The Upcycled Garden | Salvaged Materials in the Garden
An enormous “O” hangs in Jeff Soderbergh’s backyard, dangling from a cherry tree like a giant earring. He eases inside the hand-forged wagon wheel, fitting himself to its iron contours. Who could have guessed, back in the early 1800s when it was first wrought in Pennsylvania, that this utilitarian hoop would achieve a life of leisure in the 21st century?
He balances on the four-inch-wide strip, like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man in repose. “My boys sleep in it,” he grins. “Give it a try.”
It’s surprisingly comfortable, and from here I have a good view of “the bubble,” as Jeff calls the lush, half-acre postage stamp in Middletown, Rhode Island, that he shares with his wife, Natasha, and their two little boys, Griffin and Avery. The 980-square-foot house and accompanying workshop are enveloped in thick walls of privet, forsythia, and cypress trees that cushion them from the outside world. And although you can’t see the ocean, which is only about a mile away, you can sense it in the air and light.
For the past few hours we’ve been reminiscing about salvage and how it can be used outside as well as inside your home. Scattered around Jeff’s property are rugged survivors of the past that are ideally suited to backyard use: iron grates, columns, piles of brick, the flotsam and jetsam of salvage warehouses reworked into tables, benches, and yard decorations. And this crazy tree ring that dangles halfway between art and artifact.
The buzzy, of-the-moment expression is “repurposing.” Actually, it’s an adventure in seeing with new eyes. Because once you open them, and take a good look around Jeff’s backyard, you’ll start generating ideas of your own.
“It’s not just old junk,” says Jeff, whose arresting tables and one-of-a-kind beds have been featured in Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, and House Beautiful. No wonder—he’s found fresh, elegant uses for massive Gothic windows from Ireland (a bed’s headboard) and wooden rafters and beams from the old Vanderbilt stables in Portsmouth, Rhode Island (a kitchen table with a polished chrome base). His furniture and sculptures incorporate elements as diverse as rare, old-growth chestnut floorboards, copper roof panels, and reclaimed vintage-piano pieces. “The materials meant something to the people who made them,” he says. “That speaks to something in me. It’s our duty to uncover them and give them a second chance.” His efforts are catching on—most recently he’s opened a seasonal showroom in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.
Jeff’s chance at repurposing his own life came more than two decades ago. “I didn’t grow up with salvage,” he emphasizes. “I was a rock-and-roll musician. This all started in 1990 as a total lark. I was walking in Boston one day, and there was a beautiful old brick building coming down. It was such a shame to see cranes ripping apart these gorgeous, arch-topped windows, and the wrecking ball going through this building. It could have been renovated, but instead something new and modern was going there. So I talked to the foreman and said, ‘Can I have a couple of those windows?’ and he said, ‘Take as many as you want.’”
Jeff did, filling up his old Saab hatchback. “I made a mirror for my girlfriend at the time,” he recalls. “She loved it. Her parents loved it and ordered one, and their neighbors ordered one, and my company was born. Eventually the band dissolved and this became a full-time studio in 1999.”