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Bill McCarthy with some of his found treasures. Photo byBeth Furgurson
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McCarthy is a master of transforming found objects intofunctional furniture. Photo by Beth Furgurson
You can find Bill McCarthy crawling through an old abandoned school bus in the woods searching for vintage furniture, or in someone's attic uncovering '30s-era board games and World War II battle flags. "You have to be willing to get in there and get dirty, not be afraid of spiders and not fall through the ceiling," he says, and laughs. "If you follow your instinct and go out there, there's some way cool stuff floating around." McCarthy has built his business of "picking" around that stuff, taking one man's junk and turning it into another's treasure.
R•Home: Have you been transforming furniture and found items your whole life?
Bill McCarthy : I've done antiques since I was a young kid. I've always messed with old stuff and had an artistic side.
R•Home: So you scavenge for old wares and then re-fabricate them?
McCarthy: It's called "marrying pieces." For example, I sold a table recently, and the pieces were from three different dumpsters. … One set of legs from one dumpster. Another set [of legs] from the same [industrial piece] in another dumpster yards away. And then I went into a salvage yard for a stainless steel top. And then I "married" them together.
R•Home: How often are you out scavenging for hardware and furniture?
McCarthy: Seven days a week. I never pass an alley without turning my head. I drive down one side of the alley, and then the other. My wife tells me to let her drive. You never know what someone is throwing away. It could be the piece of the puzzle that fixes something.
R•Home: What are some examples of pieces you've created lately?
McCarthy: There is a factory up in Amelia where they make dresses. … Well, I go up there and there's this yard up in the woods with all these factory carts. I brought them back and raised them up a little bit and then put a shelf across the bottom where you can put your shoes. I made them 54 inches tall so someone can hang a dress [on it].
Also, just recently, I picked up three locker doors from a locker back in the '30s, and I took them [apart to] make a three-fold screen. It's an Art Deco design.
R•Home: What are your scavenging and thrifting tips?
McCarthy: You have to be there the minute the place opens in the morning, and you have to get it on the first bounce — be there when they put it out on the floor. When you are looking in these thrift stores, it's like everything is in black and white and the good stuff is in color, and it'll grab you right away and you have to be ready to make the move right away.
R•Home: Where do you suggest people look in the area?
McCarthy: The two big flea markets are Bellwood and Azalea. On Saturday, you want to be at Azalea at 7:15 in the morning and then come back at 10 [for another look]. On Sunday, [visit] Bellwood. It's the best in the state. Get there pretty early. … You have to religiously hit all these flea markets if you are going to get the good stuff. You don't know what's going to be out there — someone selling chickens and the person next to them selling oil paintings.
R•Home: What kind of treasures have you found outside of Richmond?
McCarthy: On our way back from Fredericksburg, I found an old metal utility cart. "My god, you aren't going to put that in the car are you?" my wife asked. I stopped in the middle of the road and put it in the back of car. Driving back to Richmond, we saw a bunch of sales on the side of the road, and we stopped and bought a couple things. We stopped at another place north of Ashland and bought an old Campbell's soup rack from a country store and an old metal chair. The metal chair was $3, and I sold it for $125. For the rack, I put wood on the top and bottom (my wife and son laughed at me for that), but I sold that for $225. … When I added it up, on that ride back from Fredericksburg, I spent, like, $20 and got $650 in return.
R•Home: What happens with those pieces after you sell them?
McCarthy: With the old soup rack, a buyer from New York came down and bought it. So, he is going to take it up there and double or triple the price.
I think of myself as being a spot in the food chain. I'm near the bottom of the food chain. I'm looking to spend $10 or $20 and produce $100 or $125. Someone will buy from me and spend $125 and try to get $250 before it ends up in someone's house.
R•Home: The look of your furniture transformations is very rustic-meets-industrial. How would you describe your aesthetic?
McCarthy: It should be real. It should make sense. It should look like it actually was made this way in the very beginning. You can marry things, but it has to be a good marriage. You can't just attach something to another thing. You have to pay attention to the antique part of it.
…The intention isn't to deceive. It's to make it like it was made and treated relatively well in the past 100 years. It should have wear on it and be consistent to what it was.
R•Home: This industrial look seems very on trend right now.
McCarthy: The market shifts. Industrial caught on more in New York and Chicago some time ago, and it's come down to Richmond, and Richmond has embraced it. It's going to be hot for a while.
R•Home: Given that Richmond has deep historical roots, it sounds like a great place for picking.
McCarthy: I found out that if I stick around here and I'm there when the stores open in the morning and keep my eyes open and listen to people and treat people right, I'll find good stuff.
McCarthy's pieces can be found at Born Again Furnishings, his booth BJ at West End Antiques Mall, and in a space he shares with lighting designer Wendy Umanoff at Décor in Carytown.