Five Designers on How to Make Old Things New Again

Yes, you can reinvent yourself

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Edel Legaspi turned this warehouse loft in Culver City, California, into an executive’s workspace.
Courtesy of Edel Legaspi

Joanna Saltz: Give it to me straight. Can you truly bring something old back to life?

Cliff Fong: Yes, you can absolutely reinvent something.If we didn’t believe that things could be reimagined or reinterpreted and we just kept moving on to the next new thing, Los Angeles would be a horrible, horrible place. It’s already thin on history enough, the last thing I would do is wipe the history books clean and start fresh with something else!

I always want to preserve what it is that’s deeply meaningful about a piece of architecture or a space—to make sure that we design within the soul of that architecture, even to accentuate the inherent design quality of it. But then hopefully mix in things that make it new and fresh and interesting. I think those are my favorite kinds of projects actually.

Georgia Tapert Howe: Yes, abso­lutely. In a place like L.A., which in the grand scheme of things is a really new city, I personally crave old things... The reason I moved to Hancock Park was because there were old houses and it brings me back to my roots on the east coast. We sometimes pay a premium for that—we’ll bring reclaimed floors from Europe to a house here in L.A. That patina and richness: You can’t get that by making a custom coffee table for a client. And a story!

Justina Blakeney: I think it’s all about the narrative and the contrast of old and new and really the personality that you put into something. The way I work is that anything and everything can be material. It’s really about then how the designer or the artist interprets that item, whether it’s reinventing something by holding it upside down or hanging a found object on a wall that’s not usually used in that way. Or, you know, using vintage items that have that narrative, that create that richness that I think is really difficult to get with new things unless they’re really handmade.
And so, yea, I’m all about that vintage shit.

JS: It’s like the story comes through the craftsmanship.

blonde and brunette women hanging out
Saltz and Georgia Tapert Howe
Ari Michelson

JB: Exactly. And I think that’s, for me, really at the heart of it. It’s about the story and the story that the piece tells. I’m multi­racial, so I’m like, “I grew up surrounded by West African art!” And I can see these different roots, and how they play together in the textiles I’m painting and all that. For me, it’s about you bringing your own personal history into it as much as the history the item itself has on its own, and how those two things converge, the conversation and the cultural negotiations that happen. Whether we’re talking about the culture of Los Angeles or someone’s own personal culture and history.

Edel Legaspi: It’s interesting, because our clients hire us to create a narrative for them. Especially if they’re coming in with a pre-existing piece that they want to salvage or incorporate into a room—then it’s also about what it means to them in terms of if there’s some value. You know, personal value.

Peter Dunham: I believe completely in the reinvention of a thing. We can take an old tapestry that nobody wants and make an otto­man out of it that somebody does want! Or just repurposing, fixing: We use a lot of old carpets and make beds out of them or something.

JS: So, given the choice, would you buy something old or something new?

PD: To me, it really depends. It’s good to have new to make the old look better. If it’s all old and the same, then that’s boring too.

JS: What’s something you prefer new?

PD: A cell phone.

GTH: A car.

EL: A mattress!

JS: Yes. No one should be buying a mattress with “history.”

JB: I think purchasing art from living artists—that’s almost as much a socio-political statement as otherwise. It’s really about creating community as well, so when it comes to things that are handmade or things that are from living artists, I generally do prefer to buy new. I love finding old portraits and stuff at flea markets, and that will always light me up, but there is also something about supporting new artists who are trying hard to get their work out there. That's also priceless. I’m like, “Oh my God, you’re amazing and you have 400 Instagram followers. I am going to blow you up!” That really excites me.

woman laughing in striped dress
Justina Blakeney
Ari Michelson

PD: There’s something about an old piece of furniture. It just feels... real. You almost can’t walk away from it. You walk into an old house and it has something that you really don’t even need to reinvent, you just have to preserve and protect from people demolishing or ruining it. I think as successful designers, we're good at being able to, as Cliff said, enhance what’s there without affecting the patina. You want as much of that as possible. Because there’s so little of it and there’s poetry to it.

JS: I know that some designers would rather go into a thrift store and find something beautifully made from the past than walk into a big-box store.

JB: If there’s a budget in certain areas of the house, I would rather go on Chairish or even silent auctions. I would rather find an old Saarinen table, honestly, that’s less expen­sive than going and buying a knock­off of one. My clients, as you said, they expect more from me. But that’s not to say I haven’t purchased from big box stores.

