Interview: Lara Spencer from 'Good Morning America' Shares Decorating Tips in Her Book 'I Brake for Yard Sales'
By Max Berlinger
Out: You’re a long time thrifter and “sale-er,” but what was your first memory where you discovered that this was a passion of yours, and it could something bigger than just a personal pleasure?
Lara Spencer: I remember being a very little girl, watching my mom pick out diamonds in the rough. In the setting of the yard sale they looked totally unremarkable and sometimes scary, but she would bring them home, re-cover them, polish them, and put them in a new context. It gave a completely new life to these pieces that other people saw as cast-offs. I definitely made a mental note of that, like, ‘Wow, this is like treasure hunting.” I remember thinking that.
Did she have—or did you, over time—develop a plan for shopping? It seems very on the fly, so how do you approach these ventures?
I always recommend to make a list, because it’s easy to get overwhelmed—this is not a department store experience. Have a clear idea of what you’re looking for, but also have an open mind. I usually look through magazines and pore over books. I have an idea of what I’m looking for, and I’m very flexible in interpreting it, in terms of what I find.
What, specifically, do you look for at thrift stores or flea markets? Since it can (a) be overwhelming and (b) people can overlook hidden gems.
If you judge the book by its cover, then you won’t bring anything home, because most of the stuff is like a girl badly in need of a makeover. The number one thing that I look for is good bones, and by that I mean classic lines, quality construction, designers’ marks—in terms of labels—some clue to see if it’s a designer I like. I look for pieces that make me smile. I trust my gut—if I’m looking at a vintage oil painting, it doesn’t matter to me whether that artist is well-known. It just matters whether I find beauty in that picture. And it doesn’t matter if it’s $5 or $500, if it makes you feel good, and you think it will brighten up your world and help create your personal space, then go for it. I liken it to Katharine Hepburn. She had great bone structure, so she could wear a pair of perfectly plain khakis and look phenomenal. I look for the plain Katherine Hepburns at yard sales.
Part of the reason I wanted to do this book was—we lived in a fancy town, but we didn’t live in the fancy part—and my mother would hold her head high when we went to yard sales in the fancy part of town. She found pride in being “thrifty-chic,” in being able to create a stylish room for next to nothing, it was her badge of honor.
I would tell beginners to look at interior design magazines and books, and pinpoint what about certain rooms attract them. I have books and books of tear-sheets, and I do the same thing for a client. For Kathy Griffin [who wrote the book’s introduction], I asked her to give me a folder of pictures from 25 design magazines, and she ripped out all these pages, and circled the object that attracted her…And it was a bit like being a detective. I was to get a handle on what her style is and what appeals to her, and I went out and looked for pieces that were inspired by that style. So if you’re attracted to a French country look, then if you’re at a flea market look for one of those French Bergére chairs—believe me, they’re everywhere. Don’t worry about the paint finish, don’t worry about the upholstery—try to see the lines of the piece. If you like a curvy leg, look for it. The paint, the fabric—that can be changed. The structure and quality of the workmanship can’t.
What is a common mistake for both beginners and more seasoned thrifters?
Don’t get lured by the bargain! I’m careful to not buy something just because it’s a great deal. A home can quickly go from looking well-edited to looking like a hoarder’s home. You want to be able to create rooms that look like they’ve been created over time, and are layered—that you didn’t just order it out of the catalogue—but also not like just a bunch of tchotchkes haphazardly thrown together. I try to create a running theme, through color or style. Ask yourself, ‘Do I have room for this?’
I have two storage units to prove that it can go horribly wrong, but for me that’s okay, because I go out and think of future projects. But if you see something that you really love, don’t hesitate—you snooze, you lose.
What’s some of your advice for bargaining or being at an auction or an estate sale?
Auctions seem to be the Bermuda Triangles of the second-hand furniture circuit. People tend to be very intimidated by them. But you should absolutely go because when I go, I see interior designers, antique dealers, and incredibly stylish people who know that you can actually get some of the best deals. Auction houses will buy an entire estate from a family because they want maybe just two or three of the paintings, and a sculpture. Then the rest of that Park Avenue apartment goes into what’s called “general sales,” and there’s no reserve—or minimum price.
There’s nothing more fun than an auction. You can find great things, there’s great people-watching, and it’s also an education, because when an item goes onto the block, they give you a description of it, and what the estimate is.
I used to be terrified that if I scratched my nose, then they would think I was bidding. My one caveat about auctions isto not get wrapped up in the sporting bit of it. You can get into a bidding war, because it’s competitive. Know what your top limit is and have self-control. It’s very easy to get caught up in the moment.