If you can look at a dented, chipped, dusty piece of furniture that’s been in someone’s garage for years and see potential and beauty, then Debbie Nelson is impressed.
“The average person has a difficult time piecing it together,” says the East Valley furniture refinisher.
Nelson, a single mother of seven, has made a living out of finding treasure in other people’s trash. Her online furniture store, Funky Junk Restore, is half a year old, and she already has so much business that she’s looking for help beyond her current work crew (her kids, ages 7 to 23).
She works from home in Mesa, where home foreclosure rates are sky-high and one in five office spaces sit empty. But Nelson is among a growing number of stay-at-home moms around the country who have turned years of do-it-yourself experience into successful businesses.
The idea is similar to TV cook Sandra Lee’s “semi-homemade” philosophy in cooking. Lee has built a cooking-show empire on the idea that mostly ready-made food plus some fresh ingredients can result in “food that looks and tastes from scratch.”
Nelson likes the parallel to what she and other furniture-refurbishing moms have done with pieces bought from estate sales, yard sales, Craigslist or secondhand shops. She looks for secondhand pieces from well-known furniture makers, and uses paint, wood finishes and new hardware to make them look and feel new — for the same price as a new piece made of flimsier materials like particle board or wood veneers.
“I’m about value and money,” Nelson says. “I want to give you the most couture look as possible.”
The style she favors is mostly “shabby chic,” with some “industrial” as well. Pieces have a carefully wrought weathered look made popular by stores like Anthropologie and Pottery Barn. Shabby chic-ing involves buying vintage wood pieces with ornate details like curved legs. Industrial requires a mind for repurposing rusty metal commercial equipment for home use.
What’s required, Nelson says, is knowing enough about furniture to see “good bones.”
Many people who come to semi-homemade furniture sellers like herself, she says, know what they want but lack the creativity or time to execute it. And, she adds, they probably shouldn’t, given the cost of materials, labor and time needed for a DIY project: “I don’t think it’s necessarily worth it for just one item.”
In the Phoenix area, a two-day, DIY home-decor seminar with a $150 admission fee attracted more than a dozen women. It drew so much positive feedback that organizers plan to host the “Hello There! House” seminars twice a year.
Many semi-homemade businesswomen learned their trade through trial and error as they redecorated their own homes.
Natalie Cox of Natty By Design says the shabby chic style in particular lends itself to easier and faster projects, since wear and tear is part of the charm. A 28-year-old mother of four children under 7 years old, Cox sells what she calls “more modern furniture” — pieces that might take inspiration from high-end stores like Horchow. She says she would have time for more custom projects if she went the shabby chic route, but she prefers the other style.
“I have to stay true to myself,” says Cox.
Cox started Natty By Design in January 2011 in the garage of her home in Gilbert to supplement her husband’s salary while he works on his MBA at Arizona State University. She had been refurbishing furniture for her family for years and “had all the equipment already,” she says. “The furniture allowed me to stay at home and be with my kids.”
A steady stream of business, mostly from referrals or Craigslist posts, has allowed her to be picky with projects and to raise prices. Now she schedules the semi-custom requests around her children’s schedules.
Nelson spent a recent Saturday meeting with clients in the front room of her house, a large former music room that now serves as office and showroom. And she’s interviewing furniture painters “who can, you know, do the base coats so that it frees up my time” for the rest of her business — buying, refinishing, sanding, staging photo shoots, listing online and meetings with clients.
“People become overwhelmed that the economy is bad. But business is thriving,” she says.