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Upcycle and reuse innovation resonating with collectors and artists

In the latest Out and About column, Antoinette Rahn shares some of the delightful discoveries found during an unplanned visit to Monona, Wisconsin’s, booth 121, an Upcycled Specialty Store.

By Antoinette Rahn

There’s no question upcycling and repurposing (the act of turning undervalued vintage items into hand-made creations that serve a new purpose) continues to enjoy more than its 15 minutes of fame. Of course, reuse isn’t a new concept to those of us in the antiques and collectibles community. As my wise co-editor Karen Knapstein says ‘used certainly doesn’t mean used up,’ and she is spot on.

Recently, while house and pet sitting for family members in Madison, Wisconsin, I came upon a great

windmill hybrid

This windmill greets visitors to booth 121, and is made of an old bicycle tire frame and plastic “arms.” (All photos by Antoinette Rahn/taken at booth 121)

little shop devoted to upcycling, reusing and repurposing: booth 121, an Upcycled Specialty Store. It was an unexpected, but rewarding discovery. I had made a list of antiques and collectibles shops I would stop at during my time in the capitol city of the Badger State, but I was planning that excursion for later in the week, and I wasn’t aware of booth 121. However, I am now and I will definitely be back.

It was the colorful and whimsical decorations in front of this shop, located in Monona, a suburb of Madison, that caught my eye. The two flower-shaped windmills made of old bicycle tire frames and brilliant blue and yellow, and yellow and green plastic ‘arms’ affixed to the frames, were easy to spot from the busy roadway. Strolling in the front door I passed two old painted chairs that held flower pots blooming with beautiful flowers, whose identities I am unsure of, but were none the less gorgeous. Gardening is another thing I wish I was good at and loved, but I think the years of my childhood spent pulling weeds in my father’s huge vegetable garden and my mother’s flower beds left me feeling less than enthused about the prospect of becoming a gardener as an adult.

Anyway, back to booth 121. The shop, operated by upcycled decor specialist Leah Robertson, and her sister-in-law Rebecca Aide, the retail operations manager, contains pieces created by Robertson and Aide, as well as a bevy of other upcyclers/crafters/artisans from the region, with about 75 percent of the store’s vendors hailing from the Madison area.

The women opened the shop in November 2015, Aide explained. It was a bit of a natural progression, she added. It began with Robertson, who has been creating upcycled items and painted repurposed furniture for more than 10 years, selling items via word of mouth and during ‘open shop days’ she’d hold in the space where she develops and creates the repurposed items. Ultimately, they decided to take the leap and open a retail shop.

The entire time I was in the shop other customers were always coming in, as well as crafters inquiring about the possibility of becoming vendors at booth 121.

Lining the walls of this quaint repurpose-with-a-purpose destination are old window frames — repainted and serving as holders for chalkboards — perfect for jotting down grocery lists. Plus, additional frames are transformed into an eye-catching displays for attaching cards or notes, simply by affixing wire between the sides of the frame. Another way that booth 121 makes good use of space and features inventive repurposed items is the old painted chairs that double as clothing racks. Hanging from a trio of colorfully-painted chairs was a selection of mojowear tee skirts. The skirts are custom-made items that began life as t-shirts and after some wear were transformed into fun and comfortable-looking tee skirts. Mojowear is available at a handful of brick-and-mortar shops, including booth 121, and online at Etsy. Plus, mojowear supplies tee skirts to various teams in the Mad Rollin Dolls, Madison’s female, amateur flat-track roller derby league. As if the tee skirts weren’t cool already, that little fact upped the cool factor for me.

revamped canning jars

A selection of Ball canning jars revamped into storage containers and fun and funky beverage containers beckon shoppers visiting booth 121, an Upcycled Specialty Store.

A collection of Ball jars perched on a painted cupboard also caught my eye. Ball canning jars remind me of sitting in the kitchen helping my mom by prepping the jars for dill pickles during canning season. While I still love home-canned dill pickles, I also now appreciate other uses Ball jars are suited for. In the display at booth 121, some of the jars were capped with tin tops featuring glass or ceramic knobs as handles , while other smaller squat Ball canning jars were revamped into beverage containers – complete with stylish straws.

There was an eclectic lamp, with a body made of various ceramic items; fun and funky bags made of various pieces of denim, and a selection of colorful crocheted bags, among the many other items in this cozy shop.

I think this unexpectedly wonderful adventure, and the appreciation and practice of upcycling in general is a good example something French essayist Marcel Proust referred to in his early 20th century writing titled “The Captive.” Although the direct quote is a bit involved, the paraphrased version simply states: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Here’s to viewing the world with new eyes.

More Upcycling Inspiration

In addition to the multitude of upcycling projects and products featured on Pinterest, Etsy, Ruby Lane, and similar websites, below are some popular blogs:
Upcycle That: A perennial favorite among seasoned and beginning upcyclers alike, this blog is one of my favorites. The project ideas are fresh, sometimes funky, most often practical, and founders Judy Rom and Jacques Karsten do a great job explaining a project from start to finish. Plus, they showcase projects by fellow upcyclers who create unique pieces like a vintage door repurposed into an outdoor patio bar, and bird houses made from old pinball machines.
Viral Upcycle: Features nice mix of projects for the home, garden, to give as gifts, etc. I especially like the Choose Save Tuesday feature, which invites people to share a link to their favorite upcycled project for a chance for it to be featured on
Upcycle Design Lab: Another site with a rich variety of projects that seem to appeal to the most ‘green’ of hopeful upcyclers to the very seasoned upcycling artists. What I like best about this site is the approach that Lab founder Cindy Fortin uses in explaining each project, and outlining the instructions.
diy inspired: Ok, by sharing this blog site I’m letting you in on one of my secrets to being a ‘fun’ aunt/babysitter etc. to the children of family and friends. The fun and crafty projects on this site to do with children are beneficial for several reasons, including: 1. Being somewhat messy is part of the deal. 2. Time seems to fly by when you and little ones are immersed in coloring, cutting, pasting, tying, etc. 3. You can incorporate lessons in recycling, science, math, and art, depending on the project. 4. Upon completion children have something they’ve created and can be proud of. 5. Children are usually on their best behavior with you when they know these types of creative adventures are part of the deal.

Editor’s Note: We’d love to hear about your Our and About adventures. Drop us a line and include photos if possible, via email to ATNews@fwcommunity and use Out and About in the subject line, or mail your letter and photos to Antique Trader Out and About, 700 East State St., Iola, WI 54990.