Living Simply with Style: Interview with Jennifer Wurst
A few weeks ago, I heard a story on the news amidst the normal morning hustle and bustle of packing lunches, get homework in backpacks, mittens, hats and jackets on and children off to school. The story was about a couple from Maine who embody the concept of modest and simple living, but with style.
Fourteen years ago, Jennifer Wurst and her partner Michael Fleming met in Tortola where they began their life focused on what really matters. In their early years as a couple, they traveled the world and eventually established roots in the Northeast. While now living on the coast of Maine, in a rented, grey shingle house on 20 acres, they have managed to create a unique home on a budget with reclaimed objects and furnishings. When their son Finn was born, Jennifer left her job as an elementary school teacher to be a stay-at-home mom. In addition to creating a comfortable home life, Jennifer helps manage Michael’s business, Designs Adrift. Working with collected driftwood, Michael builds custom home furnishings, accessories and art. Please visit his website to see some of his spectacular work.
With an annual household income of 20k, they wanted to furnish their home and provide for their child without breaking the bank. Jennifer began perusing the local dump in Phippsburg, Maine to see what she could find. The end result: a beautifully furnished, stylish home that is worthy of being photographed for any major interior design magazine. Living simply, creatively and in the moment is all they need to create a happy home and family. Being thankful for what you have is an important lesson to keep in mind.
Q&A with Jennifer Wurst:
What gave you the idea to start perusing the local Phippsburg dump for great finds?
We live in a very rural area where trash removal is not included with our rent, thus we needed to take care of it ourselves, which means taking it to the local transfer station. I need to clarify, it’s not actually a ‘dump’ – it’s a transfer station – meaning everything is ‘transferred’ elsewhere. I call it the dump, even though it’s not a ‘dump’. I’ve always called it that – I’ve never meant to offend (or mislead), it’s just what I call it; some in town refer to it as the dump, others take offense to that and refer to it as what it is: the transfer station. The ‘freebie barn’ always has its doors open (during operating hours of course) with stuff free for the taking, so why not take a perfectly good something or other home (otherwise deemed for the landfill), put it to good use and enjoy the fact that I’ve not only saved some money, I’ve helped save the planet – it seems foolish not to. Granted, not everything is worth taking, but the items I have found are useful, beautiful and oftentimes, fun.
I’m amazed by some of the things you have found! Can you share some of your favorite items?
I’ve included photos of just a few items – most are useful objects – dinner plates, side plates, dessert plates, soup and salad bowls, glassware (all styles!), mixing bowls, mirrors, serving platters, wooden bowls, children’s toys and books, clocks, ottomans, side tables, wheelbarrows, metal rakes, garden shovels, clay pots, metal cooling racks, baking trays, baskets, ice skates, old glass jars, vintage blue canning jars with lids, entire sets of old encyclopedias, children’s wooden chairs, beach chairs, wicker chairs, wicker rockers, wooden plates, grass blinds, side chairs…the list goes on and on. Most of the pieces I find are vintage or antique – I like things with character that are well made. If it’s not useful and beautiful, I won’t take it. I love my leather and wood library chair on castors – I couldn’t believe it when I found it! And my son’s art easel – I’d been just talking about Finn needing an easel - the next trip to the transfer station, there it was – perfect condition, just a little cleaning and adjusting, voila, Finn’s easel.
Do a lot of the items you bring home need reworking or are they in ready-to-use condition?
Typically, they need to be cleaned and that’s about it – if something needs a lot of repairs, I won’t take it – I simply don’t have the time to do repairs. If it’s something simple like recovering a chair seat, I’ll take it – I see that as a quick fix (fabric and a staple gun), anything beyond that and the piece is left for someone else.
You’ve also had a lot of luck at auctions and estate sales. What advice can you offer to the novice bidder?
I LOVE auctions! My heart pounds at the thought of an auction! I was intimidated at first. Everyone seemed so confident and it all happens so quickly – one slight hesitation and the piece you’re after is gone! My advice is to always attend the preview prior to the actual auction. Make notes on the pieces you’re interested in, keep a ‘highest’ price in your mind so you don’t get caught up in the moment and over bid (just as disappointing as not bidding) and make mental notes of who is buying what. Many buyers bid on specific things – for example – one auction I used to attend regularly had a buyer who would always bid on all lighting fixtures, lamps, chandeliers, etc. (he owned an antique lighting store). He had the capital and reassurance knowing he would be able to make his money back plus a profit, thus he was willing to bid higher than most, almost always guaranteeing himself a score. The day he was not there, I was able to score an incredibly beautiful chandelier for $7! If he was there, I would have had to pay much more. I’m sure we would have gotten into a ‘bidding war’, and he most likely, would have won. Most importantly, get your hand up there and keep track of what you’re spending.
There are many people who are inspired by your creativity, including myself. Where are the best places to go to find reusable objects and what are some simple projects to start with?
Honestly, your own home – look to use what you already have. Rearrange furniture, move pieces from one room to another, use a bamboo blind as a partial wall covering, use flat (I prefer white cotton or linen) sheets for everything from throw covers to curtains to table covers, change throw pillow covers (don’t go out and buy new ones, keep a few on hand and switch them out when you’re in need of a change – or if they are a solid color, dye them a new color). I found an old bicycle basket and I now use it to store our winter hats (I can easily hang it because it had ‘openings’ for handlebars – great space saver in our small mudroom), use ‘outside’ objects inside; urns, sap buckets or old birdhouses as decorative objects. Use throw blankets on chairs to make a simple change – they are useful and make a space cozy. Use everyday objects as objects of beauty. But the best place to find reusable objects would have to be flea markets – they usually have everything imaginable – particularly annual or bi-annual ones, such as Brimfield.
A simple project would be to re-paint a dresser or chair – sand it (strip it if necessary and if you’re inclined to take on such a project – if you have a well ventilated space to do it in!) and repaint it. It’s amazing what a coat of paint will do! Or at the very least, repaint with the same shade – simply refreshing.
Have you brought many items back from your international travels?
Oh yes, mostly from Africa, though we also picked up a few pieces in England, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Indonesia and Rarotonga. We did seek out ‘charity’ shops while traveling as well (a.k.a., thrift shops) and found some great needed stuff.
Check out the NY Times article on Jennifer and Michael’s story.