WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Amy Hughes is an optimist when it comes to trash. What others see as worn out and worthless, the Hudson Heights mother sees as a world of possibility.
New York streets and salvage yards are her endless treasure box and, armed with a few tools, Hughes turns discarded doorframes, mirrors and architectural elements into beautiful and useful items for the home.
“It’s kind of astonishing — sometimes I think this stuff should be in a museum,” she said. “When you live in a city like New York, salvage yards and the streets can show a built history of our city in pieces.”
Hughes, 36, who is the features editor at This Old House, the home repair and design magazine, has put her love of salvage work into a new book called “This Old House Salvage-Style Projects: 22 Ideas for Turning Old House Parts Into New Treasures for Your Home,” released last week.
Inspired by her hobby and decade of work at This Old House, Hughes put her know-how and vision into the book teaching novices and experts how to spin home decorating gold out of garbage.
The book “offers step‐by‐step guides for 22 creative reuse projects, plus tips on finding great bargains at flea markets and architectural antiques shops,” according the publisher. The projects showcase “vintage house parts that are given new life as one‐of‐a‐kind home accents,” including a headboard made of a rescued paneled door and porcelain faucet handles turned into a unique towel rack.
Hughes' love of restoration was homegrown. As a kid her parents took up home restoration and decorated the 12 houses she lived while growing up with salvage finds.
“As a kid I was inspired by it. My mother was in to recycling before it became popular,” she said. “She was always a Dumpster diver, always bringing home orphaned antiques and things and putting them in our house.”
So when Hughes and her husband Jon Schuppe (a DNAinfo.com reporter) moved from their 400-square-foot apartment in Hell’s Kitchen to a 1,000-square-foot junior two-bedroom in Hudson Heights, she quickly picked up where her childhood left off, making a few refined tweaks here and there.
“Our neighborhood is great for that. A lot of Upper Manhattan neighborhoods that were slower to gentrify, people are just starting to renovate,” she said. “The sad thing about renovating is that people tear out everything old, but it’s a great opportunity for scavengers.”
Their home, now shared with their 2-year-old daughter Vivienne, mixes both salvaged goods and high-quality new items.
“We have a Room and Board couch instead of the velvet Victorian sofas we had as a kid. There was nothing comfortable when I was a kid. [It's a] mix of new and old, rough and refined,” she said.
Although Hughes said there is a huge benefit to salvaging in the city, “there are drawbacks, transportation and workspace issues.” She suggests starting with smaller projects before branching out to large-scale and more laborious ones.
“A lot of projects can be done in a living room if you clear out the table and furniture,” she said. For larger projects, she suggests looking into woodwork or artist workspace co-ops, which exist throughout Brooklyn but appear harder to find in Manhattan.
“I do tend to build things for myself, so most of my projects are made for any size space,” Hughes said, adding that she follows that old decorator rule of thumb: put big things in small spaces.
“It seems backwards, but it works. Tiny furniture in a tiny space looks weird and not comfortable,” she said.
Hughes also suggests thinking of your apartment’s needs before hitting up a salvage yard, so that you can speak to the owners and find adaptable material for your project.
When the streets or salvage yards, like Demolition Depot in Harlem, don’t pan out, Hughes also likes to visit Etsy for vintage finds, as well as Craigslist or eBay. However, she warned that stolen goods are often sold on those more-anonymous marketplaces.
“With a lot of these things the beautiful thing is that there’s a story to it,” she said.
Hughes offered three tips for novice salvagers getting started.
Choose stripped or bare wood items
“Lead paint can be a big issue, especially around kids,” she said.
Big ideas, but small items
“Hardware and doorknobs are great for starters,” according to Hughes. “Turn a doorknob into a peg or hook. Use it as tie back for draperies, mount them to a board and make a coat or towel rack. They can also be used as objects for display, like jewelry for your house.”
Hoard that wood.
“I always keep old boards around, because I am always integrating them into other pieces,” she said.