Splendor in the Trash

Forget about Home Depot, eco-savvy home decorators are heading to the junkyard.

Linda Levitsky became what she calls "Martha Stewart on the cheap" the hard way. A couple of years ago, all of Levitsky's belongings were destroyed when the roof of a storage room collapsed. "I was flat broke," she recalls. Levitsky headed to Urban Ore, a Berkeley, Calif., reuse center. There, among the inventory of rejects, she found enough "stuff" to fill her entire home and discovered a hidden talent.

Today, Levitsky is an interior designer who uses only found goods. In her hands, the warped, damaged, and busted get a new lease on life. Hand-painted signs from defunct cafés become wall decorations, antique lighting sconces turn into candleholders, and a rusty lobster trap is now perfect for drying flowers. "It's like being a kid on a scavenger hunt," says Levitsky. And it's cheap, too. She did one home for $400.

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Levitsky is part of a new industry burgeoning in cities across the United States. Composed of reuse yards and salvage experts, these savvy scavengers are turning trash into cash. Urban Ore, which grossed $1.4 million in 1995, is one of the nation's largest. Each year it sells for reuse 3,500 tons of "garbage" pulled from the Berkeley waste stream. Urban Ore's customers include homeowners, contractors, landscapers, artists, and students.

Treasure-seekers can find anything in salvage, including the kitchen sink. Case in point: Annie Berthold-Bond got an entire kitchen from a Vermont salvage company when the original owners discarded it for a younger model. Berthold-Bond had the whole ensemble--from its imported English cabinets down to the cutting boards--transported to her upstate New York home.

"It was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle when it first came, but we made it fit," says Berthold-Bond, who otherwise couldn't have afforded to renovate. She gleefully estimates the original price at $40,000. Her price? $3,000, including installation.

Will landfill-inspired homes soon find their way into the pages of Architectural Digest? "It will be a long time before they're ever interested," says environmentalist David Goldbeck, co-author of Choose to Reuse, a guide to reuse businesses and services. Nonetheless, Goldbeck says he is encouraged by the growth of the industry and has no qualms about the fact that most people's incentive is economic, not environmental. "The point is, it keeps things out of the landfill."