Sustainable home swaps – upcycling decor made easy

upcycling dresser illustration

Illustration by Hawnuh Lee.

Being a writer in my mid 20s, I can’t say I’ve ever had the funds or the space for a full blown interior design project, but that hasn’t stopped me from filling saved folders on Instagram with pastel couches and bulbous glass table lamps. Budget aside, I also see how easy it would be to fall prey to made-for-Instagram brands that care more about keeping up with trends than making long lasting products or sourcing materials sustainably.

But the deeper I’ve traversed into Home Design Internet, the more I’ve come across the sentiment that neither personal finances nor sustainability values need be compromised to make a space feel truly your own. And since my own experience has been mostly imaginary, I sought out a few experts to help guide me in that direction. Whether you’re styling a new apartment, sprucing up your WFH space, or just vision boarding for the future, I think you’ll love what these scrappy design enthusiasts have to say.

Jessica Reilly

Jessica Reilly is the artist, designer, and secondhand curator behind Domicile 37—a home design blog that celebrates eclectic, maximalist style. The spaces she features feel sumptuous and inviting—filled with unexpected yet effortless pairings like velvety cushions and transparent acrylic. She says that if she had her way, she would have floral patterns on anything and everything.

Jessica has a degree in Industrial design and years of experience under her belt, but she makes home projects accessible to even fledgling DIYers like myself. She recommends starting by upcycling an accent piece—Boring Craigslist barstool? Paint it a fun color! Stained upholstery? Give it a pattern!

“I’m not one to follow the trends,” she says. “What excites me most about design right now is that rules are being broken. Store-bought farmhouse is going away, people are buying more vintage and falling in love with classic decor.”

Jessica’s approach to design centers on secondhand and thrifted pieces.

I’m not down for fast furniture that’s only meant to last a year. Being a budget conscious designer, I try to encourage my clients to shop secondhand. Most things can be repurposed, reupholstered, or upcycled to fit one’s home and personal style… I like that my house feels and looks collected versus store bought or trendy.”

Where do we find these treasures?

“My favorite way to shop secondhand is going to estate sales. I love seeing who the owner was through their stuff. I also shop thrift stores and local consignment shops. If I’m looking for something specific, I shop eBay or Etsy.”

Jessica’s top three tips for thrifting:

  1. Buy what you like! Your personal style never goes out of style.
  2. Worth is relative to how much you want the piece. Cheap to you may not be cheap to someone else and vice versa.
  3. Use your imagination. Some things don’t look cool right off the bat, until you switch out the shade, paint the frame, etc.

Alexa Ing Litner

Alexa Ing Litner bought her first house in March just outside of Burlington, VT. Though she had no previous design or construction experience, she’s been renovating the home herself, consulting Google and helpful Instagrammers like @madebycarli as she goes. 

“The house is about 20 years old and everything is in good working condition, but the style was incredibly out of date,” Alexa says. “I’ve been trying to figure out ways to refurbish rather than replace. We’re going to repaint and revarnish a number of surfaces and cabinets, and spray paint some dated and worn hardware and fixtures so we can still use them. This isn’t ‘sexy’ sustainability, but i think avoiding throwing out lots of stuff that still works well but just needs a facelift is important!”

She’s found new homes for stuff she doesn’t want or need.

Local Buy Nothing Facebook groups are a great circular economy tool. For example, when we got rid of our old drapes there were lots of folks interested in reusing for other projects.”

Operational constraints have led to creative solutions.

My favorite project so far has been reimagining the built-in TV stand. We couldn’t remove it entirely because the carpeting didn’t extend under it, so we would’ve had to replace the carpeting completely even though it’s still in good shape. We bought a butcher block from Lowe’s, cut it to size, and stained it. The extra 2-3 feet of butcher block is now on our kitchen countertop!”

Upgrading the style of a room doesn’t have to mean starting from scratch.

“In one of the bathrooms we’re going to paint the vanity counter with rust proof paint, recolor the oak body of the vanity, and replace the handles. We’ll keep the hardware but spray paint it from a polished silver to a matte black so it looks more modern.”

Milena Perkins

Milena Perkins is a psychiatrist by day and an interior designer by night. She curates sustainable, second hand, and vintage finds on Instatram at @domadecor. Hot tip: Keep an eye on her stories for snazzy finds on sites like Facebook Marketplace and OfferUp.

We’re looking at our spaces differently than we were a year ago.

With the pandemic, people’s homes have truly become the epicenter of their lives, and I’ve seen a growing trend in creating a space that is nurturing on many levels. It’s exciting for me to see other’s find a sense of healing within their space.”

Don’t be seduced by branding and fat price tags.

“When a friend shows me something from a popular furniture retail shop, I joke that I can usually find the same thing on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or OfferUp. We’re starting to understand the harm behind fast fashion, and I think the same can be said for trendy ‘fast furniture.’ I like the idea of pre-loved items—maybe I even romanticize them a bit—they have lived a life before me, and will live one after me.”

Start with what you have.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as rearranging, or bringing pieces from a different room.”

And let the space itself guide you.

“When I lived in an old walk up with exposed brick, my style reflected the space—I brought in midcentury pieces and more color. Now I live in a more industrial modern space, and the interiors reflect with a more monochromatic look and postmodern pieces.”

Camellia Odojukan

Camellia Odojukan is an interior designer and stylist focused on creative spaces for kids and families. She previously worked on commercial design projects in Barbados and West Africa, and after becoming a mother of two decided to launch her own business. “I love the freedom of designing what I could have only dreamed as a child,” Camellia says.

What’s exciting her about design right now?

“People are slowly becoming more open to experimenting and letting go of their inhibitions.”

An easy sustainable home swap:

As a mother of a toddler and an eight year old, I do a lot of washing, and I was so happy to find a sustainable alternative to chemical laundry detergents. I came across soap nuts while researching ways to help my son’s sensitive skin and I’ve been using them ever since. They are 100% organic. Happy days!”

A tip for DIY beginners:

“I suggest starting with a small project to get an idea of your skill set. In my experience, DIY projects tend to take longer than anticipated.”

Stick with what you love.

“I will always design what I’m comfortable with when it comes to my home—it has to be my story, one that my family and I can connect with. For example, I’ve always embraced color. It’s ingrained in who I am and it makes me happy, so I incorporate it wherever I can.”

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Huge thank yous to these talented womxn for bringing me one step closer to designing the sustainable home of my dreams. Are you crafting, thrifting, building, or upcycling in your home? We want to hear about your projects! Email your pics and tips to hello@closedloopcooking.com or shoot us a DM on Instagram @closedloopcooking.

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