How to Decorate 'Green': 'Restore. Recycle. Repurpose.'

restore recycle repurposeGrowing up on a farm in Iowa, Randy Florke learned frugality. Everything that could be reused was, and most everything fit into that category. "Recycle" and "green" were not part of the vernacular, but the lessons learned in Iowa traveled East with Florke as he developed a business restoring and decorating farmhouses in the Catskill Mountains region of Sullivan County, N.Y.

Those lessons are passed along in his book about decorating sustainably and inexpensively. "Restore. Recycle. Repurpose.: Create a Beautiful Home" is a how-to for those who want to do right by the environment while making the right decisions about home decorating.

Florke's book (written with Nancy J. Becker) combines common sense with the latest information on sustainability, to help readers create their own aesthetic. He spoke to HousingWatch about his influences, his favorite places to shop, and the most useful item he never bought.

HW: Where did the inspiration for this book come from?
I never thought of myself as "green." When someone came to me to ask me to help them design green modular homes, I told him, "I'm not green." His response was, "You are the greenest person we know. You always reuse stuff." I'm just cheap; I can't stand to throw things away. So, I'm accidentally green. But when I started to think about it, that's how people should approach the green movement. All these new products make it so futuristic; it's expensive, foreign, unrelatable. With this book, I want to make the idea of being green approachable and understanding.

HW: Who is your biggest influence?
I grew up on a farm in Iowa. Farmers are very self-sufficient. They are capable of not going to the store. They are frugal, they know how to repair things, how to grow things. It costs a lot to go to town, and it costs a lot to hire someone to come out to fix something. So they learn to do as much as they can by themselves.
Randy Florke
My grandmother was the typical farm matriarch. She reused everything, saved everything, repurposed everything. It wasn't that she had fabulous taste, but her sense of caring about not wasting, which ultimately is what green is about, that Depression-era mentality, shaped my sense of décor. I still have a tinge of guilt when I discard something.

HW: For someone who wants to be more green in their decorating, what room is best to start with?

The living room or family room is the easiest place to start, for a number of reasons. For one, you have a multitude of pieces you can play with -- tables, chairs, pillows. You can start small. You can start with just one piece.

Repaint a table you bought at a flea market. If you don't like the color, you can repaint it. Change the fabric on a throw pillow. The investment is almost nothing. You can reupholster one chair, and see how it looks. With each step, you get a better sense of what works and what doesn't, what you like and what you need.

Bathrooms and kitchens, on the other hand, can get expensive very quickly. Plumbing and appliances are involved. If you change the counter tops and you don't like them, it's a huge and expensive task to redo them.

HW: When does it make sense to replace old with new?
I love old windows. If I have a house with old windows, I will go to trouble and expense to make storm windows and screens to make them more efficient. But they are not as easy as new windows. They have to be painted and maintained; it's a suffering for beauty that I tend to justify. So, there is an argument to keep the old windows. But when you are talking about efficiency, it's hard to make an argument to use old windows.

It's the same with kitchen appliances; it's a hard argument to not use Energy Star appliances. But if you have vintage appliances, there are good reasons to keep them. You're not putting them into the landfill, for one. With anything you do, you need to weigh the cost of energy savings with what are you contributing to the waste stream.

HW: Where do you like to look for items?

Antique stores, second-hand shops. I'm not a high-end antique shopper. I don't go shopping at Madison Avenue antique stores. I prefer when the stores have pieces that are rugged and distressed.

I don't have the luxury of going to auctions and estate sales -- you have to stay all day for the one item you want.
So I go to thrift shops; the Salvation Army and Goodwill are great. EBay and Craigslist are great resources. You can get a lot of free stuff on Craigslist, especially in urban areas, where people will give you their old couch if you can take it away. People don't want to just put it on the curb, they want it to have a good home. Craigslist is a great resource for being green.

HW: In your book, you talk as much about paring down as about collecting. What is your philosophy to shopping for items to decorate your home?
When you're going to a thrift store, or an antique store, go with specifics, only look for what you need, and bring measurements for those items. People will see something that catches their eye, and say "I'll figure it out." But if it won't fit in your house, then there is no point in buying it. You have to be careful not to be lured by the price; just like with clothing, just because it's cheap doesn't mean it's a good deal.

HW: What is the item you have purchased that most exemplifies your philosophy?
Actually, it wasn't something I bought, but something I found. When I bought a farm in Iowa in 1989, I redid that whole house, and I furnished it with second-hand furniture. One of the things I got was a wardrobe my aunt had in her garage. Her mother had bought it at a thrift sale. It was full of tools and garden supplies. I painted it bright red, and used it in the dressing room.

When I sold the farm, I moved the wardrobe to an eco-friendly model home in upstate New York, to use in one of the bedrooms. And just this past weekend, I brought it to my house on the New Jersey shore. I brought it down on a truck, hired a guy for $20 to help me hoist it to the second-floor bedroom.

Three houses that didn't have closets: I could have purchased three different pieces of furniture. But I was able to reuse this very useful wardrobe.

HW: What are your favorite materials to work with?
Wood. You can paint it, stain, it, lacquer it. It has a lot of different looks. And it's flexible – unlike metal or stone, steel or glass, which are much harder to work with. If you are redoing kitchen cabinets, wood is easiest to work with. You can apply molding, paint them. If you want to change knobs, it's easier to put putty in the existing and drill new holes. It's harder to do that with other materials.

HW: If readers take away one idea from your book, what would it be?
Don't fall into a trap where you are redoing all the time.

A lot of what you have is better than what you will replace it with. We live in a consumer society where people need the latest things. When I was growing up my parents changed it up every five years -- recarpeting, reupholstering -- while my grandmother never changed anything. In the end, whose house held up as a classic? Hers did. So I try very hard to decorate in a classic style that doesn't have a date attached to it. Stainless steel appliances will become avocado green of the '70s. I always encourage my clients to go with classic white. It's timeless. You can't date it.
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