When she’s not co-anchoring “Good Morning America,” Lara Spencer can be found shopping at the Elephant’s Trunk Flea Market near her home in Connecticut. “It’s not about the money,” Spencer said of her passion for flea markets. “It’s about creating really fun, personal rooms that have loads of character and make you smile.”
In her new book, "Flea Market Fabulous: Designing Gorgeous Rooms With Vintage Treasures," (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $25.95) Spencer transforms nine different rooms, including her own Manhattan studio, using inexpensive flea market finds. Here she explains why a space with character is not defined by how much money you spend, but how it makes you feel.
What is it about shopping at flea markets that you find so compelling?
It’s about finding pieces that tell a story. Flea markets are fun because they are the ultimate treasure hunt. Be open to the fact that you never know what you’ll find. The most beautiful, quirky, funny, scary pieces may not have an intrinsic value. But they may mean something to you whether it’s a wonderful old table that evokes your grandmother’s house, or it makes you smile because it’s your favorite color. For me, it’s about looking at a room and wanting to create a comfortable cocoon that is stylish but works well for your family and makes you feel happy. If a room is perfect then it’s not really home, is it?
Some of the furnishings you chose to reupholster were horrific. How do you know a piece is worth saving?
From a purely design standpoint. I look at the shape. I call it having good bones. I recently found a really terrific pair of 1940s club chairs that were so chic and had a great shape. Yes the fabric was dated and yes they looked like they had been a scratching post for the family cat. Most people would walk away. But they were practically giving them away. I wasn’t looking at the fabric. I was looking at how well-made they were. Sometimes it might mean gutting them. But in most cases, it is a matter of removing the fabric, giving them a good cleaning and a new lease on life. Finding a new couch is a daunting process. New couches are not as soft or deep as you want. I prefer a long single bench because then it becomes a day bed. These are things that you can buy at a flea market and make exactly what you want. You get the fabric that you want. You can make the seating the way you want. I draw the line at sofas in the dumpster, however.
You really plan before you hit the market. What to know before you go?
I make a wish list of things I hope to find. If I’m looking for frames or artworks, I’ll bring measurements with me. It’s not like Pottery Barn -- they don’t restock the shelves. I often have regrets. You can walk away and 15 minutes later the item you were eyeing will be gone. I go early. You more than make up the $20 entrance fee. If you’re not an early riser, that doesn’t mean that flea market shopping is not for you. The late shopper often gets the best deals. The dealers do not want to load their trucks back up and are willing to make a deal at the end of the day.
You augment a lot of furnishings – placing a mirror on top of a coffee table, painting and adding new hardware. Is no piece sacred?
I respect antiques and love them but there is a lot of furniture out there that does not have a lot of value. If you know that your piece is a reproduction, and you don’t want a big hulking piece of brown furniture in your dining room, why not modernize it in a fun way? It’s OK to create your own heirloom that will be used and loved by your family and passed down. If you have a question about whether a piece is truly an antique, do your homework. Bring a picture to a dealer before you strip, paint and get creative.
How do you feel about shopping online at place likes Craigslist and EBay? Do you think it’s better to see things in person?
I love shopping on those sites because it’s a flea market that’s open 24/7. If I’m doing a project and I’m looking for specific things, websites are a great place to browse and get an education. It gives you an idea of what things cost. Firstdibs is also a great education. You can look up pieces, read the blurb and learn about the designer, the furniture and what it goes for retail. It gives you courage to know that something is an incredible deal. Flea markets tend to be overwhelming. A lot of times when I go with a first-time shopper, they don’t buy anything. The rooms in my new book involved real people with real design dilemmas. They were paralyzed to make a decision. I hope this book makes people see that it’s not a scary process, but really fun.