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Out With the Old, In With the Older 

Update your home environment with new vintage stuff for a cool new year

Wednesday, Jan 18 2006
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Our college years have left us a troubling legacy. Along with undeniably useful skills like the ability to subsist on cottage cheese and Triscuits and to make alluring party chitchat about Foucault, many of us are still burdened with the undesirable habits that are the perennial stuff of New Year's resolutions. There's the PBR in your fridge, the Camel Lights in your purse, the stoner roommates. Then there's the beat-to-shit futon that's been lumpenly lurking in the evening shadows of your life for the past 10 years.

If your apartment contains furniture constructed from cinder blocks, or if your record collection has cross-pollinated your poster art, perhaps this year you should change your decorating regime. Unlike swearing off boozing and using, swearing off ugly décor is an attainable goal.

San Francisco is home to many peddlers of big-box lifestyle monoculture like Bed, Bath and Beyond and Anthropologie. If you want to show solidarity with Middle America by dwelling in an apartment outfitted identically to those in Boise and Bismarck, then go ahead and continue funding the evil empire of strip malls at the far reaches of Suburbia.

However, if you want a pad that says, "I am a styley, urban grown-up," there are a host of friendly local merchants who would be delighted to set you up with unique and hip décor objects salvaged from the last century and priced to move. And exploring their wares is more than half the fun.

A lovely antique furniture and vintage clothing store, mixed USE is housed in a large former apartment on 24th Street at Florida. Though the year-old establishment doesn't specialize in any particular style or decade, the goods on display conform to an internal logic that prizes thoughtful design, graceful shapes, and flashes of wit. "Color and form are the ultimate aspects of what we're after," says owner Darshan Amrit, who considers himself and his partner, Katherine Johnstone, to be the curators of a collection, rather than mere retailers.

Clean Danish Modern and amusing American Space Age furnishings are featured prominently, along with original fiberglass Eames and tubular steel Wassily chairs (two highly collectible hallmarks of modern design). The store also functions as a gallery, the local art scattered around the rooms the only contemporary touch. All of this may sound like a recipe for snooty hipster living, but the space and its curators are warm and welcoming. Because they used to live upstairs, Katherine says, they always feel like their customers are visitors to their home. This attitude is particularly welcome to those of us who want to paw around for nice things, but may not have $800 freed up to spend on one of mixed USE's gorgeous Mid-century Modern coffee tables.

Which brings us to the $50 question: What can the broke young professional purchase here for one Ulysses Grant or less? Toward the back of the first floor, I found a set of dainty hors d'oeuvre forks with golden bamboo-shaped handles from the '50s for $48. I don't do any entertaining that requires darling golden hors d'oeuvre forks, but maybe I would if I had these. I also encountered a rad '60s alarm clock/reading lamp combo that resembled a wood-paneled Number Five from Short Circuit, also $48.

The $50 question finds many more answers at The Apartment, another abode lovingly remodeled into an antiques gallery. Proprietors Lann Ballard and Lino Beles have run the store in its current incarnation on 18th Street between Valencia and Mission for five years (they were on Valencia for 12 years before rising rent pushed them out). The shop is full of interesting goodies but not cluttered, with eclectic domestic scenes set up in the smaller rooms on the second floor. The owners rearrange frequently, drawing from their large collection of vintage furniture, paintings, and objects according to their aesthetic whims -- heavy, dark wood pieces will appear everywhere one week, a tongue-in-cheek riot of tackiness might erupt the next. Even the store's longtime devotees (of which there are many) are sometimes prompted to ask if it is under new management.

Like mixed USE, The Apartment plucks lovely objects from both the obvious and obscure corners of the 20th century. My favorite under-$50 pick here was a bizarre foot-tall burlwood sculpture, with one knob carved into a castle turret, a brass candlestick holder stuck on top, and a small shelf incongruously attached. The $8 table in the front of the store displays plenty of junk but is frequently invigorated by items downgraded from the rest of the inventory.

The best part of The Apartment is the artwork. Lann and Lino have accumulated a broad array of amateur 20th-century paintings, watercolors, and pen-and-ink drawings. These range from kitsch (one very earnest, large oil painting of two orange kittens spoke to me in particular, although it cost $120) to a number of garish-yet-pricey abstract paintings to some truly lovely, naive works.

The artwork of the untrained and unheralded is sometimes known as Primitive Art; its combination of accessibility, affordability, and thrift-store chic has made it increasingly popular with young collectors new to the art world. Lost Art Salon, a gallery located on South Van Ness at Division, was organized to connect patrons with this vein of obscure art. Owners Rob Delamater and Gaétan Caron have been collecting for years; they began holding shows in their homes three years ago and opened the doors to their cozy salon last July.

Of the 450 pieces in their collection, about 250 are organized chronologically on the loft's walls, beginning with the turn of the last century and continuing into the 1960s. Most of these works are just flat-out beautiful, evoking lost eras simply and without pretense. A few pieces might appeal to those with a taste for irony, but don't come looking for downtrodden clowns or puppies with huge sad eyes. The curators have restored each piece and paired it with a period-appropriate frame; prices typically range from $250 to $550, although on a recent visit I saw a few great paintings for under $150. In addition to the spiffed-up surface appeal, most paintings come equipped with a history and artist biography researched by Rob and Gaétan.


If you look closely, just about every corner of the Bay Area will reveal an outlet for new old items for your space. Good hunting!

Thrift Town, 2101 Mission (at 17th Street).

Enormous two-story thrift emporium. Upstairs is a cornucopia of furniture and paintings for cheap.

Mission Village Market, 2955 18th St. (at Alabama).

Every Saturday. Extremely cheap, down and dirty Mission flea market. Features vendors specializing in esoteric Catholic theology books, great old stereo equipment, funny brass statues, vintage belts ($3 a pop!).

X-21 Modern, 890 Valencia (at 21st Street).

Spendy but delightful dustbin of '60s and '70s weirdness. Furniture, art, and strange science and medical ephemera. Excellent spot to flirt with dreamy local soul crooner Bing Ji Ling.

The Alameda Point Antiques and Collectibles Faire, former Alameda Point Naval Air Station (corner of Main and Atlantic, Alameda).

First Sunday of every month. Not to be missed. 800 booths, 10,000 customers, it's Northern California's largest flea market (excuse me, Collectibles Faire) and it is paradise.

Drug Store Gallery/Vintage Décor, 3149 Mission (at Precita).

Multiple dealers in kitsch and mid-century modern have staked out space in this cheerful, affordable shop.

Other Shop II, 327 Divisidero (at Page).

Camp and kitsch. Recommended by Katherine at mixed USE.

Frank Eddy, 2309 Bryant (at 21st Street).

This small store contains an idiosyncratic array of turn-of-the-century fixtures, Primitive Art, and garden furniture.

Community Thrift Store, 623 Valencia (near 17th Street).

Venerable Mission thrift warehouse offers great furniture on the cheap.

About The Author

Frances Reade

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