Just about everything in Kevin Dyson's cottage in Laguna Beach arrived by way of a flea market, second-hand shop or someone's back yard. His kitchen table and chair set, for example, was picked up at a thrift store for $100.
Other pieces--salvaged from the street, an alley, even a deserted hippy commune--came with no price tags at all.
Jeff and Colleen Yokoyama, whose Newport Beach home is also furnished with items collected on the cheap, got started with rattan chairs they found in an alley and spread to broken tiles from trash bins.
Filling homes with used goods is nothing new. But instead of focusing on furniture 100-plus years old and designated antique, the Yokoyamas and Dyson are among those who find high style in a melange of knickknacks, pictures, toys and furniture only a few decades old. The recycling revolution and tight purse strings of the '90s have helped fuel these "early thrift shop" interiors that are as unconventional as they are comfortable, as quirky as they are endearing.
Dyson and the Yokoyamas don't discount the financial advantages of their eclectic decorating styles, but their decisions to fill their homes with second-hand finds also is rooted in a fascination with living among furnishings that are different, rare and have a little history--albeit often unknown to them.
Dyson moved to California from his native Boston nine months ago after a managerial promotion to the South Coast Plaza store of Barneys New York. The old rustic cottage he rents fits his vintage furnishings well. The house was built in 1938 by Herbert Gordon Riesenberg, a local architect known for designing the homes of movie stars during that period.
When Dyson's interest in things old began a decade ago, it was strictly a pocketbook issue. "I was 18 and moved out to an apartment, and I couldn't afford anything new," he said. "Little did I know that it would become cool."
The tip came from some artist buddies living bohemian style in lofts furnished with found items.
"I realized I could pick up things that weren't run-of-the-mill," Dyson said. He began with 1950s furnishings--the rage among the hip at the time--because of their styling and because they could be had for next to nothing. A table lamp from that era sits on an end table, its stand part wood, part matte ceramic.
The hunting, however, continued even after he could afford new furniture. "Now I go for anything unique," he said. "Chances are you'll just see one of them in existence."
There's the single chair he found at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena for $25. And the metal chair he found at an abandoned commune in Trabuco Canyon. The ends of the armrests feature what look like pieces of cut pipe. Dyson speculates it is one of a kind, perhaps the work of a welding flower child. At the commune he also picked up an old black wrought-iron frame. It hangs without a picture in his bedroom above the chair.
Nearby on the wood floor sits a Victrola he got at an antiques barn in Maine for $75. On it he spins his collection of 78s by the likes of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and Irish tunes by various artists.
A counterpoint to this vintage sound system is the array of compact discs that share shelf space downstairs with many old books.
In the kitchen, shelves are crowded with items related to his heritage: the miscellaneous shamrock knickknacks include an original ad for Sunkist featuring the lucky leaf. His most prized possession is a small sign he picked up in an Alabama junk shop for $15. "Help Wanted--No Irish Need Apply," says the narrow poster dated 1915 and made by the Boston Sign Co.
On a shelf above the kitchen entrance are sugar and creamer sets in sterling silver and pewter, and a shiny stainless steel espresso set. They all date from the '60s and were purchased "for a few dollars."
And how many collectors can, or want to, boast they own a real fire hydrant? Fortunately for Dyson, his brother who works for the telephone company knew it would be just the thing his younger sibling, uh, needed.
The acquisition was strictly legit: the hydrant had been knocked over and had to be replaced.
"He gave it to me because he knows I just collect," Dyson said.
Dyson left many of his treasures safely stored in a Boston garage, but he made sure to bring out the hydrant, marked with his hometown's name and weighing "about 500 pounds."
Among other things he left behind in Boston were 20 of his 23 eight-millimeter film projectors dating from the 1920s to the early 1950s.
"They're so reminiscent of the Industrial Age in America," said Dyson, whose interest in the machines predated and outlasted his own cinematic attempts. "They weigh a ton, being all made of steel. Today's models are plastic."
He doled out $10 to $15 a projector; since moving to California he has spotted them at seven times that amount in antique stores.
In the last five years, he's turned his searches to religious items, focusing on Catholic artifacts.