Where most people see a broken stereo cabinet, the artisans at Junk Evolution in South Bend see a mobile bar. A small canoe becomes a coffee table at the Green Goat in Valparaiso. Shipping crates are transformed into a shelving unit at Andersonville’s Woolly Mammoth. Whether you call it upcycling or repurposing, it’s become a fresh trend in design.
“It’s like the 60s all over again – this repurposing movement,” said Connie Bowman, who opened The Green Goat last fall in a repurposed building in Valparaiso’s downtown. “During the 60s we were creative and we made things work. I remember those big wooden spools. Everyone had a table! I had a couch made of a bathtub,” she smiles. “People are trying to get back to some of that earth consciousness. Plus, people are more practical these days. They don’t want to spend $5,000 on a new dining room table.”
Bowman’s store, The Green Goat, was named for its eco-friendly approach, as well as Bowman’s favorite animal. Inside you’ll find a whimsical mix of found furniture – lawn ornaments repurposed as wall art next to yesterday’s furniture painted today’s colors in a fun mix of style with a purpose.
A trio of creative minds in South Bend have elevated recycling to an art form at Junk Evolution where they create anything but junk. Char Swoveland, and Bernie and Linda Sherck – all formerly employed by the RV industry – have upcycled their workaday lives with their ultra-cool, eco-friendly store in the East Bank Village. On any given day, their ever-changing array of offerings can include such one-of-a-kind finds as a side table topped with a vintage Clue game, a French-inspired chair upholstered in an old feed sack or a wire basket upended to become a light fixture. “Some of my favorite things are things that others may initially pass by,” said Swoveland. “We really try to live our lives this way and to teach others the importance of being sustainable.”
“Sometimes it takes a little bit of thought when you come upon an item that’s in need of rescue,” said Linda Sherck. “We consider ourselves artists. Sometimes we pick up an item that intrigues us and we live with it for a while before we decide how to transform it,” she said. The Junkers are trend watchers and follow a lot of blogs and shelter magazines, but can’t really explain where their ideas come from. Like creating a message board from the support springs of an old mattress, or covering a coffee table with a box of vintage dominoes. “It’s a sickness,” confides Swoveland.
Adam Rust, the mastermind behind Woolly Mammoth in Andersonville gets his inspiration from a graduate degree in art, years as an illustrator and a stint as a carpenter. “Everything I’ve ever done was with a sense of humor,” he said. “My experience as a carpenter enhanced my building and making skills tenfold,” he said. Yet the construction experience also inspired his creativity. “For a while there everyone wanted me to paint their rooms brown and tan and beige. It drove me crazy to be monotonous,” he said. Rust and his wife, Skye, opened Woolly Mammoth in 2010 to offer the opposite of monotonous.
In addition to eclectic collected furnishings, Woolly Mammoth offers assorted pieces for artists to combine in their own creations. You’ll find bins of old Monopoly pieces next to jars of old dentures and plastic Army men, right next to a bucket of bones (3 for $12) “Everything is curated and organized. You can interact with the merchandise or just stand in place and use your eyes,” said Rust. Woolly Mammoth also offers an assortment of reclaimed taxidermy for décor or creating. Rust recently bought a box of musical parts and created a unique combination of duck and clarinet for a “duckinet” art piece, now for sale in the shop.
So where do these artisans find the raw materials for their repurposed creations? “A lot of the best finds are free things we find on the curb or that people just give us,” said Swoveland. “I garage sale,” admits Bowman, who is also on the lookout for the roadside junk pile. “I do a lot of flea markets and farm auctions and junk shops. I also visit hoarders who realize they need to sell a few things. I’ve literally gone through places with a flashlight. When we spot that great find, it’s what we call a Zelda moment,” said Rust.
This feeling of finding buried treasure is also what drives customers to these repurposing retailers, which appeal to a broad demographic. “Teenagers love it because they can afford it, but older people like the nostalgia of the old pieces,” said Bowman. “We had a four-year-old who chose a visit here for her birthday and we also had a lady who took a cab here from a nursing home,” said Rust.
In addition to one-of-a-kind finds, shoppers are seeking a retro or vintage vibe, say these designers. “Mad Men is definitely having an impact,” said Bowman. “People are loving vintage barware and bar carts and even ash trays,” echoed Sherck.