By Brigette Marshall //
Decorating a home is a daunting task—there is a lot of space to fill, and there are a lot of walls to cover. Additionally, we want our homes to be unique to our tastes and interests and not have a “mass retailer” feel. Most of us can go to Target and buy the furniture and the decorative accents from the front of the aisle displays, but most of us also want our home to feel less generic.
When someone compliments your décor, it’s more enjoyable to have a good story to tell about where the item came from or what it represents. I find it more satisfying to talk about the custom paintings I picked up on my honeymoon in Punta Cana that hang on my living room walls rather than talk about the gold metal tray I got at TJ Maxx that sits on the coffee table.
In addition to wanting a decorating style that is authentic, a lot of us also want our purchases to be sustainable and support artisans and fair labor across the globe—at least, this is how I feel about decorating my home.
My family moved from an apartment to a house last summer. I found myself with a few more rooms and a lot more wall space to fill. My house is like my sanctuary, and I want to come back from a busy day and feel surrounded by belongings that represent my family and me, so I want to use my decorating budget on items that are unique, fair, and sustainable.
My budget is just that, though—a clear budget. So although I want unique and inspirational items, they need to be affordable. After a lot of research, I found there are actually a lot of great places—both online and in-person—to start creating a more consciously styled home...without breaking the bank.
I live in the relatively small but lovely market of Iowa City, IA. I have access to some truly great antique and resale shops and independent stores that I continually support. However, shopping online allows me to support creative artisans and entrepreneurs across the globe that I wouldn’t ever get the chance to support or meet in person. It has lead me to business-savvy creators dedicated to important causes and unique charitable business models that I wouldn’t have been aware of without the 24/7 marketplace of the Internet.
Selling items in online marketplaces allows artisans to earn a meaningful income by connecting them to the entire worldwide marketplace of interested shoppers. They are not limited by their remote location and can use technology to scale and grow their businesses. The relationship is mutually beneficial: shoppers can access beautiful items that are made another world away while artisans can support themselves by reaching customers they never could have connected with 25 years ago.
When we think of online marketplaces, most of us think of Etsy, which offers an endless array of options and allows sellers to open their own shops on the site, empowering them to start and grow their businesses on their own terms. Etsy was founded in 2005 in an apartment in Brooklyn, and it now has 1.6 million active sellers and 24 million active buyers. People from nearly every country in the world are buying and selling on the marketplace, which has over 35 million items for sale. The business is also focused on sustainability and is a Certified B Corporation, which means their social benefit is verified through an independent nonprofit organization that measures treatment of workers, benefit to the community and environment, and governance and transparency.
Shopping on a site with over 35 million items for sale is intimidating. Where do you even begin? Thankfully, Etsy curates items together into collections, such as Editors’ Picks of gift ideas, spring items under $30, and DIY wedding décor. “Community Tastemakers” curate boards of their own favorite items, and the site also provides recommendations for the user based on items they’ve already viewed. Additionally, I follow the Instagram account @etsyhunter, which features items from the site that sellers can submit.
Over the years, my go-to list of favorite sites for distinctive artisan-made goods has expanded to businesses featuring mainly artist-designed prints and businesses focusing their model on supporting charitable causes.
Society B is my favorite site focused on a charitable business model. A socially conscious “marketplace for good,” Society B sells reasonably priced apparel, accessories, and home goods from companies that give back to developing communities. Goods featured on the site are from companies that empower others. For example, one home goods collection helps women in Kenya rise above poverty while another collection of blankets provides a blanket to a homeless shelter for every blanket purchased. Additionally, the site donates 10% of all sales to charities. At checkout, customers can select which charity to support from a list that includes Water.org, Action Against Hunger, A21, Brighton Their World, and Kids In Need Foundation. Shoppers can support these causes through purchasing high-quality home goods they love and can actually afford.
Online marketplace AHAlife believes that “the essence of an exceptional object is the story behind its people, creative processes and inspiration” and provides a curated destination for shoppers to discover creative items from independent designers and artists across the globe. AHAlife allows sellers to thrive online by providing the opportunity for artisans to scale their businesses and connect with interested shoppers. Currently, the site features 2,700 artisans from over 45 countries. The site provides the option to sort by price, as there is a huge range in item cost. For example, you can purchase a $5,000 chandelier from Portugal or a wine rack for $50. I love browsing the site for quirky and original items as well as beautifully designed, globally sourced home accents.
