Laguna Beach designers, artists, builders and homeowners reimagine the old to create something new.
By Vicki Hogue-Davies | Photos by Scott Sporleder
What was once unused Indonesian farm equipment is transformed into a dining room set. Outdated longboards are given new function as outdoor showers. An antique church altar re-emerges as an artistic focal point in a room. These are just a few of the ways that old items decorating Laguna Beach homes have been made new again.
It takes a healthy dose of creativity to look at something old, outdated or discarded and imagine what it could become with a little reinvention. Here is how several local artists, designers, builders and homeowners have incorporated upcycled materials and pieces into their clients’ homes and within their own living spaces.
Upcycling is a good thing to do for three main reasons, believes Laguna resident Chris Prelitz, owner of Prelitz Design + Build Inc. and co-founder and president of the grassroots organization Transition Laguna Beach.
“Aesthetically, antiques and period pieces come with a quality and patina, and other unique and timeless traits that can’t be found in something new,” he says. “From an economic viewpoint, you can sometimes get a great piece for much less than if you had a craftsman create a new product. Finally, it is important for the environment. With the challenges today with resource depletion, it just makes sense to reduce, reuse and recycle.”
Chris has incorporated multiple upcycled pieces into his Bluebird Canyon home, including old doors and windows, slate roofing shingles from a Laguna Beach home teardown and even a dining set made from old farm equipment from Bali, Indonesia.
He found the dining set at a store in New Mexico. “In Bali, they reuse old farm implements such as plows and things to make furniture,” he says. “I don’t worry about the 100-year-old teak getting scratched or anything. If it does, it just adds to the character.”
For clients, he has customized aged armoires and vanities into entertainment centers, melding vintage style with modern function. He even has architecturally reworked homes to fit a particular piece, such as changing fireplace dimensions to make an old fireplace surround look original to the home.
“There are a lot of 1920s and ’30s cottages in town,” he says. “When we can find an old [fireplace] from that period it really adds to the home.”
His expert advice to others who wish to add upcycled pieces to their home decor? “Go with things you love that make you smile,” he says. His expert advice to others who wish to add upcycled pieces to their home decor? “Go with things you love that make you smile,” he says. “We get bound into trends and they come and go. Go with what warms your heart, makes you smile and makes you feel good to have around.”
For those living seaside, it makes perfect sense to have an outdoor place to rinse off sand and saltwater before entering the house. Ruben Flores, owner of Laguna Nursery, brings his own unique style to his clients. He repurposes what he calls the “old longboards of yesteryear” into artistic and useful showers.
“They are longer than today’s boards and so they make a bigger backdrop for mosaics of tile, glass, shells and stone,” he says. “The board is strong and will last forever, and the shape is so identifiable. That it is functional is awesome.”
The plumbing is all internal, he explains. And it can’t be seen once a surfboard shower is finished. The boards are cut, plumbing and fixtures are added, and the exposed areas are covered with mosaic pieces.
Ruben doesn’t stop at upcycling surfboards. For an Italian villa he worked on in Laguna, he bought a 300-year-old wooden French church altar and used it as an art piece. “It made the whole room—giving it mood, age, texture and importance,” he says.
Through his business he has created a vast array of reinvented artistic pieces. He has turned old sinks into planters, converted a discarded door frame into an outdoor mirror frame, repurposed a grandfather clock into a cologne cabinet and even turned an old faucet into a toilet paperholder. He currently is building an aviary out of old French iron stair rail pieces and an iron gate panel from Egypt. His ideas go from his head to a sketch on paper before becoming reality.
“When creating something it’s not really a ‘how’ for me; it’s more ‘is it fitting,’ ” Ruben says. “I really don’t force art. It is about the vibe of the client and of the home and setting, and what needs or concerns have presented themselves. It feels special and personal, and hopefully I always create things that my clients can identify with.”
A client of Derek Wolf of Wolf Design Studio in Laguna Beach strongly identified with a pair of rustic doors that she found. She liked them so much she was determined to find a place to use them in her Flora Street home.
“[My client] bought this house as kind of a vacation home, and we did a complete remodel to it,” Derek says. “The home is a Spanish casita, or cottage, which was originally built in the 1930s, then it burnt down in the 1990s and was rebuilt to look old.
“They are these beautiful wooden doors with a wrought iron grate on top,” he says. “They are old, but the grate looks modern and contemporary with its square bends, even though it is the original grate design. It is really an interesting piece.”
The home’s mudroom was the ideal location for the doors, which are being reworked into a barn style with the use of barn door hardware. They fit perfectly with the home.
The owners of another cottage home, in south Laguna, repurposed the home’s original Douglas fir pine flooring into a dramatic free-standing wall. David Clemens and his partner remodeled their 1930s-era cottage and during the remodel found that the original flooring was too thin, probably from multiple sandings, to reuse on the floor.
“We had all this wood left and it really bummed me out not to be able to reuse the flooring on the floor,” David says. “It has this great pumpkin orange color [from age]. We decided to use it as a wall.”