CF: I almost never go to a big box store, because I think as designers we are expected to have a little more imagination than that, but there’s nothing wrong with what those stores offer. If you have a budget that is more restricted, there’s always something there. It just depends how you accessorize it!

With furniture, buying something old with a nice patina can validate your environment. Whereas, if you were to base the presentation of your home on something that came out of one showroom or big-box store, there’s no room for any personality—no character, no sense of cultivation or curation.

PD: Once, I had these new clients with a house that was basically already framed. And then I saw the holy grail of architectural salvage online—40 linear feet of bookcases that had been taken out of an English country house. I was like, ‘You’ve got to buy these bookcases, OK?’ And, of course, now it’s the conversation starter. She’s on the library board in Newport Beach, and it’s like her library that nobody else has.

Plus she can relay this story of her crazy decorator calling her at 7 in the morning, saying, “There’s a lot coming up, we have to buy it.” Putting faith into it, and having the adventure and the serendipity—it’s fun, you know?

GTH: Clients want that more than ever, I think. My clients want to make sure no one else has it, and that they love the story.

Man in jeans, tee shirt, jacket
Cliff Fong
Ari Michelson

JS: What’s the secret to getting people to see something old in a new way?

CF: It’s not asking permission and just doing it—and then being flexible enough to change it if needed! When it comes to speaking the same language, that’s a very difficult thing. We could all taste a strawberry and agree that it’s sour, but we won’t know how sour it is to me or how less sour it is to you. Everyone’s idea of "modern" or "comfortable" or "sexy," all of that is completely different for every single person. So if you are willing to help interpret the best way your client can live through your eyes, I think that’s a good way to get somebody to wrap their head around what’s really possible. It could just start with one room. It could just start with one table and the accessories you put on it.

A lot of times, surprising them is a good thing. Maybe not a big surprise with like a truckload, but little surprises so they get the idea.

GTH: Sometimes, it’s about reinterpreting items that might not be super aesthetically pleasing but have some kind of personal meaning. A client might say, “Oh, I got this chair from my grandmother and I want to keep it, but it just doesn’t fit my style.” Figuring out how to use an heirloom piece in a way that fits in with the style of the home, and the look and feel the person’s going for, can be really exciting.

JS: Every client brings something like that to the table, right?

PD: Yes. I like having stuff from them to throw in. It’s just a matter of making it come alive for them. Teaching a client to understand why some Danish dressers have more intrinsic value and will look better in their house than something else that’s maybe new or not, that's our role. I buy a lot at auction for clients, and they find it engaging and kind of fun to look competitive. You always make them lose something that you don’t really want to buy so they’ll win something you really want them to buy.

EL: It’s the narrative of the dream. You’re weaving in their everyday lives, so when they come home, they’re excited to be there.

Peter Dunham
Ari Michelson

PD: Don’t you also want them to feel like it’s unique? Like, I found this coffee table or we found it together at Cliff’s store or we found it in Paris or wherever. Maybe we found it online. And they’re excited because that’s the only one like it.

JB: That’s such a big thing now, isn’t it? You just want your space to feel like it represents who you are, and that you’re a unique individual. But it's also about mixing eras and materials and textures, all that. I feel like it’s kind of boring when everything’s mid-century and you’re like, “OK we get it, mid-century’s dope, but what else can we mix in here to make it feel more exciting?”

CF: I really like it when you walk into some place, and it looks like someone set-decorated it instead of actually lives in it. Like their house is in drag and it’s not who they really are.

PD: I think that's comfortable for a lot of people.

CF: It’s much more interesting when you get to have a creative experience with your client where they get to discover something, especially in this age when you can just push a button and get it. The idea of winning the bookcases, that’s an amazing thing. The idea of scavenging and finding something that no one else can find, that is a great thing to with your client and that makes a nicer experience and a more interesting environment, for sure.

JS: You guys are good at this, just saying. One more question: What’s the last thing you reinvented, or your favorite thing that you’ve reinvented?

EL: We have a client that had an existing wine room that was part of a family room, but they don’t drink wine so this room was being utilized as some random storage closet. It had really beautiful millwork and we were trying to figure out what to do with it. We wanted to salvage this room. We we created a really cozy library nook, reconfigured the millwork in a way where it worked out as display and bookcases.

It just became this really special moment in the space that added value to how they’re utilizing the room instead of just leaving it as some random storage.

