Give Old Furnishings a New Purpose

With a bit of imagination, furniture and found objects can do double-duty in your home.


A chair is a chair is a chair is a chair ... except when it’s an easel.

By: Susan Kleinman

Pull Up A Chair

Pull Up A Chair

A dining table can look perfect in your front hallway, and a store’s stack of sweater shelves may turn out to be the best place for your books. With a bit of creativity, furniture can be put to all sorts of uses other than the ones their manufacturers had in mind, bringing a unique flair to every room in your home and proving that in design (as, indeed, in most things) it’s best to think independently. Here’s how five top designers give old pieces brand new — and very beautiful — lives.

Like many interior designers, Vicente Wolf ( has a "thing" for chairs. New chairs and old chairs, ornate antiques and sleek modern designs. At last count, there were no fewer than ten chairs in his New York city loft, and eight of them have been drafted into service as display easels for some of the 700 photographs in Wolf’s private collection.

"I rotate the photos all the time," says Wolf, author of Crossing Boundaries: A Global View of Design (Monacelli Press, 2006). "They move from my loft to my office to my beach house. Sometimes I’ll display a selection of all portraits, other times photos of hands, or all Italian futurists."

Like the photos, the chairs upon which they are propped vary widely in style and origin. Shown here are a classic bank chair, an 18th-century Italian chair, a French piece also from the 18th century, and a contemporary chair in black leather and stainless steel that Wolf designed himself.

In addition to providing visual interest, the chairs offer a benefit that actual easels or display shelves would not: "When guests come," says Wolf, "the photographs come off the chairs, and the guests go on."

Photograph by Vicente Wolf.

To The Manor-House Born



As soon as Radhakrishnan got the table inside, she realized that it looked perfect in the entry — and so, there it has stayed for the past four years.

To The Manor-House Born

Raji Radhakrishnan ( drove hundreds of miles in search of a classic round center hall table for her Brambleton, Virginia, manor house. From antique shop to antique shop she traveled, willing to spend top-dollar for a piece that would make just the right style statement in her home. On her way back from the fruitless trip, she popped into a church flea market — and spotted this Queen Anne dining table.

"Somebody was selling it dirt cheap," Radhakrishnan recalls, "and although the top needed some refinishing, the legs were in great shape. I thought I might as well take it home. It would actually be pretty boring in a dining room," says the designer. "And if I left the leaves in, it would look like I had put a dining table in the middle of the hallway. But with the leaves out, and the light hitting it just right, it’s magic." A dining table could also be used as a library table (and vice versa), says Radhakrishnan. And if the table is small enough and the room large enough, a breakfast table could work quite nicely next to a bed.

"To me," says Radhakrishnan, "it absolutely does not matter how much one paid, or what a piece of furniture is really intended for. All that matters is whether it works well in the space."

Photograph by Raji Radhakrishnan.

Pantry Pride



Stoffer has incorporated many other antiques into her own kitchen and the kitchens of her clients, including a dish dresser that was built around glass cabinetry doors salvaged from her home’s original butler’s pantry, an Eastlake bed frame that she turned into a range hood, doors as refrigerator panels and old art glass windows as cabinet doors.

Pantry Pride

With four teenagers in the house, kitchen designer Jean Stoffer needs lotsof pantry space in her River Forest, Illinois, kitchen. And while she certainly could have had supersized food storage built to match the other kitchen cabinets, she chose, instead, to install a 19th-century French armoire she and her husband found on a 20th-anniversary trip to Carmel, California.

"We were about to start the kitchen remodeling at that time," says Stoffer. "I knew I wanted to find something unique for that spot in the room, to serve as a pantry. This piece was perfect and now it has a great memory attached to it!

Using a freestanding piece like the armoire is fairly easy to do," says Stoffer. "And while integrating old parts and retrofitting whole pieces can be a lot more complicated, it is all very worth it. The result is a one-of-a-kind, totally unique, usually very interesting piece."

Photograph by Mark Samu.

"Cart" Blanche



Chairs as easels, closets as cupboards ... there really is no end to the way furniture can be repurposed. And even items that were not at all intended for residential use can bring beauty and function to your home.

"Cart" Blanche

Chairs as easels, closets as cupboards ... there really is no end to the way furniture can be repurposed. And even items that were not at all intended for residential use can bring beauty and function to your home.

Known for her creative use of industrial objects in refined settings, designer and retailer Francine Gardner( often transforms objects from the 19th century into 21st-century furnishings. This coffee table, for example, is made of a coal cart from northern France, most likely used at the height of the industrial revolution.

"We kept part of the track that would have been running along the mine corridors in the mid-1800s," explains Gardner. "The cart itself is the support for the coal bins."

Gardner, who has also transformed industrial chests, lockers and chairs into contemporary furniture, likes to retain as much of the pieces’ original form and finish as possible. "The only thing I have done to this cart," she notes, "is to have it stripped of its years of grime and oil, and topped with a piece of glass."

And while the table is shown here with a contemporary linen sofa, it would work well with more old-fashioned seating pieces, as well.

"Wherever you use it," says Gardner, "it will give any interior a modern creative look and feel."

Sweater Set



Fabricated of plastic and lacquered high-gloss red, the shelving units stand 90-inches tall. "Like any good runway model," says Drake, "they appear even more attenuated because of their slim lines."

Sweater Set

You never know what treasures you’ll find if you keep your eyes — and your mind — open. Just ask designer Jamie Drake (, who found these red totem-pole-like shelves at one of New York’s famed Triple Pier Antiques extravaganzas, long after the shelves stopped serving their original use as sweater display units for the French fashion company Rodier.

"I fell in love with the strong graphic presence of these functional sculptures," says Drake, "and had to have them for myself at once. I was in the midst of furnishing a weekend home in the Hamptons, and knew they would be perfect in the double-height living room. After selling that house, I moved them into my new city apartment."

Drake, author of Jamie Drake’s New American Glamour (Bulfinch, 2006), is no stranger to the art of repurposing pieces. In projects for clients over the years, he has used a 1920s enameled metal dentist’s storage cabinet as a dresser, and a steel-framed medical unit with two glass-fronted doors as a capacious linen cabinet in a country bathroom.

"There really are no rules about what can be used where," Drake says emphatically. "If you love it, go for it!"

Photograph by William Waldron.

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