Repurposing: Building From Memories
Local crafters find new ways to repurpose treasures from the past
It takes a special talent to see a century-old farmhouse and imagine breathing new life into it. Peering through the dusty glass panes and picturing a pioneer or Depression-era family having supper, or maybe a passel of barefoot kids running through the house on
Rather than tearing it down, a knack is required to think about new ways of bringing the house into a new century, where a new family can make new memories.
Matt Parsons did just that with an old farmhouse on the plains of central Oklahoma.
“I was in my early 20s and didn’t know anything about construction,” Parsons says. “I was remodeling a house for me and my wife, but that was the most construction I had ever done. Some friends of ours had just bought this land with an old farmhouse that was built sometime around the Land Run. It had a zero dollar value, but I thought I could save it. Looking back, I don’t know what made me think that.”
Parsons’ gut instinct was right. He took the tumbled-down structure – that had no plumbing, and no electricity – and got busy. The result was nothing short of amazing.
“I really was proud of the work I did on that house,” Parsons says. “It might have been easier to tear it down and start over, but there’s a history inside those walls. The family still lives in that house today. That is when I first started thinking about how I could repurpose something old and make it new again.”
Today, repurposing is big business. It’s beyond going green and helping save the planet’s natural resources; it is also a way to have something unique, one-of-a-kind, with a bit of history.
“Usually I hear about things by word of mouth,” Parsons says. “Not long ago, I heard about this old barn that was being demolished in rural Pennsylvania, so I knew I had to go check it out.”
What he found was a treasure trove of materials. The barn was full of hand-hewn rustic oak beams that were headed for the nearest dumpsite.
“It was amazing to look at those massive beams and see where the ax chiseled into the wood,” he says. “Someone actually spent time chiseling these beams by hand, and to just throw them away would be such a waste. So I cut them, added legs and turned it into a bench, giving it a new purpose.”
That bench, along with many of Parsons’ other hand-crafted and repurposed items, is for sale at Antique Avenue, the mall on Western Avenue in OKC he co-owns with his dad, Randy. Parsons said he bought the antique shop quite by accident, much like he has done everything else in his career.
“My wife had a booth here,” he says, “and when the previous owners said they were thinking about selling, I called my dad and said, ‘Hey, you want to buy an antique shop with me?’”
And his dad said yes. The elder Parsons left his home in Van Buren, Arkansas, and headed to Oklahoma City, where he and Matt alternate their schedules running the store.
“I am not content to do just one thing,” Parsons says. “I can’t just do construction, nor can I just build furniture. So sitting in this antique shop every day is not for me. It’s all of these things together that makes me tick.”
Parsons has a quick wit, a wide grin and a genuinely likeable personality. The passion he has for his work is evident as he rushes from one piece of furniture to the next, proudly pointing out its interesting characteristics.
“This cabinet was once a bookshelf in an old house that was being torn down,” he says. “It was built-in next to the fireplace, so I put a back on it and a top – and now it’s a beautiful piece of furniture we saved from the scrap heap.”
An innovative homebuilder, Parsons is just as proud of his accomplishments in that arena. After remodeling the old farmhouse, a local businessman saw his work and asked him to build homes in a Payne County subdivision.
“The first few houses I built ranged from 1,500 to 4,500 square feet,” Parsons says. “That led to my next project, which was a multi-million-dollar home. So my business just kind of took off from there.”
Attention to detail and his inventive use of re-claimed items set Parsons apart from other homebuilders. Whether it’s door pulls crafted from hand-forged iron, glass knobs found in an old desk or a tree trunk he sawed down outside his shop that now serves as a one-of-a-kind stool, there seems to be no limit to Parsons’ creativity.
“I really don’t have a vision until I see the material,” he says. “Everywhere I go, I am always looking for things that can be reused. Then whatever comes to mind, I keep it simple.”
One basic rule Parsons always follows, however, is to respect the material he’s working with – whether it’s building a house or a piece of furniture.
“I can look at something and say, ‘This is old, it needs help,’” he says. “Then I help make it better and give it a new life by respecting it for what it is.”
A team of artisans
Jason and Cherami Thomas started their company in their garage a couple of years ago, building tables and selling them on Craigslist. Within a year, they had moved into a warehouse, and just six months ago started building showrooms for their products.
The result is one of Oklahoma City’s up-and-coming new stores: Urban Farmhouse Designs, on Western Avenue just south of Film Row.
Quite simply, they rescue vintage wood and other artifacts and give them a new life as one-of-a-kind cabinetry, home furnishings and accents.
“We had an opportunity to purchase piles of reclaimed wood and had intended on selling it in the raw,” Cherami Thomas says. “That is how we initially started in this business. Then Jason came to me and said, with his construction background and my design background, why don’t we build a farm table?
“I said, ‘OK, but how? We have no tools.’ So we found a guy that helped us make the cuts and put our table design together. Jason then put it up on cinder blocks in the garage while I hand-painted the base.”
From there, they were off and running. Their inspiration comes from everywhere – traveling, magazines, hotels and old barns.
