For one family ‘junk’ becomes vintage, retro, shabby chic

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By Lisa Smith Molinari

“Mom, can someone finally do something about my dresser?” my daughter Lilly demanded.

“Oh, is it broken again?” I feigned ignorance.

“Yeah, the thing is like, totally falling apart this time,” she told me, but I already knew.

Two pulls were missing from the drawers. The mirror was perched precariously on its supporting wooden arms, one of which was wobbly. The drawers no longer slid easily on their brittle rails. With warped wood and ancient glue, the entire piece was coming apart at every joint and dovetail.

“Nothing a dab of Elmer’s won’t fix!”

Poor Lilly rolled her eyes. She knew it was no use. Not only is everything in our house showing its age, half of what we own was already old when we bought it. The treasures I lovingly refer to as “antique,” “vintage,” “retro,” or “shabby chic,” my Family calls “a bunch of broken down used junk.”


I bought Lilly’s dresser for a cool $150 at an antique mall in Virginia back in 2005. It was tall, with a beveled mirror mounted on two curved arms, and a working skeleton keyhole on each of its six drawers. Its lovely bird’s eye maple veneer was a cheerful shade of yellow-gold.

“It’s used, Mom,” Lilly said quite accurately, begging for the new pink and purple particle board set imported from China that she saw at Walmart.

Much to my kids’ dismay, our entire house is filled with “used” furniture – hand-me-downs from family, discards from military friends who moved away, garage sale finds, and some legitimate antiques. The girls tell me they feel like they’re living in the midst of a flea market, and our son calls our house “The Rest Home.”

But what the kids don’t understand is that we furnished our home with affordable things out of the necessity of a tight military budget.

When my husband and I married back in 1993, he contributed a couch, a desk and a bed to our new apartment, all of which we still use to this day. I contributed a bookcase that is currently in my daughter’s room, an old Singer sewing table that is in our hallway and the red-painted sideboard that sits in our mudroom. When Aunt Millie died, we got her dining room buffet, my husband’s dresser, and some end tables complete with Millie’s cigarette burns. And we filled in the gaps with items we found along the way.

Believe it or not, it isn’t all junk – while stationed in Europe, we bought a Victorian marble-topped wash stand, an English pine armoire, a 100-year old French bed frame, and a sturdy Belgian mid-century farmhouse kitchen table and chairs.

Sure, I’ll confess that I shamelessly salvaged a couple of items from other people’s trash. I once scrambled into a dumpster to save two sturdy solid oak English chairs that sit at our kitchen table today. And I just barely squeezed a channel-back armchair into our minivan after seeing it sitting on the side of a lonely Pennsylvania country road cradling a sign upon which was written the irresistible word, “Free.” It only took a year of fumigating in the garage before I put it in our living room, and that musty smell is almost all gone.

As for Lilly’s dresser, with some fresh glue and a few strategically placed clamps, I’ll get a couple more years out of it. Besides, it doesn’t really matter whether I pay top dollar at Pottery Barn or pocket change at Pete’s Salvage Emporium, as long as the love in our home is given freely. n