Uncommon Goods is also working to help designers introduce their businesses to the global market. Founder Dave Bolotsky was inspired to start Uncommon Goods after visiting a craft show. He loved the unique designs and realized that the artists had to travel far to be at the show. Since he noticed a great public demand for these types of items, he created Uncommon Goods—closing the distance between the maker and the interested buyer.
Like Etsy, the company is also a B Corporation. Uncommon Goods is focused on sustainability by minimizing environmental impact, working with artists to use sustainable and recycled materials, and choosing environmentally friendly packing materials. Uncommon Goods, like Society B, is also dedicated to giving back and offers the Better to Give program. With every purchase a customer makers, Uncommon Goods donates $1 to the nonprofit of the customer’s choice. Since starting the program over 12 years ago, the company has donated over $1,000,000.
The Little Market partners with global artisans to showcase their products to a broader market. The organization was co-founded by none other than Lauren Conrad, who is using her fame to empower women artisans to support their families. The Little Market, a member of the Fair Trade Federation, works with over 30 artisan groups from 16 countries and works closely with smaller artisan groups, often the most disadvantaged groups that have limited access to markets due to their remote locations. The sale of their handmade products generates meaningful income and makes a difference in the local communities. The artisans make especially beautiful mosaic-designed ceramics and woven bins.
What is unique about The Little Market is that it now offers a wedding registry, allowing couples to look beyond the standard Target/Bed Bath and Beyond/Kohl’s options to build a registry that is distinctive and supports fair trade principles.
Anou lets shoppers buy or custom order directly from a community of Moroccan artisans working together to establish equal access to the free market. Artisans have the freedom to set their own prices and all expenses are publicly available. When a new artisan wants to join Anou's community, they are connected with and trained for free by more experienced artisans. A small portion of every sale from Anou is set aside to pay the artisan trainers, meaning the cost of the non-profits operations are reinvested into the community.
Anou started as a solution to the “middleman dilemma.” Founder Dan Driscoll was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and learned that local artisans remained poor even after selling to fair trade organizations. He showed them how to thrive by selling their work independently and how to take advantage of technology so that they are not limited by their remote location.
Anou sells some of the most stunning rugs I have ever seen as well as other housewares. The page for each item lists which local materials and tools were used for production.
There are other great sites focused mainly on artist-designed prints from the global community of designers. Minted is my top destination for stationery. The site aggregates artists from across the world and uncovers unique designs through ongoing design competitions voted on by members of the Minted community.
I purchased my wedding save-the-dates and invites as well as Christmas cards and baby shower invites from Minted. I continually come back because their customer service and quality is impeccable. In addition to their stationery, they have an exceptional collection of artwork from independent artists at varying price points, depending on the size of the print the customer ordered and if they want it framed or unframed. The pages for the different prints provide background information on the artist and their work. The site also features Minted Home, which includes pillows, curtains, table linens, lampshades, apothecary jars, and fabric by the yard.
Society6 is another marketplace that provides an excellent source for artwork from independent designers, offering prints, framed prints, and canvases. The site provides a lot of fun and whimsical designs in a variety of sizes. What’s special about Society6 is that the artwork can be printed on a variety of items, including throw blankets, throw pillows, clocks, shower curtains, duvet covers, rugs, and tapestries. I have my own collection of Society6 items at home including throw pillows, phone cases, mugs, and tote bags. If you ever wanted a Bill Murray shower curtain, Society6 is your place to go.
The Internet provides access to unique goods from all pockets and corners of the world, but what I’ve discovered is that there are also a lot hidden treasures for me to find right in my own community—like my salvaged barn wood farmhouse table that is the focal point of my dining area and an antique schoolhouse desk with turquoise painted metal. By scouring garage sales, antique stores, resale stores, flea markets, rummage sales, auctions, and estate sales, I’ve found some one-of-a-kind recycled, upcycled, and repurposed items that fill my home with charm and practically cost me pennies. I’ve slowly built up my arsenal on how to find these goldmines. I collect used books, patterned teacups, cake stands, and serving trays to provide decorative accents on shelves. I know fellow shoppers who collect tin signs, metal watering cans, wooden crates, and glass bottles for rustic décor.
I keep a tape measurer in my purse to have on hand for when I’m out shopping. I have a list of measurements from around my home, and before making a big purchase at a flea market or a garage sale, I want to make sure the item will fit in the space I have in mind for it. I also have a running list of items I’m looking to add to my home. Right now, when I go to thrifting I’m constantly on the lookout for a vintage dress form for my bedroom and more patterned teacups for a shelf in my kitchen.
