Salvation: How to Decorate with Found Objects

As one resourceful, artistic homeowner demonstrates, decorating with found objects creates an authentic look and an ironic beauty that can’t be replicated.

| July/August 2001

Walking into John and Linda Thomas’s apartment, one feels a sense of symmetry. Faded old doors exhibit soft patinas of green and blue, while well-worn windows see new life as kitchen cabinets. Old truck parts and pieces of abandoned cabins serve as dressing tables, coat hooks, and spice cabinets. Upon close inspection, a pair of windows in the kitchen turns out to be an illusion; one is a window, one a framed mirror. A trio of pediment-topped windows with frosted glass let in tons of soft light. In this house, almost everything is old, but with a wonderful sense of irony, everything is new again.

John Thomas is a quintessential artist. No matter what he undertakes, he guides a project with his artist’s eye. His work has spanned several genres, including cinema, photography, and performance art. He has designed furniture, built homes, and taught college art classes, each with aplomb.

His most recent project is the Durango, Colorado, home he shares with his wife, Linda. One could more accurately call it a compound. He bought the house (now divided into apartments), a small parcel of land, and several outbuildings more than a decade ago from an eighty-year-old man who had lived there most of his life. “I asked him to stay,” recounts John. “But he decided to move on.” This gentleman left behind a decades-old accumulation of stuff: piles of old doors and windows, plumbing supplies, bicycles, bed frames, stacks of wood, and enough hardware to open a store. Others, less enlightened, might have seen the legacy as junk to be hauled away, but John saw only possibilities. “If somebody gave me a box of old paint, I would find a way to use it,” he says. “But what I had here was a property full of old stuff, so I’m finding a way to use that.”

It takes a special eye to turn a pile of debris into a cohesive design statement. “A basic principle of design is that similar things, grouped together, form harmonies,” John explains. “Dissimilar things tend to separate. What I’m doing here is taking dissimilar objects, found objects that have been affected by time, and these objects suddenly have a common simi­larity.” One of his favorite examples is an old car in a field; it’s an eyesore at first, but after a couple of years, it softens and blends with
the landscape. Time has become an element of the design.

Another trick John uses is to give dissimilar objects a similar function so that the mind groups them together to create harmony. The house entry area is a case in point. One door had part of the top rotted away at a strange angle, so John fashioned the frame around it to match the missing piece. Instead of looking broken and weird, the door looks like it was meant to be. John drew inspiration for the concept from an Anasazi granary ruin he came across while hiking in Utah. “The granary had a little door opening, about one foot by two foot, and right next to it was a flat piece of flagstone. The opening was made out of mud and carved to the exact shape of the stone. When you put the rock into that opening, it fit like a suction cup. The beauty of that, the detail, inspired me to come back and scribe things to fit other things, without using right angles.” To wit, light switches are affixed in old knotholes, and boards converge along wavy lines to form door headers.

The result isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, although it hasn’t detracted people from lining up to rent apartments from the Thomases. “People come in to look at an apartment, and they either get it, or they don’t,” says Linda. “Those who don’t would never be able to live here.”

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