This 2010 file photo from Stripe shows off the principle of rusty multiples. (Photo by Brian Harker)

Most  people don’t look at a rusty old hammer and see the perfect thing to hang on an interior wall, or see a pile of padlocks as potential art or weatherbeaten wood as a place to put cherished photos. These are things that you find in junk piles and salvage yards. But to those with an eye for upcycling and repurposing, these things are treasures that have the potential to add an inspired touch to a space.

“It’s all about context,” says Suna Lock, partner at Stripe Design Group in Santa Cruz. “If you see a whole heap of stuff on a tarp at the flea market or a yard sale, you have to look beyond that moment. If something’s broken or rusty, it might not be trash. It could be a beautiful object in its own right, or you could use it in a different way.”

While a single has-been tool hanging on a wall may be considered an unusual decorating touch, several has-been tools, spaced and aligned perfectly, makes for good design. Lock and Dana Norrell, her business partner at Stripe, are masters of this technique. The walls of their two downtown shops are filled with unexpected, exquisitely rendered displays and designs. Things that would be, and presumably have been, tossed aside, such as sardine tins, fruit crate labels and saw blades are upcycled into displays that catch the eye and please the mind.

“There’s a growing interest in repurposing and not wasting,” says Lock. “We’re showing people how to look at things in a different way.”

To get the Stripe look, Lock suggests finding a balance between the old and the new so a space doesn’t look “too antique-y.” She talks about the importance of knowing the space; whether you want hard or soft elements in it and confining the area. “Keeping the design to a space,” she says, “makes the design stronger.”

Lock also stresses the use of repetition in design. “There’s something about the power of multiples,” she says. “It can be something small in a large amount of multiples or five distinct, strong items. There’s no rule.” She says that the process is more intuitive than formulaic and that she and Norrell rarely disagree about a design. “We just kind of instinctively know how many is too many and how many is too few,” she says. “Sometimes we have to stand back and look at something and edit it. We’ll take 15 out and put two back in, and that’s when it feels good.”

Chalked Up

The repurposed eclectic look has a way of popping up these days. The new Pacific Avenue location of Verve features lots of weathered wood and an array of dozens of antique-style filament light bulbs, which contrast with the otherwise sleek contemporary feel of the place. Patine, in La Selva Beach, sells cleaned and restored vintage linens in a charming shop that shows off antique goods in a modern setting. Foundry Vintage on Squid Row sells curated oddities perfect for accenting a room.

Across town, in Soquel village, Nancy Keil and Amanda Pierre, co-owners of the “vintage flea market” Loot, reclaim and repurpose secondhand objects and are teaching a growing number of people how to do the same. One of their preferred methods of giving new life to a well-worn object is chalk painting, a technique using non-plastic, low-VOC paint that Keil says is sweeping the country. Chalk paints can be used to recolor an object entirely or as a wash to draw out the beauty of an aged and weathered object.

“We can take a chest of drawers that has dovetail fittings and with a coat of paint we can totally recreate that piece into something that’s up to the minute, or something that fits an eclectic or refined decor,” she says. “We’ve used chalk paint on a lot of things that we’ve found by the side of the road or at a garage sale. Put a coat of paint on it and a texture on it and voila, it’s suddenly new again.”

The increased interest in reclaiming and repurposing objects is something that Keil says spans all ages, but is particularly popular with young people.

“It grows out of the sense of people becoming more aware of being a culture that’s throwing too many things away,” she says. “People are looking for something that’s solid and well-made and has some character to it. You can get stylish things for cheap, but you find after two or three years that they don’t hold up.”

Keil suggests looking at garage sales and thrift stores for objects to refurbish and repurpose, and looking beyond whatever color or design the object may have on it.

“Don’t be put off by whatever is on the piece,” she says, giving as an example 1950s maple furniture, which is “a good hardwood that’s well-made and sturdy, but is the wrong color for today’s decor.”

“You look at the piece not as it is,” she says, “but as what it could be.”

Like Lock, Keil stresses striking a balance of old and new and being open to seeing an object’s potential. “I look for anything rusty,” she says. “It could be a gear, a hook, a pulley or a rusty candelabra to put on a very modern coffee table. It’s that industrial chic kind of look that is a mixture of found pieces.”

“What’s important,” says Keil, “is repurposing and saving things from this throwaway society. We have to move away from that.”