They don’t make ‘em like they used to. Well, at least when it comes to things like towering mahogany doors, antique stained-glass windows, or crystal door knobs. When my Austin interior design clients want old-world character, my team and I turn to architectural salvage. Just as every salvaged or antique piece comes with a history, the architectural salvage movement has its own unique story of how it rose to prominence in the design world. In this Interior Design Glossary entry, I review the definition, history, and recommendations of how to use architectural salvage in the home.
What is Architectural Salvage?
Architectural salvage comprises any building materials, fixtures, or accessories reclaimed from their original installation and repurposed or reimagined for use in a new space. Architectural salvage includes doors, light fixtures, hardware, decor, or even machinery sourced from period homes, abandoned factories, or old public buildings. Salvaged items can be found at a wide variety of stores, from high-end decor boutiques to flea markets, auction houses, garage sales, or even on the curb! While you can often procure architectural salvage for a fraction of what it would be to reproduce the item today, these pieces usually come with priceless character, fun stories, and the added benefit of sustainable design.
A Brief History of Architectural Salvage in Interior Design
Although the act of salvaging old building materials has been practiced for centuries, the architectural salvage movement, as we know it, was a product of the 1970s. America’s changing social and political landscape, alongside manufacturing shifts, paved the way for a design movement centered around sustainability and reuse. The following factors contributed to the movement.
A Rejection of Modernism
Shiney consumerism, glossy advertisements, and the promise of the suburbs inspired the interiors of the 1950s and 60s. However, the 70s brought back an appreciation for grit and urban living. As folks began moving back to city centers, they rejected the streamlined modernism of suburban ranches in favor of reclaimed warehouse lofts with a postmodern industrial edge.
A Decline of American Manufacturing
The architectural salvage movement is directly related to America’s shift in manufacturing. In the 1970s, American companies began moving manufacturing to other countries for cheaper production. As a result, warehouses and factories were closed, sold for parts, and either torn down or converted into housing. With a surplus of salvage available, people started a movement to repurpose old items for new residential designs.
A Political Design Movement
In many ways, the architectural salvage movement became a political statement about sustainability and preservation. Movement leaders created salvage companies, driving a new home aesthetic that leaned into styles like shabby chic and industrial loft, which would endure for decades. Some salvage leaders, like Gil Shapiro of NYC-based Urban Archaeology, would even scour the city for pieces with historical value and then gift them to art institutions for preservation, protecting them from destruction. Having architectural salvage in your home conveyed that you valued history, the environment, and craftsmanship.
A Concern for the Environment
After the mass production and planned obsolescence of 1950s consumerism, some Americans started to note the environmental impact of production. The recycling movement began. While mid-century suburban homes were filled with the latest gadgets, 1970s city dwellers looked to adorn their spaces with repurposed items that held some nostalgia. This is how items like church pews, factory gears, and warehouse pallets made their way into homes.
The Birth (and Death) of an Aesthetic
The architectural salvage movement has remained popular since its formation, making its way into everything from contemporary lofts to even the passing farmhouse craze. However, like anything with an edge, the movement has lost some of its cool as it’s been appropriated by the masses and, ironically, consumerism. While architectural salvage used to be a political statement, now it’s just a decorative one, with companies even manufacturing faux salvage pieces to be sold in big-box stores. Like many good things, the heartfelt desire to salvage the Earth peaked in the 1970s.
My Experience Designing with Architectural Salvage
My earliest experience with “salvage” was spending Saturday mornings with my mom shopping at garage sales in Austin. I was more formally introduced to the world of architectural salvage when I began my interior design career in NYC. I’d notice old church pews in the Bowery, see an antique staircase refitted into my favorite West Village bookstore, and shop Olde Good Things in Greenwich Village. I began reliving my garage sale days, spending my time at vintage markets where antique armoires were sold next to stacks of ceiling tins. On projects, I’d admire old doors being reused in new designs, whether refitted to a frame or hung on the wall as art!
I’d been a fan of shabby chic in my youth — embarrassing to think about now. So, I was used to seeing paint-chipped dressers celebrated alongside velvet bedspreads. However, my mind reeled at the reuse of stained-glass panels from long-gone churches as room dividers at ABC Carpet and Home near Union Square. These salvaged pieces were grand and large-scale. They were glamorous but also somehow felt wrong, like dismembering a body or plagiarizing a novel. I think some of that inner toil adds to the beauty of salvage.
Recommendations for Embracing Architectural Salvage in the Home
Leave Perfectionism Behind
A home should be messy and comfortable, not sterile and harsh. When bringing architectural salvage into your space, leave perfectionism at the door. No vintage piece will be in perfect condition, but it will have charm and history.
Embrace the Treasure Hunt
Salvage is a treasure hunt. Unlike walking the aisles of a store, you won’t know where to find the perfect piece right off the bat. Embrace the search and explore. I’ve even found stunning pieces on the curb!
Collect Items That Speak to You
Incorporating architectural salvage into residential design takes time, as it’s a collected process. Don’t rush to find items that speak to you or the character of your home. I tend to hoard things in my garage to bring out when I find the right spot or complementing piece.
Have Fun in the Chaos
Embrace the chaos of salvage! Sometimes we approach design in a buttoned-up fashion. However, we don’t need to be so orderly all the time. Instead, have fun in the chaos, and don’t take it too seriously.
Now, let’s see what we can dig up.