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Flea Market Furnishings

Book offers advice for shoppers, from preparing for the bargain hunt to using bathtub feet as bookends.


I have a friend who's slightly weird, but in a good way. Her home is weird too, filled with quirky stuff she's picked up from flea markets, garage sales and thrift stores.

You have to admire her courage for sticking a monkey lamp topped with a red tasseled shade on an end table made from an old leather trunk that would have suited George Bailey if he'd ever made it out of Bedford Falls. She has no trouble mixing the seemingly unmixable, but other junk junkies aren't so confident.

The editors of Better Homes and Gardens have come out with a book, "Flea Market Decorating: Creating Style with Vintage Finds" ($35, Meredith Books, 2000), for those unsure how to put their, ah, collectibles to use. Their take is to yank those oddities out of the garage and display them in the living room.

That works for James Chevron of Seal Beach. His hobby of visiting local swap meets--the regular ones at Golden West College in Huntington Beach and Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa are favorites--has left him more than a few interesting pieces, from old chairs to vases and sculptures that probably came from the '50s.

"What I like is the search," said Chevron, 54, while recently strolling through the meet at Golden West. "Some of the pieces I have inside my home but I'm always trying to find fresh ways to show them [and] ways to use pieces that are outside" in his garage.

Roberta Beckwith, on the other hand, is fairly new to flea marketing. Although she already has a few prized items, the 39-year-old from Fountain Valley wants to sharpen her eye so she'll know what to search for as the look of her home evolves.

"I love old things but don't always have the best plan when buying them," said Beckwith, who has visited swap meets in Orange County and enjoys going to nearby estate sales. "It would be nice to see something and know how it could be used [and] what could be done with it."

The book's chief editor, Vicki Ingham, has ideas for folks such as Chevron and Beckwith. And she too is a bit obsessed with the hunt.

"For me, the anticipation I feel has to do with the hope of finding treasure--the unique, the singular, something wacky, weathered or wonderful that I can take home and put to use," she writes. "If it can serve some new function other than the one for which it was intended, so much the better.

"Cast-iron tub feet make great bookends. An orchard ladder holds fresh towels nicely. Metal claw-and-ball legs from a piano stool easily become finials for a do-it-yourself drapery rod."

And so on.

Here are some other suggestions, starting with how to prepare for a flea market trip:

* Make it easy on yourself. Apply sunscreen, wear comfortable clothes and arrive early before all the good stuff is gone.

* If you're looking for furniture or picture frames, measure for the needed size and bring the tape measure along. In a pinch, use a dollar bill, which is 6 inches long.

* If the goal is china, put a magnifying glass in your purse or pocket so hallmarks can be checked more easily. Magnets will help determine types of metal; iron and steel will hold a magnet, but brass and copper won't.

* Bring cash. Few dealers are set up to take plastic.

"I didn't know that about the magnet," Chevron said. "That's a good idea because I've had to guess sometimes when picking up metal stuff, like figurines or whatever."

Ingham uses the examples of others to explain her ideas. For instance, Chevron and Beckwith could take a cue from Jeff Jones of Atlanta and turn knickknacks, from sculptural to metal pieces, into lamps.

Jones believes anything interesting can become a lamp with simple wiring (do it yourself or seek a pro) and a cool lampshade. "Flea Market Decorating" shows lamps he's created from surveyor's tripods, andirons and odd sandstone sculptures.

He's also big on coffee, patio and end tables made from found objects. His home has an end table of three stacked suitcases and a patio table made from an old iron fence.

On the subject of tables, Teri and Dale Anderson of Cambridge, Mass., opted for a more modernist approach by taking a short bench on wheels (perhaps originally used to move inventory in a warehouse) and adding a glass top to create an industrial-looking coffee table.

For "modern art," they picked up some wooden innards from an old pipe organ, filled it with candles, and used it as a centerpiece. Large 19th-century blacksmith's bellows give a geometric touch hanging above their bed.

Ingham also suggests picking up old trophy cups (good for holding cutlery, napkins or flowers), turning faucet handles into candleholders and preserving rust instead of scraping it off. By rubbing linseed oil into an object, you can "punch up the color," she writes. Then spray it with a matte finish to keep the rusty appearance.

That clicked with Beckwith, who said she is often drawn to aging metal pieces.

"I wonder about [whether] something should be messed with and cleaned" or preserved, she said. "Now I'll just try to keep it the way I find it, maybe even improve it some."

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