There was plenty of work to be done when Robin Taft moved into her rambling old Wallingford farmhouse nearly a decade ago. But one thing in particular bothered her: a huge, built-in hutch in the corner of the living room.
“I knew I had to do something,” she says. But, rather than tear out the offending piece of furniture, she decided to make it her own. She stretched colorful lokta — a decorative, fibrous Nepalese paper — over the entire piece, secured it with glue and finished it with polyurethane. Instead of a hulking eyesore, the hutch became a bright, whimsical focal point.
Over the next nine years, Taft, now 58, honed the technique, embellishing reclaimed furniture — pieces others had considered too far gone — with everything from lokta paper to stamps to fancy soap labels. She calls the endeavor Furniture in Recovery and sells the work online, at artists markets and Vermont home-furnishing stores such as the Green Life in Burlington.
Each piece is unique, but all have one detail in common: a small, winged heart with the words “Courage My Love.”
The phrase has a double meaning for Taft. It was the name and logo of a Greenwich Village clothing boutique her mother-in-law owned in the 1960s. And it ties in thematically with Taft’s other passion: advocating for humane end-of-life care for frail elders.
During her 25 years working as a nurse, Taft began arguing for patients’ rights to a natural death. “I’m not Buddhist,” she says, “but I’ve learned that we’re all going to have to let go.”
These days, she speaks and writes on the topic. “I know this sounds goofy,” she says, “but as passionate as I am about the end-of-life stuff, I try to send out love to people while I’m doing the furniture.”
Taft sees a clear connection between resurrecting old end tables and writing about natural death for seniors and their families. So she adorns each piece of furniture — the underside of a table or inside of a drawer — with her blog address, allowingnaturaldeath.org.
The artist stores her finished work in a weathered red barn on the farm she and her husband call Pine Hollow. Prayer flags hang above the door to their house and flap in their orchard atop a small hill. Taft’s furniture isn’t the only thing on the property that’s reclaimed. The hoop house full of ducks and chickens is covered in vintage plastic billboard advertisements.
The lower level of the barn is filled with furniture in various states of rebirth, including a slightly dilapidated desk Taft bought at an auction. Sometimes she picks up discarded chairs, tables and shelves on the side of the road. The only prerequisite: “It’s got to be functionally sound,” says Taft. She describes her finished work as “strong, beautiful and imperfect.”
Upstairs in the barn, those finished pieces are piled into a bay. One is made from a vintage wooden Vermont state park parking sign. Another is adorned with pages from 1950s cookbooks. One striking black and red chair with an attached writing desk is decorated with portraits from a 1941 Mineola, N.Y., yearbook that Taft found at a waste-transfer station. It’s likely that many of the young men in that book went off to fight in World War II, she says, and some probably never returned.
Back in her house, Taft keeps rolls of rainbow-colored lokta paper and boxes filled with paper items she might use in future pieces: Tazo Tea labels, definitions cut from old dictionaries, elegant soap packaging. “It kind of offends me that someone makes these beautiful labels, and then we just throw them away,” Taft says.
So she doesn’t. She knows she’ll find a home for them sometime, maybe on an old desk or a beat-up barn door.