“I’m obsessed with old barns,” Thomas says with a laugh. “I want to build a barn from the ground up, but make it look like an Architectural Digest barn inside.”
In the past couple of years, the Thomases have gone from a garage-based business to a full-fledged design store, complete with a team of artisans. Together, as their website states, they “build objects of beauty and function for discerning homeowners, business owners who want to create exceptional spaces for their customers, as well as high-end furniture retailers.”
Thomas says they are constantly on the lookout for materials – retired boxcars, vintage flour mills and old Chicago warehouses. There’s really no limit to where they will go if they think they can salvage a piece of history.
“Our tables have traveled all over the United States two or three times,” she says. “It’s really cool to know your custom table has a history, it is made in the USA and repurposed to bring it to its most refined, and we think, best-looking state.”
Their designs run the gamut from rustic urban to Country French, and their pieces proudly wear the signs of time and use, including knots, dents and nail holes – all reminders of the wood’s rich history, Thomas said.
“We hand-make all our pieces and not only can we say they are made in America, we can say all the products we build with are made in America, as well,” she explains. “We price our furniture at fair market value and want to sell to the masses, not just high-end clients. We feel everyone should be able to take home a piece of American heritage.
“We love to talk with and get to know our customers and their families. Jason and I work in the warehouse and personally meet a majority of our customers daily. We help create custom works of art for generations to come.”
Customers routinely bring pictures in of pieces they want built. And if it’s within their realm of production, the Thomases will build it. They also have access to a large metal shop nearby where they custom-build barn door hardware, metal bases and other items.
Part of what gives Urban Farmhouse Designs its charm is the Thomases’ motto: “Reclaimed Furniture made by Reclaimed People.” They said after the real estate bust in 2009, they were forced to start their lives over, and therefore believe in giving others a second chance, as well.
“We had to start over ourselves, so we hire many people that others would normally turn away,” Thomas says. “We are open about our lives to our customers. Inevitably our customers will ask, “How in the world did you all come up with this? It’s amazing!’
“Our stock answer is, ‘we failed, and this is our comeback story,’” she says. “At that point, our customers will always smile and realize they are part of something bigger. We now have thousands of people in our cheering section, and they all seem to appreciate the second time they walk in our warehouse and we know them by name.”
Thomas said they are proud not only of their work, but the fact they are lessening the environmental impact traditional forest harvesting has on the planet. They are equally proud to be located in the heart of Oklahoma.
“Our customer base is driven by Oklahomans, and we are Oklahomans,” Thomas says. “I think it will be funny when we broaden our presence nationally and people from New York to L.A. are sitting there scratching their heads trying to make sense of Oklahoma urban swag and why everyone in their city wants it,” she says with a laugh. “In that moment, we can all say, ‘We did this in Oklahoma.’”
Bringing it back to life
There’s no sleeping in on weekends for Bruce Hall. For the past 20 years, he has been making the rounds of Saturday morning flea markets, garage sales and auctions, looking for ways to re-purpose things others may have discarded.
It’s not junk, mind you. Rather, it’s artifacts that Hall can put his own unique stamp on and bring back to life.
“I look at a piece of furniture to see if it has good bones,” Hall says. “First, I look to see if it is sturdy. Then I look at the type of design work; if it is unique or something you don’t see every day, that is what catches my attention.”
Inside the Northwest Oklahoma City home he shares with Mike Stuart, his partner of 20 years, it’s a patchwork of styles – a mixture of Ralph Lauren chic and rugged masculinity.
“I’ve been told that I have a good eye to pick out the unusual,” Hall says. “I look for not only furniture pieces, but metal pieces, concrete statuary, things like that. One of the most unique things I’ve found was a piece of furniture that was nothing but drawers. That was fun. I also love to find older, weathered pieces. Overlooking our pool out back we have a six-foot statue of David, which was really a great find.”
And Stuart agrees about Hall’s vision for finding such items.
“In our kitchen, we have an A-frame stand that was hand-built as a storage unit in someone’s garage,” he says, “probably for storing containers of nails and nuts and bolts. Bruce bought it at an estate sale and re-purposed it first as a magazine rack in his study. Now it sits in our kitchen, full of old antique rolling pins.”
Hall has a workshop near his home where he spends much of his free time. Once a month, he participates in Buchanan’s Antique and Flea Market at the State Fairgrounds, and he also has a booth at Vintage Grace Antique Mall on May Avenue.
When it comes to his artistic vision, Hall says he tries to keep it simple.
“I picture the piece of furniture painted, distressed or possibly just cleaned up,” he says. “I think where this piece could be used or what purpose it would serve. Furniture with drawers or shelves will always sell. We all have stuff that needs to be organized.”
Through the week, Hall works as a safety coordinator for Oklahoma City’s Lopez Foods. But evenings and weekends are his time to hone his craft.
“Working with antiques and finding ways to re-purpose something is basically another job altogether,” Hall says. “It takes time not only to look for it, but to find it and then restore it.
“I have always enjoyed the hunt of finding something unique,” he says. “I love the idea of repurposing an item. We live in a disposable society now, and repurposing is another type of recycling, which is always a good thing.”