Local artisans turn yesterday's goods into home decor

James Battaglia of Sandtown Millworks, where craftsmen create furniture made from reclaimed wood.
James Battaglia of Sandtown Millworks, where craftsmen create furniture made from reclaimed wood. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun)

With shabby-chic design back in high demand, there's no shortage of mass-produced decor disguised as antiques. But the genuine article — the old form reclaimed with a new function — is much harder to come by.

With a nod to the Depression-era adage, "Waste not, want not," these are the stories of three artistic visionaries giving new life to items once thought to be years past their prime.

Old Wood, New Furniture

General Manager James Battaglia is one of five men running Baltimore's Sandtown Millworks, hand-building furniture made almost entirely from the discarded innards of the city's rowhouses.

"As a company, we believe incredibly strongly that beautiful, handcrafted pieces can be created from materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill," he says.


In fact, Sandtown Millworks was founded on that principle.

"We believe that [our furniture] pieces can be built locally with quality superior to any mass produced and outsourced alternative at a competitive price," he says.

Sandtown Millworks' Silo Point showroom displays a rotating selection of as many as 30 pieces of furniture, and its website features 36 stock pieces. The crew will also do custom work for commercial spaces and are happy to honor a customer's request.

"Ninety-five percent of [the material] we work with is pine, because that is largely what we find in the old buildings of Baltimore," James Battaglia continues. "We also use oak, chestnut and Douglas fir, which we find from time to time."


The company's various collections of furniture depict not only function but also the material and methods used when building them. Pieces like consoles and coffee tables are constructed from old joists out of the city's row homes. The boards, according to co-founder Will Phillips, have been "rough-sawn, highlighting the imperfections they acquired over the years."

Tired old lath slats from job sites are snatched up by the Sandtown team for their rugged appearance, as seen in the distressed look of their dining tables and end tables. When The Admiral's Cup, a beloved Fells Point pub, underwent renovations, the crew took all they could salvage to create handsome tabletops and desks highlighting floorboards' nail holes and tight tree rings of the old-growth pine. One collection is fashioned from old roof boards that split along the grain over time. These boards create a jagged effect on coffee tables, dining and end tables.

"Everyone [at Sandtown] plays their part and is crucial in the process," James Battaglia says.

Nothing Too Old or Too Ugly

At first glance from the front door of Steve Appel's Nouveau Contemporary Goods store, it's all about light — reflected off mirrors and crystal chandeliers, from chrome floor lamps to clear glass sculptures. After the eyes adjust, what initially appeared completely modern and overly bright only serves to accent older furnishings — reworked, repainted and most definitely rethought.

"I'm not part of that throwaway generation because I have too much respect for the past," Steve Appel, designer and co-owner of the Belvedere Square store in Baltimore.

Steve Appel explains this integration of old and new, which is at the heart of his design theory and has made him a cutting-edge designer in Baltimore.

It's simple," he said, matter-of-factly. "Design — good design — is about showing who you are as a person through your home. I love cool wallpaper, rich color tones, an old Victrola with beautiful emblems, a great old martini set that someone got as a wedding gift in the '50s that has never been used. I live for those finds."

And they are everywhere in his store. Appel is a great fan of "this reclaimed movement." Using vendors from far and wide, he buys beautiful cabinets and buffets from China that in another life were doors graced with Buddha drawings. One artist creates fantastic mirrors and coat trees using the sides of old buildings in the Midwest.

Though much of the store's inventory is new (just crafted to look old), it's digging like an archaeologist into past treasures and blending them with the latest styles that makes Appel happiest.

"I have conversations with new clients who want to start all over, and I'll ask them if there is anything that really means something to them that we can repurpose," he explains. "I love getting into people's stuff. Nothing is too ugly or too old for me."

And he has a laundry list of vintage items he likes to decorate with such as barware, glassware, old phones, typewriters, adding machines — anything that had a purpose.

"I love working with old-time photos where no one knows the person or people in them," he said. "It's so cool bringing back the past to interact with the present. Our past is so important. So is our environment."

Record Reruns

"Nothing is trash," says Laura Kooyman, an elementary school art teacher. "[We] are the original recyclers."

In an elementary school, the sweeping statement doesn't seem far-fetched. (Remember growing cucumber seeds in egg cartons or making a pencil holder with paper, glue and an empty soup can?) And for Kooyman, it's become a source of livelihood.

When she's not in her classroom, Kooyman is collecting old long-playing vinyl records — but only ones that have been so scratched they are useless on a turntable. Two years ago, she spotted a boxful of records at a yard sale. The price was right — free. Her creative wheels began turning faster than the few non-vinyl 78-RPMs that were also in the box.

"I wondered right away what I could make with these," she says. Back at home, where every room is her studio, she got to work on them, much in the same way she does today.

"I heat them in my oven, and then I use molds, most of which are my grandmother's old serving dishes, to press them into the shapes I want," she explains. "I don't do anything else to them after they are molded. They take on a life of their own, and they are gorgeous."

She then sells them at craft fairs as unique serving dishes for popcorn or chips (not for liquids unless a glass bowl is placed inside first). The biggest appeal? When the food is gobbled up, the labels appear and, therein, the nostalgia.

Her bowls sell for $6 each, or two for $10, unless they're part of the "premium section" – Beatles bowls, for example. But she notes that "they have to be in bad enough shape that they're worth more as art than they are as records."

It wasn't long after the initial "bowl experiment" that she wondered what might be done with their heavy cardboard covers. Why not make purses?

"There's an artist out there who makes purses out of six-packs, and that was my inspiration," Kooyman explains.

After the purses came the notebooks. With a binding machine, she combines the paper with the album jackets as covers. They've become a popular item at fairs, and Kooyman searches like crazy for records and jackets to fulfill her clients' requests, all the while getting new ideas for the company she calls Reink ART nations.

"The collection has evolved and will continue to grow as I plan out new products," she says with the same excitement her young pupils might have upon finishing their first tin-can pencil holders.

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