A decorator’s commitment to repurposed interior design and upcycled decor helps reduce consumption and create intriguing spaces.
An avid cook, Tif thumbs through a cookbook in her eclectic living room, which centers around a coffee table she built out of two trash-day finds: a poured concrete slab and retro hairpin legs.
Photo by Diane Guthrie
Wednesday is trash day in Tiffany Francis’ neighborhood. And that means her morning run is really more of a recon mission. Rather than focusing on her pace as she pounds out the miles, she can’t help rubbernecking as she sprints by each house to see if any of the items dragged to the curb are salvageable supplies for the decorating projects she’s working on for her home or for her clients.
“I find stuff, hide it in the bushes so the trash collectors don’t take it, then go back with the car and pick it up,” Tif says, laughing at how creepy that sounds. But she can’t help herself. Everywhere she turns, from resale shops to rummage sales, Tif sees materials that can be salvaged, reimagined and turned into chic home furnishings. She has an uncanny ability to see the potential in castoffs, looking beyond the rust, dents and chips, and give them a second life.
A design consultant hired by businesses and individuals to reimagine interior and exterior spaces, Tif’s work is driven by her passion to live a sustainable lifestyle by reducing personal consumption. Her design tools are often objects destined for a landfill, which she transforms into furnishings, accents and artwork. Her finished designs masterfully celebrate the uniqueness of the people who dwell there by sharing their history and spotlighting their passions.
Tif’s quiet form of environmental activism started out as necessity. When she got married 28 years ago, she and her then-husband got by on a teacher’s salary. So she challenged herself to decorate their home in a fresh, vibrant style on a shoestring budget.
Armed with a degree in fine arts from Louisiana State University, she used her artist’s eye to rethink what was possible when it came to interior design. She discovered how to blend together mementos from her travels to places like Bali and Guatemala with natural elements, such as wood and water, and salvaged objects to make spaces that were richly layered and intriguing.
“I get a high on finding a bargain, a gem,” she says. “You don’t have to spend a fortune to get something that looks good.”
She got a lot of practice remaking homes as she and her family moved from Dallas to Winter Park, Florida, then on to Mobile, Alabama, until landing in Lawrence, Kansas. In this quaint college town with an artistic vibe, her talent is in hot demand. As folks visit the Francis home, they are often blown away by what they see. And word spreads. Now, Tif—whose work comes by private referral—receives calls from friends-of-friends who want her to rework their office spaces, decorate for their special events or make their houses feel more like homes.
One of the first things one notices about Tif is her energy. She has a lot of it. Her unbridled enthusiasm spills out as she shares stories, ideas and plans, talking quickly so as to get it all in, laughing robustly at the joy of it all. She only sits for a second or two before she pops up do to something, constantly active but, somehow, never inattentive.
When you’re bubbling over with so many ideas and so much zeal, it can be hard to remain focused on what matters most to you, so Tif says she starts each morning by meditating, setting her intention for the day before her feet hit the floor.
Depending upon the day, she may scavenge for treasure at a thrift store or antique mall, hunting for the right items to recast a client’s home. She may consult with a business, developing strategies to make its office space more approachable for customers. Or, she may help people flesh out the theme for their special event. Recently, a bride commissioned her to design her wedding reception. During a chat, Tif uncovered the bride’s love of midcentury modern design, so she worked with the florist to fashion the centerpieces out of ’50s-era percolators, cocktail caddies and ice buckets, all items the couple could keep and use after the wedding.
And evenings? Hailing from Louisiana, Tif has a bayou-born love of a good party. So when she renovated her 110-year-old home—just steps from Lawrence’s vibrant downtown, dotted with restaurants, boutiques, art galleries and music venues—she had entertaining on her mind. Her home is filled with friends, family and laughter most days of the week.
Tif embraces the passions of her family and friends by hosting events at home. One night it might be a concert featuring her son, Caleb, the hip-hop artist Weaver. Another night, she might invite friends over for a fair trade art show featuring work from UPAVIM, the women’s cooperative in Guatemala where her daughter Carlin works. During the day, her home may serve as a photo set for Birdi Bites, her daughter Hayley’s blog on healthful living, and a test kitchen for Birdi Bites Goods, Hayley’s developing line of organic, gluten-free, vegan foods.
Tif’s historic fixer-upper is both a lab and a showroom for her decorating approach. Guests are first drawn in by the inviting décor, then they’re captivated by the origin stories of the repurposed spaces and objects that fill each room. They often leave with Tif’s infectious enthusiasm to do the same in their own homes.
The house was in rough shape when Tif discovered it. An empty-nester, she was ready to downsize, and wanted a house she could make her own. Working directly with contractors, Tif worked to recreate her home.
“I like to cook with whatever produce is in season. This is what I have, now how can we make something out of it?” she says. “I decorate the same way. You don’t necessarily go out with a mission to find something specific. You have to be open to what you discover, and make something from it. You see the things that attract you, then you start thinking, ‘How can I use it?’”
Sometimes, the best materials for someone’s home are right under their noses, she says, sharing this story: “I got a call from a woman, who told me, ‘My husband said our home looks like old people live here,’” Tif says. So they hired her to refresh their décor. “I usually ask, where is your basement? What’s in your closets? A lot of times, you will find treasures there. A lot of times you are hanging on to something because it means something to you, otherwise you would have tossed it out a long time ago,” she says.
As Tif sifted through boxes in their basement, she discovered a valentine the woman had made for her now-husband way back when she was in fourth grade. Tif framed and hung the memento, a tribute to the couple’s long love affair.
“When you dig up those treasures, it’s like having comfort food. You like them for the same reason you like comfort food—they bring back memories and feelings,” she says. “It’s happy and secure, like a hug.”
Bringing someone’s essence to life in their home, using reclaimed materials and personal artifacts as your tools, isn’t always easy. But it’s what brings Tif, and her clients, joy. “I like the challenge of it. It’s a treasure hunt, trying to put all the puzzle pieces together. Someone’s house, it’s like a footprint of them. When they get excited, you know you’ve nailed it.”
1. Uniqueness. Tif opts for items that are intriguing and out of the ordinary. She knows she’s scored when she gets that “I’ve got to have it!” feeling, even if she has no idea how she’ll use the item. For example, hunting for artwork to hang above a client’s sofa, she dug up an old wagon wheel at an antique mall. It was the right size, the right price and unusual. Bingo!
2. Story. The best finds look like they have a story to tell. It may not have been your story to begin with, Tif says, but it becomes part of your story going forward.
3. Good bones. Don’t limit yourself to what an object was originally intended to do, she says. Ask yourself what it can become. Can you add some paint or fabric, or disassemble it and use the pieces to make something new? Years ago, Tif got a beam from an old barn, which she cut down to make into a table for her entry. When she moved to her fixer-upper, the table didn’t fit, so she cut the beam down again and used it as the vanity top for her powder room.
• Trash day—you can find a lot of fabulous things put on the curb.
• Recycle stores, such as Habitat for Humanity ReStores
• Garage sales and estate sales
• Flea markets and antique malls
• Art walks—local artists often do a brilliant job of finding new ways to use common materials
MICKI CHESTNUT, of Micki Chestnut Communications, lives and works in Lawrence, Kansas. She can be found at mickichestnut.com.
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