A design-savvy south Laguna couple has started upcycling furniture to give new life to unwanted gems.
By Ashley Breeding
When south Laguna interior designer Sophia Walker noticed an uptick in quality furnishings being discarded on neighborhood sidewalks or sold on Facebook Marketplace, a lightbulb went on.
At S. Walker Designs, she already works full time, having designed projects for more than 500 clients across the U.S through the use of video calls, online retailers and computer software for digital design. While she enjoys “playing around with different styles,” Walker says, she has a special fondness for the California farmhouse look, an affinity she attributes to her lifelong relationship with horses and growing up in San Juan Capistrano.
“But I couldn’t stand the idea of so many good pieces going in our landfills,” she adds, noting the urge to salvage them somehow. Enlisting her now-fiance, professional skateboarder and real estate agent Chance Gaul, for his woodworking and craftsman talents, Walker decided to start a side business of refurbishing and refinishing old furniture about five years ago.
From employing a light hand for finishing touches (“a fresh paint job”) to entirely rebuilding collectors’ items deemed beyond repair, Walker says she thoroughly enjoys the creative process of breathing new life into older styles.
“You can really make any piece completely different, even if that means changing every aspect,” says Walker, who’s been acquiring handywoman skills by observing Gaul early on. Many clients commission the couple to transform a meaningful family piece that they’d like to incorporate in their home but doesn’t fit their aesthetic.
For one neighbor, Walker took a dated cherry-wood dresser and updated it to fit in with the family’s modern decor. “They showed me some pictures of their overall taste and I designed the dresser in a way that would convey that style to their room,” Walker notes. She sanded it down and painted it a pretty navy blue, then adhered a floral- and bird-print wallpaper to the drawers before affixing modern wood and gold knobs.
The duo sources most paints and supplies from the downtown Coast Hardware store, while etsy.com is a go-to for one-of-a-kind accents like drawer pulls and handles. With some background in painting and drawing (Walker took a few art classes in college), Walker wouldn’t advertise herself as a painter but she’s able to occasionally paint freehand on some pieces, like a dining table they refinished for another friend’s cozy beach cottage.
Commissions are becoming more common, but Vintage Lanai (“A Lanai is a Hawaiian porch, so we wanted people to feel that beachy, relaxing vibe when thinking of us, and added ‘Vintage’ to address the fact that we work with older pieces,” Walker notes) has made over 200 other pieces, which are then resold on Facebook or through their Instagram account (@vintagelanai). She used to be a vendor at antique swap meets but stopped after becoming too busy with a consistent flow of clients.
“We resell them at moderate prices, just because we want to see them go to a new home instead of to the dump,” Walker says.
One of her favorite furniture “flips” was a set of designer side tables she found on the edge of the road. “They were in pretty bad shape—drawers were missing, all the handles were gone,” she says. Walker started by liquid-sanding the fake cherry wood color “that no one would ever use” and brushing on two coats of a striking emerald green in its place. Natural cane and gold knobs were the perfect finishing accents. Another was an old roll-top desk in orange-stained oak that she and Gaul gave a “cottagecore” distressed finish. Also drawn to mid-century modern design, she salvaged a 1950s chair by sprucing up the arms and legs, then deep-cleaning the funky, pea-green cushion.
As long as Lagunans are getting rid of old furnishings, Walker and Gaul will upcycle them. However, they don’t want to grow beyond the kind of inventory they’re taking in now. They are both focusing on their careers—interior design for her and real estate for him—but the couple will always set aside time to work on a new project, especially to help someone love their decor. “I just feel good knowing that I’m doing something that benefits the local community—and I’m having fun doing it,” Walker says.