Lara Spencer walks into the split-level in Massapequa Park, a time capsule from the 1950s. She passes the flocked walls and Mylar-papered ceilings on one floor to go upstairs to a bedroom, stopping at a headboard covered in peach and pink that could charitably be described as dated.
"The fabric is terrifying," Spencer says. "But that headboard is in good shape. It has good bones -- it's a classic shape.
"I encourage people to look at a piece's potential."
And that is perhaps the most important lesson to learn from this television personality who moonlights as a decorator, an antiques dealer and, now, an author.
A former host of "The Insider" and "Antiques Roadshow," Spencer is a co-host on ABC's "Good Morning America." The Long Island native also indulges her urge to join the treasure hunt -- to unearth fabulous vintage finds and turn them into signature pieces, all done on the cheap.
She has assembled her tips and how-tos in a newly published book, "I Brake for Yard Sales and Flea Markets, Thrift Shops, Auctions, and the Occasional Dumpster" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $24.95). In it, she showcases the colorful and creative results of her mantra, "rescue, recycle and reinvent," in rooms in her homes in Los Angeles and Greenwich, Conn., where she lives with her husband, son and daughter. The book also shows off her design touch for buddy Kathy Griffin, who saw Spencer's results and asked her, "Can you do this to my house?"
Spencer will be signing copies May 1 at the Barnes & Noble in Carle Place, just a few miles from the Garden City home where she grew up as the youngest of the five von Seelen children. Last Friday, HGTV debuted a show also called "I Brake for Yard Sales," which follows Spencer as she hunts for pieces to restore for a friend's Beverly Hills home.
As a child, Spencer writes, she would tag along with her mother to local thrift shops, yard and estate sales to furnish their home on a low budget, which she calls "sale-ing." She was mightily impressed when her mother stripped a beaten-up dining room table from the local St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop, turning it into a showpiece. "It was blue-blood style to the core," Spencer writes, "and all it took was a good eye, $68 and a little elbow grease."
Spencer went this month to two estate sales on Long Island. Watching her in action is a lesson in how to unleash one's inner bargain hunter-decorator.
In one Massapequa Park home, she makes a beeline for the living room, where various-size crystal wineglasses sit on a table, marked $65 and $75 for a set of 10. "Even if you're not into vintage," Spencer says, examining a glass, "these pieces can help create a cool, unique home."
Lara's Lesson "Anyone can go to Target and pick up wineglasses. Why not have something nobody else does that tells the story of times gone by?"
From a crowded shelf in the basement, Spencer plucks an old 45 priced at $1 with a colorful label from Playtime records for a song called "The House That Jack Built." "Take 15 of these and mount them on a wall," she says. That creates an instant focal point for a room, much like Spencer did in her own home with a group of 19th century British prints that "came from a dusty box in a lovely old lady's backyard," as she describes in her book.
Lara's Lesson "Think outside the box. Imagine objects used in different ways, for example, an old wooden tennis racket in a wooden frame hung as wall decor."
Back upstairs, several leather-bound books with antique marbled covers ($5-$10 each) catch her eye. She doesn't care about their titles or condition.
"If you're creating that WASPy, Ralph Lauren library look for your bookshelf, these are great," she says.
But how do you know when something is a must-have?
"If you don't love it, don't buy it," Spencer says. "If you love something and you can afford it, buy it, because if you hesitate you'll miss out." But, she stresses, "It's not about filling closets. If you have a storage unit, you need to ask yourself why."
Lara's Lesson "There's a fine line between collecting and hoarding. Be careful!"
Mix high end and low
At the next house, an estate sale in Oceanside, a "saler" cannot miss dozens of tiny porcelain pitchers crowding a coffee table, a bookshelf, a display case and another display case. Spencer homes in on two turquoise pitchers, saying how lovely the $10 items would look on a shelf. It's easy to get overwhelmed at sales by all the piles and groupings of things, she says.
Lara's Lesson "People give up because of clutter. It's a mistake. You have to see past the way things are displayed." Also, walk through a sale several times. You'll find things each time that your eye glossed over earlier.
She picks up a saucer from a set of dishware ($85) that has a gold, Greek-key design around the rim she describes as "clean, classic, so chic."
Lara's Lesson "A house is so much more interesting when it's layered than when it comes out of a catalog. Mix high end with low end. It's all about the mix and match. It's about assembling a house that's you."
Find quality, then re-cover
The best piece of advice Lara Spencer dishes out is to look past a piece's outdated material, worn finish, bad paint job or tired lampshade.
"Look at the bones, the lines, the quality," she says. "Give it a good jiggle to make sure it's solid and well made. Don't worry about the fabric. Recovering it is the easy part."
It's simple to pop out seats on kitchen chairs and use a staple gun to replace the covering, she says. Use an upholsterer for bigger jobs. In her new book," Spencer shows a 1960s sofa with "great bones." She bought it for $160 at a thrift shop. It's nearly unrecognizable after being reupholstered and graced with ikat pillows.
The same attitude goes for furniture. Spying an old mahogany chest of drawers at an Oceanside tag sale, she runs her hand over it and muses, "You could repaint this red, add new drawer pulls or shine up the old ones. It would go from looking dated to stylish." A word of advice: "Do use primer."
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