Joanne Palmisano

If your home décor has flatlined, Joanne Palmisano knows how to revive it.

The popular DIY Network interior designer and author of “Salvage Secrets Design & Décor” specializes in resurrecting those forgotten family treasures tucked away in attics and storage units, and giving them a second life as fabulous, funky furnishings in our homes and offices.

Here’s how you can rev up your décor (and lighten up that storage unit) by repurposing pieces of your past.

Has frugality played a major role in promoting salvage design?

It’s not even the price tag really. It’s more that people are waking up to the joy of these pieces and the stories that come with them.

One goal of “Salvage Secrets” is to prevent American homes from looking like a furniture showroom. Hey, what’s wrong with catalog chic?

(Laughs) While I like some of that stuff, I think there’s a way to have the best of both worlds. You’re right; you don’t want your home to look like it came from a catalog. You want that sense of character and uniqueness that really reflects the homeowners as people, rather than a specific store or brand.


How do you begin to incorporate salvage into home décor?

The best place to start is with your own things–repurpose them. At a project I’m doing right now with the Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes, Vermont, we’ve been going in their attic and their storage space. They would have never thought to do that. We’ve pulled out things and put them on the wall. You look at things differently when you look through your storage unit.

Any memorable salvage finds in your family’s attic?

I have an old menu from my grandfather’s hot shop. It’s from the ’50s; you think of “Happy Days.” So, you look at it in a storage unit and go, “What am I going to do with that?” Well, you open it up and make a shadow box for it or set it under glass on a coffee table. There are so many ways you can display an item of family significance. You want to give it a place of honor.

Should you go in with particular areas of your home in mind?

When people ask me how I design with salvage, I tell them sometimes I let the salvage design me. I see the piece and go, “Wow, this would be really neat,” and then I design around that piece. People always assume they have to have the design first, and you really don’t. You have to let the pieces talk to you.

Joanne Palmisano

The litmus test of success is when visitors are surprised, right?

That’s so important. When we opened the Basin Harbor Club cottages recently, we put this vintage tennis racket inside this gold leaf 1800s picture frame. That’s going to put a smile on people’s face–they’re going to go, “Wow! That’s funny!” Another project that I just finished was the Mad River Barn, an inn, restaurant and pub in Waitsfield, Vermont. What I did in the bathrooms was, on this scrap wood that came out of the project, we cut out letters like on a ransom note that said things like “Please hang your towels here.” But it looks like a ransom note!

What’s the biggest danger of repurposing family furnishings?

First and foremost, you want to make sure it’s not a valuable antique. Even though I do DIY repurposing daily, I always make sure that it’s a piece that doesn’t have value. You’d really hate to find out later that you’ve just cut into a $100,000 Stickley. Or someone says, “Isn’t that an original Chippendale?” So you first want to understand the value of it.

Salvage Secrets

Once you do, how do you go about repurposing a piece?

Once you’ve determined that the piece is something your cousin purchased in the ’80s, get creative. Here’s an example: In old dining rooms, they had these gorgeous sideboards. If you don’t have a dining room, you can put a glass top on it and put it next to your bed, or paint it all white and give it a gorgeous shabby-chic look, or drill a hole in the top and make a vanity out of it. There are so many ways.

What if it’s not exactly your taste in furniture?

I always say that even if you don’t like it right now, if it truly is a piece of family history, figure out a way to save it. If you might not like the look of it but you love the height and the depth, cover it with a piece of burlap or beautiful Italian linen and put a piece of glass on top, and you have instantly given yourself storage underneath. You can even make a piece that fits tight with this gorgeous fabric or just have it blow open for a white linen shabby-chic look. You’ve gotten rid of its looks for now but you haven’t ruined the piece. Because remember, even if you don’t like it, 20 years from now it’s going to be really popular.

Jay MacDonald