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How to Turn Your Parents' Stuff Into Something Cool

These artisans repurpose vintage glassware, books and clothes

By Rosie Wolf Williams

When Next Avenue published Richard Eisenberg’s viral story, “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parent’s Stuff,”  the site received a mountain of responses mirroring the thought. Some, however, found themselves caught between the need to clear out their late parents’ belongings and the guilt of ridding themselves of precious possessions that were part of the memory of their moms and dads.

Parents' Stuff
Marine Jacket  |  Credit: Shannon South/ReMade USA

Maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle: let go of some of the items and preserve others by transforming them. It turns out, there are a few artisans who inject new life out of household items, books and clothes.

Below, you’ll learn about three of them: a glass artist who accepts donations of vintage glassware, one who transforms books into commissioned art pieces and a third who converts old jackets into trendy handbags for a fee.

Through The Memory Glass

Philadelphia flameworked glass artist Amber Cowan may be the savior for your parents’ vintage glassware, especially if it was from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Bridesmaid's Search for the Desert Rose  |  Credit: Amber Cowan

Cowan began working with vintage glass as a student at Tyler School of Art of Temple University after finding a barrel of old broken candy dishes in the studio.

“The history of these objects definitely makes them interesting for me. There are only a few factories left in the United States that manufacture pressed glass,” Cowan says. “The original molds used to produce those objects, as well as the recipes for the colored glass, are also being lost. Even though the objects seem outdated, they are really going extinct and should be looked at as a dying art form.”

Cowan, now a faculty member of the glass department of Tyler School of Art, once reworked a friend’s parents’ wedding compote for their 50 wedding anniversary. Although she rarely takes commissioned assignments for this kind of work, she does accept donated vintage glassware to help shape her vivid single- color sculptures.

“I receive boxes pretty frequently from people who don’t want to keep their parents’ collection of glass but don’t want to see it thrown out or just given to a junk store,” Cowan says.

Cowan recalls the story of one broken candy dish she received from a stranger: “Her grandfather had won the dish at a state fair and gave it to her grandmother for an engagement present in 1890. She didn't want to keep it, but she donated it to me so that I could use it in a piece.”

Her works — which are sold on and at galleries — often go for $2,500 to $40,000. One of Cowan’s pieces is part of the permanent collection at The Toledo Museum of Art and in 2017, Cowan’s solo exhibition of some of her glass creations — “Re/Collection” — appeared at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Mass.

In So Many Words

One of the weightiest relics to deal with, literally and figuratively, are books. Many of us, and our parents, grew up with a library of encyclopedias, as well as children’s books and a growing pile of old textbooks. Brian Dettmer, a New York City-based artist who creates sculptural objects from books and other media including maps and cassette and VHS tapes, might be interested in some of them.

The New Age, 2018, Hardcover Books, Archival Adhesive  |  Credit: Courtesy of the Brian Dettmer and P·P·O·W, New York

“We develop a strong bond with the books from our childhood, specifically with encyclopedias from an era when they were one of the only ways to access information about the world outside of the home,” says Dettmer. “They are beautiful cultural objects that were mass-produced, but each book has its own unique personal history as well. This is part of what makes them feel so rich and valuable even though they are essentially useless from a practical sense.”

Dettmer feels a strong connection to the kinds of items he manipulates into art and knows others do, too.

“[There is an] idea of passing and loss of our own cultural history, our personal histories, our memories and our sense of a solid and tangible truth. People have a strong emotional connection to books, and we feel like they are living things, yet many of them are simply unusable in a practical sense,” he says. “It is important to value our past and to question the cultural shift away from physical forms of information.”

Dettmer has done select commissions for individuals and authors using their books. He prefers items that let him merge his, and the collector’s, ideas to create a meaningful art piece. His work can sell for upwards of $4,000 for art using a single book to $40,000 for sculpture involving an entire set of encyclopedias.


Dettmer’s work, “New Age,” is on view through the end of April 2019 in a group show titled "A Way with Words: The Power and Art of the Book" at The Children’s Museum of the Arts in New York.

“The set this piece is made from is a complete set of The New Age Encyclopedia, 1977,” says Dettmer. “A fan had emailed me and sent me pictures of this set and then mailed them to me. This is a set that someone probably grew up with and was offered to me when an event involving elderly parents brought upon a cleaning out of some space.”

Here's Dettmer's TED Talk describing his process.

Material Memories

Shannon South, an industrial designer based in Brooklyn, N.Y., found her specialty — repurposing vintage clothes — after feeling conflicted about adding to society’s gross overproduction of stuff. “At the time (in 2009), I was reading a lot about the environmental impacts of stuff and becoming overly aware of the strain we are putting on the planet just to keep up with our desires for new things,” says South.

She began to notice that the items she held onto were the ones that held a deeper meaning for her. So South decided to remake a beloved vintage leather jacket into a handbag. She loved the result and began to look for other vintage leather pieces that could be repurposed. Today, her Remade USA business produces handbags recycled from old jackets and waste materials.

Peace Corps Jacket  |  Credit: Shannon South/ReMade USA

Prices and length of time to produce a piece can vary. South sells three collections: Remade Readymade (recycled leather bags from vintage leather); Remade to Order (leather sent to the business from customers to repurpose into bags their jackets, which often have strong sentimental value) and the Shannon South collection (from new leather hides that the furniture industry has rejected). Currently on South’s site, Remade Readymade bags sell for $75 to $185; Remade to Order bags sell for $180 to $490 and Shannon South bags sell for  $75 to $480.

South’s first commissioned piece was repurposing a jacket worn by the customer’s father, who wore it while he was in the Peace Corps.

“Most of the bags I make now are commissioned pieces where people send me their jackets to be remade,” says South. “I think there are a lot of pieces of clothing laying around that have sentimental value, yet they are just not considered ‘in style’ at the moment, and they may never be. I feel strongly that if those items can be remade into new products that both have sentimental value and are stylish and practical, it is a win-win.”

One of the most poignant stories on her website comes from the daughter of a Marine veteran, who did tours in Vietnam. He came home, but succumbed to Agent Orange-related cancer. His daughter asked South if she could remake the jacket into a handbag for her mother and then return the leftover scraps so the daughter could sew them into her wedding dress.  South happily obliged.

South finds that her work satisfies a need to show respect, and stay connected, to a loved one.

“It’s unlike selling any other product — particularly online — and it makes what I do feel so important and validated,” she says. “The majority of my customers send me stories and the most common themes are the loss of a loved one or a memory from their youth. I find myself imagining what they were like and end up truly feeling so much love for the people involved, wanting to do my best to create a piece that they will truly cherish.”

Rosie Wolf Williams
Rosie Wolf Williams is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in USA Weekend, Woman's Day, AARP the Magazine and elsewhere. Read More
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