Treasure Hunt

Martha Stewart Living, October 1998

When money is no object, every coffee, end, and side table will trip over its spindly legs to follow you home. But when money is the object, subject, and order of the day, the real challenge (and the glory) comes in figuring out how to make a really good-looking table from a four-legged sow's ear.

Usually it's a lot more fun to shop the "hard" way anyway. As some of our editors here at Martha Stewart Living did recently when one dreary day they bussed down to Renninger's monster flea market in Kutztown, Pennsylvania (an hour northwest of Philadelphia), with $100 limit per shopper, and instructions to go out there, find obscure nothings that they could make handsome, usable, and unique somethings out of: to discover the overlooked pieces with potential for greatness. And to demonstrate that the very best place to test your eye, ingenuity, and luck is always among the flotsam and then some of a really big flea market

Senior style editor Anthony Cochran, who bought a rickety wooden bench and turned it into a smashing white-stained storage cupboard with sliding Plexiglas doors and handsomely toggled wire stabilizers, might, at $65, have paid too much for -- well -- four pine planks. But hard work saved his day. And $300, possibly, is pricey for senior art director Claudia Bruno's old desk lamp, which needed to be thoroughly refurbished and professionally rewired. On the other hand, design director Eric Pike was right on the money, so to speak, at $95 for his large blown-glass pharmaceutical funnel with the elegant rolled edge. (Once, it hung in a drugstore and was used to measure and pour chemicals.) Its glassy dignity makes it collectible today, simply as an object, yet it took special wit to visualize, in this unique but somewhat unusable tool, a gorgeous lamp base display dome. (Not to mention the patience to shop in four different stores for wire, shade, ribbon trim, and hardware.) Still, nothing here cost much to transform. Even assistant style editor Brian Harter Andriola's big mirror, with its fairly expensive ($200) ready-made frame, was still less than many brand-new, run-of-the-wall mirrors. His eye-catching glass grid of plain old medicine-chest and cloakroom squares won't be for sale in the furniture stores.

But Gael Towey, our creative director, gets the Buy-of-the-Flea Award for a set of cast-iron legs that have lost the stove they once supported. For a mere $10 (plus $65 for having an auto-body shop spray them tender green), she got a jaunty bedside table -- custom-colored, topped to her own bedside specs, and pretty. Shannon Goodson, associate style editor, found a winner, too. A grungy kitchen step stool, its surface scabrous with years of adhesive paper and paint, turned out -- after a good stripping-to have a super maple top, which, transfigured by a thin coat of sealant (the rest was painted off-white and waxed), became the perfect phone-stand-cum-chair. Now, maybe you don't exactly go shopping for a telephone stand -- or even realize you need one -- but for $15, how can you pass it up? It can always be used as -- um -- a kitchen stool.

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