For some New Yorkers, bargain hunting is a fun weekend hobby, but stylist, designer and creator of Found By a Prop Stylist Courtney Dawley has taken the casual pastime and transformed it into her career. Courtney’s keen eye for a deal and her ability to curate the unlikely into cohesive collections of modern nostalgia were the seeds for her thriving online shop and style website. Courtney also transforms many of her vintage finds into stylish and functional pieces for the home, ranging from antique painted planters to vintage mugs up-cycled into stylish candles.
6sqft recently visited Courtney at her Greenpoint studio and home, and, in addition to photographing the fun and eclectic space, we learned about how she got into collecting vintage objects, her personal design aesthetic and new collection, and the best spots nearby for vintage finds.
What inspired you to start collecting vintage objects?
I don’t think I ever really had a choice. I grew up with a mom who loved antiques, and once I was five years old she had already brought me to every antique mall and flea market in New England, including the holy grail, Brimfield. I got used to hearing “look but don’t touch,” and when I reached the age where I was allowed to touch, I started to buy. Trolling vintage markets has since evolved from a hobby into an obsession. I love how a single vintage piece can connect us to a different time in history, as well as the people or person who previously owned and maybe loved the object as much as I do. Vintage items have so many stories, and I love to help them on their way to making new ones.
A few years back, I was up in Maine working for LL Bean as a stylist for the summer. I found myself collecting things from the antique stores in the area. When the job ended and it was time for me to head back to Brooklyn, the car was full. After unpacking, my apartment was too full, and I decided it was time to share my finds with others. Thus the birth of Found by a Prop Stylist!
What shaped your design style?
There is a lot of Scandinavian influence in my aesthetic. I lived in Seattle for five years after college and was surrounded by mid-century modern designs for the first time. I found Danish furniture, drip glaze lamps, gorgeous glassware and teak everything in thrift stores around the area. Growing up in New England I was never really exposed to this style of design in antique stores, which tended to be full of older, more ornate pieces. I was drawn to the clean lines and bright pops of color – it was so simple and easy to pair with other design styles.
I spent some time working for a high-end fashion e-commerce website, so a touch of minimalism has made it’s way into my life. It’s not reflected in my personal space, as it goes against my nature, but it comes through in my photography and styling. I wish I could keep some of my surfaces barren. But then where would I put all of my spray paint and glassware!?
Thanks to the brief stint in college when I majored in architecture, I am also drawn to antique architectural elements. During this period of my studies I was most interested in my drafting classes and the newfound interest sent me in a completely different direction. I love a good finial from an old staircase, and I am super inspired by windows and doors. I recently spent a few weeks in Portugal and was enamored with the doors there. I was also impressed by their use of color in public spaces, even the sound barriers on the sides of the freeway had pops of color – the placement was clearly well thought out.
Where are some of your favorite local spots for finding vintage furniture and home goods?
I like to keep these secret normally, but The Elephant’s Trunk Flea Market in Connecticut is a quick trip out of Brooklyn by car, and they have lots of vendors selling mostly antiques. Some other flea markets in the area tend to be a mix of antiques and new but discounted items, like blenders and other appliances. I also always enjoy walking around at Brooklyn Flea in Williamsburg. Last summer I found this amazing watchmaker’s cabinet for a great deal.
Phoenicia Flea is a traveling flea market that is at a different location every time, but always within a couple hours of the city. It’s lots of fun, with a mix of vintage home, clothes and handmade items. And there’s always state sales, yard sales and antique malls almost everywhere you go. You never know what you are going to find. I always carry cash so I won’t miss out on a good find.
How has your work as a prop stylist influenced your new product line?
Working as a stylist taught me how to source anything and everything. Styling is very heavily based around picking through options and selecting the right ones to tell a story. Whether it’s an editorial, catalog or advertisement shoot there’s always a specific idea or essence they are trying to convey in the photo. I will sort through thousands of pillows to end up on set with 15 for a shot that requires two. It’s really about knowing your client and what vibe they’re after. So many things can work, but when the pieces fit together it just feels right.
I get that same feeling about every item in my store. I see it and I know it’s right for my customers and myself. There is nothing in my store I would not put in my own home.
Speaking of which, how do you incorporate vintage objects into your own home?
Lamps, art, glassware, furniture, really it’s everywhere. I like to have a nice balance between old and new. If you get too many vintage pieces your home starts feeling dated. Mixing current designs and textile patterns with vintage pieces keeps things fresh. I also love to repurpose vintage ceramics, anything that will hold dirt really, as planters. I’m running out of surfaces to set plants on, which is a big reason why I started making my up-cycled hanging planters.
It seems like we’re living in a world where a lot of things are disposable and many new products are not built to last. Vintage and antique items were built with longevity in mind. A family would buy a table and chairs and pass it on for generations; artisans and craftsmanship were highly valued. I applaud makers today who follow in the footsteps of these craftsmen. It can be a tough road, but one we really need people to travel. I think well-made vintage furnishings are one of the best investments you can make for your home. You can get them for a better price than new items of equal craftsmanship and if they are mostly wood, metal or ceramic, they will last you a lifetime.
Re-upholstering is also a great option to update a vintage piece. If the bones are good you can really turn a piece around. I found a chair at Goodwill when I lived in Seattle for $15. It had a tacky pattern of baby blue hearts and anchors on it, but the wood was so beautiful. I re-covered it with a mid-century-modern-inspired fabric and it looks like a $300 chair now. I love that chair. Don’t get me wrong, I love my IKEA couch because it gave me the style I wanted at the time without a huge commitment, but mixing it in with a mid-century arc lamp and handmade pillows gives it a richer feel. Eventually when I find the right piece I will replace it with something I’ll keep for a long time to come.
What’s a typical day look like for you?
One of the great things about my profession is every day is different. One day I may be sourcing and making props for an upcoming shoot and the next day installing window decor for a retail client. Then later that week I’m pouring candles and sewing pillows. A day can hold anything from a visit to the flower district, to getting fabric swatches from the D&D building, to loading out a finished project.
My favorite days are filled with shopping for jobs. But it’s hard work lugging all those bags around Manhattan. It’s an amazing job, but only parts of it are glamorous; a lot of it involves taking things from point A to point B, setting them up and then taking them down and back to point A again. There’s a lot of collaboration and teamwork involved in it, which I love as well.
What current project are you most excited about?
Right now, I’m focusing on Found by a Prop Stylist and developing new product lines that have a vintage element present, like the silver plate painted planters and my newest item up-cycled milk glass mug candles. I’m also working on pieces that are inspired by vintage items. I’m designing a line of pillows and soft goods directly inspired by a scarf that I found at the Phoenicia flea last summer. The colors are beautiful, and I can’t wait to show them off.
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Photos by Courtney Dawley
Neighborhoods : Greenpoint