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‘To me, there’s a soul in these pieces’: Annapolis collective provides studio space for artists who upcycle home decor

At Local by Design, you may find an elegant sideboard with a gleaming maple and walnut top that the artist Tarin Polucha has converted from an antique baker’s table with tin bins that once held flour. Above the sideboard hangs a chandelier made from the rings of a wooden wine barrel.

Leslie Nesbitt, founder and creator of Rhythmic Walls, wears a necklace and holds a bag she made with recycled Goodyear tires. She is one of the artisans with Local By Design in Annapolis who make upcycled furniture and craft items that will be sold in the organization's retail locations.
Leslie Nesbitt, founder and creator of Rhythmic Walls, wears a necklace and holds a bag she made with recycled Goodyear tires. She is one of the artisans with Local By Design in Annapolis who make upcycled furniture and craft items that will be sold in the organization's retail locations. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Down the hall, a sculptural piece of driftwood that resembles a whale has become the base for one of Lisa Gillespie’s handcrafted lamps. In the adjoining shop, an old rubber tire has been transformed into a supple handbag shaped like the prow of a ship. Artist Leslie B. Nesbitt) has decorated the rubber surface with paint and crystals so that every angle catches the light. In another stall, Renee Houston Zemanski has repurposed a former grain scoop as a planter.

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Local by Design is a cooperative of more than a dozen local artists who specialize in transforming trash into treasured pieces of home décor and wearable art, a movement known as “upcycling.”

Almost every object for sale in the 3,400-square-foot building was once something else, something that had fallen into disrepair and was discarded. But the artists who found each piece sensed that these objects had not exhausted their capacity for usefulness or for giving pleasure.

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Renee Houston Zemanski of Annapolis, owner of The Periwinkle Door, holds one of her creations, a plant holder made from old sewing machine drawers, at Local By Design in Annapolis.
Renee Houston Zemanski of Annapolis, owner of The Periwinkle Door, holds one of her creations, a plant holder made from old sewing machine drawers, at Local By Design in Annapolis. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

“My talent is finding something and turning it into something different and new,” said Zemanski, the artist who founded The Periwinkle Door, one of the 14 studios in Local by Design.

“I love taking this grain scoop and making it into a planter or taking a drawer from a library card catalog and using it as a vase holder. The best thing is finding a dusty, old estate sale that’s full of junk where you have to be careful not to fall through the floor. I have found so many treasures buried in places that people will just walk past.”

Artist Page Winter, who specializes in repainting furniture that she sometimes finds on sidewalks, puts it like this:

“To me, there’s a soul in these pieces. We take something that no one wants and transform it and give it a second life.”

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The concept of upcycling isn’t new. Board and brick bookshelves and orange crate coffee tables were ubiquitous in the 1970s. Nearly two decades later, the designer Rachel Ashwell set off a craze when she coined the term “shabby chic.”

Page Winter, owner of Page Winter Studio, paints a bar stool in one of her favorite colors, coral, at Local By Design in Annapolis.
Page Winter, owner of Page Winter Studio, paints a bar stool in one of her favorite colors, coral, at Local By Design in Annapolis. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

But the Annapolis designers said that upcycling has become more popular than ever in the past few years, fueled by forces as varied as the COVID-19 pandemic — which brought about a renewed focus on home improvements, the DIY movement and environmental concerns.

“My husband calls me a ‘tree hugger,’ “ Polucha said, and cited statistics from a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report: About 12.1 million tons of furniture were thrown away in 2018, the report found. More than 80% ended up in landfills, while about one-third of 1% of the chairs and settees taken to landfills was eventually recycled.

“Twelve million tons,” Polucha said. “That really, really bothers me. It’s insane.”

Local by Design is one of at least three artists’ collectives in Anne Arundel County focusing on salvaged materials and local décor. The Barn Show in the Westfield Annapolis Mall is open Thursdays through Sundays, while Gypsy Faire in Lothian is open one weekend a month.

What sets Local by Design apart isn’t just its size. In addition to the warehouse with studio space for more than a dozen local entrepreneurs, Local By Design also operates two retail locations on Main Street and in the Westfield mall showcasing the wares of 115 artisans.