Woman in silk shirt and jeans with belt
Edel Legaspi
Ari Michelson

JS: I’m sure every time someone walks in there they tell them, “It used to be a wine room! You’ll never believe it!”

EL: Yea, they have a little, “Guess what that was!”

JB: I feel like I’m reinventing stuff every single day, but my big one, my serious one, is my home. I live in this little tiny Spanish style bungalow with my husband and my daughter, and it was funky, really funky when we moved in. Really small, weird rooms and like a lot of eighties houses, with interesting things layered on top of this 1926 jewel. So it was fun to uncover the old charm and then add our own spin to it.

That was my first time really adjusting the architecture of a space, because that’s just not what I do, and I really really enjoyed it. We love our little home and it’s been really fun to kind of just inject our personality into it, but also bring out what was sort of the old charm of the place itself.

GH: I would say my own home, too. We bought it three years ago, a 1921 house in Hancock Park. There was a nineties renovation in the kitchen, but the majority of the house had all the original moldings, so just going back and restoring that. My husband and I had never owned our own house, so it was exciting to do that together and realize we actually like a lot of the same things. Now we have two kids and it sort of feels like our house and it’s a really special thing.

And recently, we almost finished with a house in Hancock Park that had this giant, big big lot and this huge garage. It didn’t make sense. So we found the old deed and plans from when it was built in 1920, and originally there was this, we call it "The Cabana." Basically, it was sort of a covered area looking out to the pool, and we were able to bring it back to what it was and it’s now this magical cabana. Very kind of 1930s Spanish vibe. So that was fun because it felt like we really did our homework on that one.

Blakeney added an arched niche during her bathroom remodel (before, left), a nod to the Spanish architecture of the home.
Courtesy of Justina Blankeney

CF: I have this client, and one day they called me up and were like, “Let’s go house hunting.” But then they were like, “We don’t think we want to live in Los Angeles anymore, we need a place here, so we’re going to look at condos.” And I was like, “No! I hate condos, I don’t want to work in them, the elevators take forever, there’s all sorts of things that they require from you. No, no, no, no, no.”

I tried to talk them out of it. Floor-to-ceiling glass, shiny stone floor, slick countertops—it basically looked like, well a lot of condos sort of look like hotels. Slick and cold and sterile. But in the end, it actually was one of my favorite projects. We took particular care in taking down those shiny surfaces, mixing in textures that made it feel warmer, more organic, more human, and less mechanical. I think it was the first time I was actually tasked with, instead of modernizing something that was old, giving a certain level of cultivation to something that was brand new. Everything just felt fresh and new and I thought, “If they ever sell this condo, I’m going to buy it.” Which, they just sold it for way more money than I could ever buy it for—I could only dream of it!

JS: That story of using a bunch of things to reinvent a new space is sort of a beautiful circle.

CF: I was sort of glad that I hung in there because it was one of the most rewarding things!

JS: Okay Peter, you are the final answer.

Joanna Saltz
Ari Michelson

PD: I’m so glad I came last! I don’t know how you all feel but I almost prefer starting with a real dog of a project because it feels more satisfying when you make it fabulous. But a really simple thing I’ve been doing recently is in the plant and gardening thing. I work out of these warehouses in South L.A.—it’s sort of bleak, you know, the buildings are bleak, the street is bleak, I desperately wanted to plant. And we planted this big-ish sort of succulent garden. It gives you so much satisfaction. It kind of subliminally transformed it rather than overly visually. You get this feeling of freshness when you come out.

Another thing I get a lot of satisfaction from in reinvention is textiles. The one you’re sitting in front of is based on a 1920s carpet that my parents had in this apartment in Paris. The entire apartment was done for a silent movie star. When the apartment was finally sold after she died, I knew the whole place was going to be demoed. So I took a pair of scissors to the wall-to-wall carpeting and took a big chunk and this I literally hoarded for 40 years. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, and then I was like “You know, I’ve always wanted to do something a bit floral.”

It’s like what you’re doing, you’re taking an established brand and you’re making it new again.

JS: Yes! Well, I’m trying to nod to what has been done before me and keep all of that.

PD: You’re finding new audiences, you’re making it more relevant, you’re bringing it into the digital age. I mean, that’s a huge transformation. That’s exactly what we do, too! It's just kind of a funny theme for this gathering...

JS: No no, I did that on purpose for sure. That’s great.

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