The freestanding wall separates the kitchen from the dining room, with the reused wood visible on both sides. David also took a cue from the wood type and made a portion of the kitchen cabinets out of Douglas fir to pick up the same color.
The couple’s renovations included tearing down some of the original cottage and expanding the home with room additions. The pair didn’t stop at saving only the flooring. Plumbing fixtures and old doors were salvaged for future use and the cottage’s old windows were sold for upcycling.
“Everything else that we thought could be upcycled, we gave to people who wanted to do something with it themselves,” David says.
A Second Life for Limbs
Also working with wood is Laguna Beach artist and resident David Sullenger, who sculpts goblets, chalices and other drinking vessels from downed tree limbs. He uses hundreds of branches each year from trees that have been trimmed or completely cut down, helping reduce green waste while creating functional and artistic pieces.
“I try to get most of the wood locally,” he says. “There are several places that do trimming, so I ask them for limbs. When I hear a buzz saw and see a tree being pruned or removed, I will ask if I can take some pieces.”
He originally learned his woodworking craft through the Orange County Woodworking Association. He built a solar-powered kiln at his Laguna Canyon studio to dry the wood. David notes that he has used most of the hardwoods that grow locally. He often works with the eucalyptus species of silver dollar, ironbark and red gum. One of his favorite woods to use is mesquite, which he says is hard to get.
“I have a friend who is a wood trimmer in Palm Springs who brings me mesquite,” David says.
After selecting the wood, David says that he considers the shape he will make and the layers that will bring out the most beauty. To keep each piece unique, he doesn’t measure or use templates when creating his pieces, as many woodturners do, he adds.
“Part of the process I like is that each drinking vessel is one of a kind,” David says. “I can make a set of two, four or even 10 and each will be similar to the others but not exact.”
Sometimes upcycling isn’t necessarily about heavily reworking pieces, but more about seeing how something old and unwanted can be used in an inventive way. It’s about using it in a way for which it wasn’t originally intended and filling a practical need while also keeping the piece from rotting in a landfill.
Laguna resident and artist Jeannine Kenworthy, who enjoys scouring items left near the dumpster at her apartment building for use as potential upcycling treasures, came across a set of old bar stools. Where the previous owners may have seen only outdated furniture, Jeannine saw unique shelves to hold her numerous paintings. She brought the stools into her art studio, lined them up and placed her paintings on them, creating a different and attractive shelving display for her art. Jeannine also enjoys visiting garage sales and will pick up things from the side of the road that have “free” signs on them.
Her interest in upcycling started when she was young and had less money, she says. “It was a way of getting things I couldn’t get otherwise. I would pick things up at a garage sale and transform them. I am creative by nature and it is more interesting than having what everybody else has and easier than building something from scratch.”
Transformation of pieces into something more functional and often more beautiful than you began with is what upcycling is all about. How to do it yourself?
“Always be open to what something is telling you,” Ruben suggests. “Just go for it and don’t shy away from it.”
Upcycled beauty and social responsibility come together in the line by 2b Design carried at the Odyssey Collection, which opened in Laguna Beach in May. For her line, French designer Benedicte de Blavous Moubarak transforms wrought iron and other architectural salvage from 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century homes in Lebanon and Syria into home accent pieces, such as lamps, candle holders and candelabras, small tables and more. The products are handmade in a small workshop in Beirut, Lebanon, by handicapped, disadvantaged and other marginalized people.“The line is so amazing,” Odyssey’s Valerie Standen says. Valerie, who is from Lebanon, owns the store with her husband, David. “The homes were beautiful, built in the Venetian architectural style. The area was subject to many wars, the houses demolished and the architecture not being perpetuated when rebuilding. [Moubarak] is upcycling this otherwise discarded material and helping people.”
All of Odyssey’s pieces have special histories, Valerie adds. “We find really unique handmade products from the eastern Mediterranean,” she says. “All pieces are made by artisans or families of artisans who have done this for many generations, or through not-for-profit or other social enterprises that create jobs and transmit the heritages of the countries.” LBM
Shop these local spots to find upcycled pieces for your home:
- Blast Consignment, 1936 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-494-9608; blastconsignment.com
- Diane and Michael, 731 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-494-4064; shopdianeandmichael.com
- Flea Market, 450 Ocean Ave.; 949-715-1337; fleamarketlagunabeach.com
- Laguna Nursery, 1370 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-494-5200; lagunanursery.net
- Macalistaire at 1850, 1850 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-497-9080; macalistaire1850.com
- Monique’s Boutique, 1290 N. Coast Hwy.; 714-336-6681; shopmonique.com
- Odyssey Collection, 490 S. Coast Hwy. #8; 949-272-0129; odyssey-collection.com
- Tuvalu, 295 Forest Ave.; 949-497-3202; tuvaluhome.com
- Second Chance Thrift Shoppe, 355 Broadway St.; 949-464-0070