The artists’ collective is modeled on the business incubator concept. Artists who may have outgrown the sales opportunities afforded by the online platform Etsy but who aren’t yet established enough to operate their own brick-and-mortar stores often flourish when they share studio and retail space.

The incubator gives the artists the chance to see if they have a marketable concept while interacting, and frequently collaborating with, artists in neighboring stalls. For instance, when artisan Melanie Cook found chairs that she knew would be perfect to accompany a table that Winter was making, and helped her re-cane them.

“We’ve all grown artistically,” Winter said. Added Cook: “We push one another to do better.”

This chair is a collaborative effort between Jane Dutcher, owner of Busy Bee Treasures, who did the upholstery and painting, and Katherine Carney, who did the bird design on the chair back.
This chair is a collaborative effort between Jane Dutcher, owner of Busy Bee Treasures, who did the upholstery and painting, and Katherine Carney, who did the bird design on the chair back. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Most of the artists at Local by Design are female, and most are on their second or third careers. Nesbitt spent 15 years as the CEO of a national nonprofit before first picking up a paint brush.

More than a decade ago and during a period of intense stress, Nesbitt impulsively painted the walls of her home office with a mix of salmon pink and a gold.

“I did not expect the feeling of mental peace that immediately came over me,” she said. “Instantly, I was hooked.”

Now, she runs Rhythmic Walls, a decorative painting and design studio that in her words, “transforms boring, mundane surfaces and brings them to life.”

The studios are open for a half-day on Wednesdays and on one weekend a month, when the Annapolis Artisans Market is held. Customers can listen to Nesbitt explain how she changes “color cowards into color commandos” and watch the artists work.

Marilyn DeMarco, owner of reSouled, works on one of her creations, a hand-colored reproduction 1719 map of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. She colors the map reproductions and mounts them on pieces of vintage doors.
Marilyn DeMarco, owner of reSouled, works on one of her creations, a hand-colored reproduction 1719 map of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. She colors the map reproductions and mounts them on pieces of vintage doors. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

On a recent weekday, Cook, who was clad in dungarees and with her face partially covered with a bandanna, dabbed paint on a table-in-progress that would eventually get sold in her store, Simpli New. Artist Marilyn DiMarco attached vintage navigational charts to salvaged door panels and made them into wall art for her store, ReSouled.

Frequent customer Sunny DeVese of Annapolis stopped by the warehouse to browse, accompanied by her daughter-in-law. Renata Martoni is an interior designer in Miami, and DeVese knew the younger woman would appreciate the creativity on display.

“Take a look at these chairs,” DeVese said, as the two women paused to admire Jane E. Dutcher’s witty upholstered furniture. A chair with a harp back was matched with a print of songbirds, while an antique Italian shellback chair was paired with a sea coral print fabric.

“Are these gorgeous, or what?” DeVese said.

Local by Design was founded in 2014 by the late Suzi Jett and her business partner, Susan Sears, when the former ran out of space to sew clothes for her three children.

“Suzi wanted to have a place where artisans can work and create and take their work to the next level,” Sears said. “But, Suzi didn’t have retail experience, and that’s where I came in.

“Almost everyone who is here ran out of space to run their businesses out of their homes. But the real reason I think this space is so successful is because of the camaraderie.

“These artists exchange ideas. They feed off of each other. And, it’s lonely in your garage.”

Where to shop

Check out these three Anne Arundel County establishments featuring an eclectic mix of upcycled furniture:

Local by Design: Two retail stores are open daily at 109 Main St., Annapolis (443-808-8571) and in the Westfield Annapolis Mall (443-951-8221). Local by Design at the Gallery, 1818 Margaret St., Annapolis (410-268-2500), is open Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and one weekend a month for the Annapolis Artisans Market. Visit localbydesignannapolis.com

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The Barn Show is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays at 2188 Annapolis Mall, Annapolis. Call 301-672-2499 or visit thebarnshow.com

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Gypsy Faire is open one weekend a month from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays at 1306 Mt. Zion Marlboro Road, Lothian. Visit gypsyfaire.com

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