there is the faintest glimmer of life in something, reuse it – you’re bound to be able to find a use for it somewhere. Think of your home as a delicious experiment.”

Have you given an abandoned or unloved object a new life in you home?

Read more: Home, EcoNesting, Green Home Decor, Reduce, Recycle & Reuse, , , , , , , , , , , ,

By Ronnie Citron-Fink

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Ronnie Citron-Fink

Ronnie Citron-Fink is a writer, editor and educator. She has written hundreds of articles about sustainable living, the environment, design, and family life for websites, books and magazines. Ronnie is the creator of Econesting, and the managing editor of Moms Clean Air Force. Ronnie was named one of the Top Ten Living Green Experts by Yahoo. Ronnie lives in New York with her family.


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1:00PM PDT on Sep 25, 2009

Happy de-cluttering Steve! 'Tis the season, along with spring, when everyone gets rid of things. It will last for a couple more months until the snow flies. I look forward to winter, to go through all I end up with, to reuse. As others are no longer buying stains, paint, etc., I'm wandering through the isles for stuff to rejuvinate my treasures. (at the same time Habitat For Humanity awaits my arrival for little things like handles) I'll post what I come across and what I do with all my treasures. Many end up turned into artwork, but the best are the pieces that have a new, more useful life. AAArrrrrrrrr matie...happy latest trip to your next client! My harvest table is almost finished..just have the hardware for the cutlery drawer to attach, then the drawer goes in. A neighbor is eying it a lot. This table just may be off to a new home soon, but before it goes anywhere, I will take a picture of it! Happy sailing capt'n Steve and may your treasures be vast!

12:39PM PDT on Sep 25, 2009

Arrrr, Laurie. I'm off to another client. I seem to be the most booked DA around. ta for now.

12:31PM PDT on Sep 25, 2009

What a great job to have, Steve, in having the chance to de-clutter other's messes! My brain's imagination would be in over drive as to what to do with everything! Not only do other's have the chance to see their environment through new eyes, but either they or you have the chance to get creative! If they don't give away or sell off their extas, you have the great chance to re-use what others consider junk! Home staging has hit the big time now. Everyone is either needing to de-clutter to sell their houses, or they want a fresh start and can't see the trees because there is too much forest! De-cluttering for others would be like living in a continual treasure hunt! I envy your chances with this treasure hunting..and everyone benefits! ARRRRR says pirate, Laurie..I sees yer pleasure!

11:12AM PDT on Sep 25, 2009

Thanks Laurie,

It has been incredibly busy in my world. I can't tell you how many stagers contact me as I do what they don't want to tackle and that is to declutter to the extent I do and donate things for reuse. I give them a clean slate to make much more Home And Garden appealing. What I do is the working with those home owners to get them past overwhelmed. Keep on writing. Steve - The Domestic Archaeologist - ilott

7:18AM PDT on Sep 8, 2009

I have just been given 5 old newel posts and now have use for the huge plank of beechwood, that has been stored in my shed. The thick, wide plank was too good to simply be cut down, so now it will serve as the top for a harvest table, with the newel posts as the table legs. Extra scraps of wood around here will serve as the table's skirting. I also have used drawer tracks that might just end up being put to use, as the hardware for a cutlery drawer to my "new" table!

2:46PM PDT on Sep 5, 2009

Steve I'll gladly pay for your book..but (hint hint) it would be great if it were autographed! Gee, would the book work better than the chunk of rubber tire that's now propped under the washer? he he heeee...I am still picturing the happy Korean children as they hug their bears and think of you.Our Christmas's were also filled with "make our own funnies" (licorice babies in recycled glass baby bottles, with instructions, etc) But your "Leg Weasel" takes the cake! There was a slight queezy feeling after reading your comment to Ronnie, followed by "cheers" he he he.
Dryer lint..found in many winter climates, filling lint traps across Canada and the northern States. On those camping days when the dry kindling is used up and all that's left is damp's where the lint comes in. Pack dryer lint tightly into the cup part of cardboard egg cartons. If anyone is as nutty as I am, I save used birthday candles. Melt a small amount of wax and pour over the compacted lint. The whole carton is brought to camp and make a great fire starter, by simply breaking off one when needed and igniting it. Most of my clothing is cotton, so I don't worry about burning polyester..not sure if that's a good thing to do..but these little fire starters really work!

2:18PM PDT on Sep 5, 2009

No worries Laurie. When it's out I'll mail you a copy on me. Just don't find alternate uses for it like propping up the washer. I get a lot of enthusiastic responses from my audiences when I speak about this topic. I use humor and anecdotes to get under the radar and inform. My world has been a Toad's Wild ride for the seven or so years I've been doing this full time. Have a gander at my web site some time for more on me if you wish. I'm sure Ronnie must have a contact email or link to my web site some place. I don't want to offer it as it might be a rule I don't wish to break. I like this site. Wonderful in fact. (Ronnie if you read this bit I'll make a link for you. I've had just under 40,000 hits on my site. Modest but growing.
Steve (the Domestic Archaeologist) ilott POC (Professional Organizers in Canada)

1:46PM PDT on Sep 5, 2009

Ronnie, maybe we all here can coax Steve to autograph his first edition of "Domestic Archeology" ? I await the day when he announces it's ready! As an avid book collector, I have devoted four shelves to books on recycling, reusing and all other forms of re-thinking! One favorite is a soft covered book called "Low Tech" by Rick Ball and Paul Cox, published by Century Publishing Co., in 1982. Steve's book sounds like it will take top priority on my book shelf! I have by nature always recycled and reused just about everything I come across. As a multi-medium artist, I have the pleasure of recreating from just about everything! I will try desperately to not post every tid bit or I might have to start buying cyber paper from Care2! There is a booklet in the works right now, that I wish to propose to the government. It covers ways to stretch today's dollar and is meant for low income families. If social services here are interested in my little book, I would love to include both links and book suggestions for anyone interested in going beyond my helpful hints. I truly believe that once others start the 3 R's, they to will get hooked on it! All most people need are ideas, and sometimes a bit of construction tutoring and the glow on their faces when they stand back and see a new heirloom piece..well, the look is priceless.

12:57PM PDT on Sep 5, 2009

Sorry about the length. I do like to tell stories. Anyway the ones still around sit waiting to be appreciated once more. By the way the paper clip was to attach to the pant cuff.

12:54PM PDT on Sep 5, 2009


I promise to keep my comments fun, polite and lively (it's my nature). A sense of humor about reuse is an important part of making it happen and make things inclusive in life and part of creating memories as opposed to a chore. I must toss one tiny one at you from my own home life growing up and which goes a way to explaining my reuse tendencies today. (Though if there is no use to one person I prod them to pass huge amounts along so someone else can make good use of it instead of crowding up your real estate and health. Anyway growing up my parents would make presents out of things we had around the house but the stipulation (tacit) was that it had to be a brand new use other than what the original product was intended for. One Christmas (I was a teen) in a pinch to give them something to laugh about I took a funnel, a length of aquarium tubing and a paper clip and packaged it witrh instructions, cartoons, product labels and even a price tag. Voila, it was "The Leg Weasel". A device you wear in your shorts to allow you to pee anywhere any time as the label announced, depicting a little fellow reading a newspaper at a bus stop and peeing into an adjacent planter, leg raised ever so slightly. My mother has an absurd sense of humor and I will never forget her dropping to the floor Christmas morning and rolling about laughing, until she cried. I subsequently had to produce several of them for family and relatives. I think to this day somewhere at the bottom of some ce

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