I’m signed up on estatesales.net, which emails me an alert when there is a sale in my area. Estate sales are a true gem because you can find literally anything you need for your house. These sales typically are filled with items of high quality, already organized into what room it would go into. At estate sales, I’ve found vintage memorabilia from the University of Iowa, my alma mater; office furnishings; solid wood furniture like shelves, dressers, buffets, and benches; silverware and china; and books.
I browse Craigslist and Facebook resale sites not just for individual items but for their garage sale listings. The classified section of my local paper provides a good listing of these opportunities, too, as well as garagesalefinder.com.
Citywide garage sale days are like my Christmas! I’ve collected so many miscellaneous items from garage sales, like a mug tree, wine glasses, a set of mahogany Buddha figurines, etched napkin rings, gold candlesticks, frames and artwork, and coffee table books. People are often moving and sell barely-used items so you can score like-new cookware, dishes, linens, and even electronics.
I love the global network of artisans I’ve discovered online, but I also love the ones I can find at local craft fairs and flea markets. The artists and designers that sell in my area bring a local flair to their items, and I love to represent Iowa’s culture in my home. Over the years, I’ve picked up a chalkboard made with repurposed barn wood as well as kitchen signs made the same way. There are a lot of beautiful barn wood items to find here—it’s Iowa! I also love shopping craft fairs for wreaths, holiday decorations, painted signs, upcycled furniture, artwork, embroidery, and garden décor.
One of my favorite places to shop is my local Goodwill—a store almost anyone can access in their town or city. What I especially love about Goodwill is that in addition to finding new homes for old items, the organization provides extensive job and career support.
Amongst shelves of stuff you’d never buy are some great finds, and it feels as close as it can get to a true treasure hunt. Some of my favorite purchases at Goodwill are glass decanters for my bar cart, fake plants for empty room corners, and fake flowers for vases I have on tables and in windowsills, as well as my vintage globe that I found for $4.
The Habitat for Humanity ReStore also provides a similar treasure-hunting experience, accepting donations of new and gently used furniture and appliances as well as items for home improvement/building projects like salvaged cabinets, windows, doors, wood, and. The ReStores are nonprofits that are independently owned by the local Habitat for Humanity organization. Proceeds from the ReStore help with Habitat for Humanity’s building projects. At my local ReStore, I found a barely-used wooden patio set and a vintage trunk that I have in my living room to store board games, DVDs, video games, and books.
Another one of my favorite resources for repurposed items is my local salvage store, which preserves architectural items from around the community. Instead of ending up in a landfill, the item finds new life in my home and adds a piece of local history to my décor. I have a chippy old white window from my salvage store hanging on my wall. It looks great as is but would also look great as a frame for photographs.
Finally, one of the best ways to curate a home of unique items is to pick them up as you go in your travels to create your own global collection. Admittedly, I am not as well-traveled as I’d like to be but thankfully I have friends who are. I love my paintings from the Dominican Republic, my olive wood serving utensils from Greece and Iceland, a framed black cat poster from Paris, and an olive oil bottle from Madrid.
The other best way to curate a home of unique items is by claiming family heirlooms and hand-me-downs, like my set of crystal wine glasses. I have an antique gold framed mirror and vintage casserole dishes from my grandma’s house and was handed down a ceramic figurine of a mom reading to her daughter after I gave birth to my little girl, Kate. It’s fun to bring these types of items into the home because they are the most authentic and individualized things you can own.
That’s what creating a home is all about—surrounding yourself with belongings that aren’t just “things” but are items that represent you, your family, your friends, your travels, your past, and your heritage. Preserving your stuff along the way lets you look around your home and see items that represent your whole timeline and everything that time in your life represented. It’s a lot more fun than looking around your house and seeing the aisles of Ikea.
Photo Credits: Click each photo for source.
This story was written by Brigette Marshall. In addition to being a Society B customer, she is a writer, a mother to an energetic toddler named Kate, and a wife to a goofy husband that runs their kitchen like his own personal restaurant. She works as a project manager for an educational publishing company, volunteers at a gym day care center, and is working on an MBA in Organization Development. In her free time, she tries to train for upcoming races and keep up with her long reading list. She likes browsing thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales for items to add to her small and already crowded townhouse; exploring local breweries and wineries with her husband and friends; and keeping up with her guilty pleasure—the Bachelor.