An artist and furniture maker, his partner and their young son live elegantly on an income of about $17,000 in a home built with handmade furnishings, thrift and ingenuity.
PHIPPSBURG, Maine — There is a four-letter word that many home decorators take pains to avoid, preferring, if a certain matter must be disclosed, a euphemism. But Jennifer Wurst — who lives with her partner in a rented, gray-shingled house in rural Maine, with rooms so spare and clean they could be the setting for a catalog shoot for the kind of high-end clothing Wurst cannot afford and would not buy anyway — uses the word shamelessly.
Her source for the white bedside table? “The dump.”
The dresser in their 18-month-old son Finn’s bedroom? “It’s from the dump.”
Finn’s book about Johnny Appleseed? “The dump.”
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The basket that holds the books? “The dump.”
Transfer station, recycling center — use phrases like that if you must. Wurst, a onetime elementary school teacher, feels no such compunction. She is rather proud of her dozens of dump finds: Weber grill, bird prints, glassware, ironing board, old flour sifter and coffee grinder (which coordinate nicely with the wood-burning stoves), mirrors, tables, chairs, tablecloths, lamps, bamboo blinds.
She also picks up furnishings at yard sales and auctions. Sure, her partner, Michael Fleming, is an artist and craftsman who tosses around phrases like “humble aesthetic” and speaks of the way driftwood “resonates,” but he can also toss around a hammer. He built their magnificent oak-and-maple bed, which is weathered silver and white. Of course, if he gets a buyer he will sell it. That is the lot of the artist who scours the swamps and coastline for driftwood — as is his bad back. Right now, Fleming is nursing a slipped disk, caused by hauling a massive driftwood stump to his truck. A storm was coming, and he feared losing it.
Fleming and Wurst are a couple with a talent for living and for furnishing a home stylishly on a budget. Their annual income these days is about $17,000, now that Wurst has stopped teaching to spend more time with their son, and Fleming is concentrating on his artwork and home-furnishings business, Designs Adrift.
They decorated their home for just under $4,000, and the furnishings in their living room came to $828: That includes the priciest item, a $150 sofa from the Brimfield, Mass., antiques market, slipcovered in an antique linen sheet; mirrors created out of discounted glass remnants for which Fleming made driftwood frames; and the plant stand, the small grass rug, the ottoman and the shelves.
Wurst’s favorite shopping site: a parked trailer at the Phippsburg dump.
“Some days it’s pure excitement, running back to the car to unload armfuls of stuff, only to go back for more!” she wrote in an email. “It’s amazing what people throw out. I have found completely new (still in packaging) items such as my Bodum tea press/pot and even down throw pillows (still in packaging) and a fabulous ’50s-style wall-mounted can opener.” She added, “It’s perfectly suited for the pantry in this house and we needed one and it was free.”
And the dump, she noted, “has the best return policy.”
The house she and Fleming live in is on 20 remote, wooded acres and was built in the early 1800s, salt gray, with dark shutters. Nearby is a shed Fleming built for curing driftwood. He also ages driftwood outside: A section of the yard is filled with sea-bleached tree trunks and branches, standing upright to weather until they are the shade the artist requires. Their bony limbs bring to mind an elephant graveyard.
In the house, the walls have been painted off-white, many of the found sofas and chairs have been covered in bone-colored linen slipcovers and Fleming’s driftwood art pieces hang on the walls. There is a feeling that the house has been bleached with salt air and wind-swept clean on the inside as well as the outside.
Wurst and Fleming are not married, but they have been together for about 14 years and are nicely matched in terms of wanderlust, thrift and their idea of what is important in life: travel, making art, spending time as a family, and now, making and owning beautiful furnishings that work well and will last.
Wurst, who is 41, is the daughter of a carpenter and a cook who divorced when she was very young. She grew up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and after college, drove cross-country and taught school in Mexico. Fleming, who is 43 and the son of a salesman, grew up in Middletown, Conn., and knocked around New England, first as a ski bum, then doing carpentry and racing and transporting sailboats.
The two met in the Caribbean, on Tortola, where Wurst was visiting with a boyfriend whose family lived on the island and Fleming was working. The boyfriend wanted to hang out around the house and relax, and Wurst wanted to explore. In time, she decided she was with the wrong guy.
For several years, she and Fleming divided their time between New England and the Caribbean. At one time, Wurst worked two jobs, as a teacher and a waitress, and Fleming took all the carpentry work he could find to raise money for a round-the-world sailing trip. When that didn’t work out, they spent a year and a half backpacking around the world for $13,000.
Nobody, Fleming says affectionately, can stretch a nickel like Wurst: They spent 90 straight days in their tent in New Zealand and could have purchased strips of foam padding in a thrift shop, for 50 cents apiece, that would have made their sleeping bags much more comfortable, but Wurst refused to spend the money. Even a candy bar was a treat. On the other hand, they both say they lived like royalty; visiting a New Zealand winery, they’d splurge on an inexpensive bottle of wine and buy some bread and cheese, and life could not have been better.
They found this three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Maine eight years ago. The living room was purple, there were walls that were water damaged, and there was much that needed to be fixed.
They pay $600 a month in rent and do all the repairs and maintenance themselves. Over the years, that has included painting; replacing the old kitchen sink with a found porcelain double sink; installing wood-burning stoves in the kitchen and the living room, which they use to heat the house; fixing the plumbing and the roofing; and building stone walls around the garden.
There are occasional splurges: The $150 living room sofa has a slipcover made from an antique French linen sheet that Wurst bought for $125 at the Marston House, a high-end shop in Wiscasset. The design books in the living room cost as much as the sofa. And mattresses are always purchased new.
The pieces Fleming makes are far more expensive than the ones the couple buys. His queen-size driftwood bed in the master bedroom is priced at $3,800; a driftwood club chair sells for $2,400; and lamps start at $950.
He has recently been commissioned to do two pieces for the Four Seasons Hotel in Amman, Jordan. Having sold only about a dozen pieces so far, however — and dreaming of buying a house of their own — the couple is sticking with their frugal lifestyle.
Wurst has a long list of how they do it: They never eat out. Their vehicles are more than 10 years old. They share a single laptop computer. They grow their own vegetables in the garden. They do not have cable, and their only TV is an old one on which they watch movies. They never buy coffee out; they make it at home and take it with them. They never buy toys that require batteries. They cut their own grass and do their own landscaping.
To keep their old house as warm as possible, they wrap the foundation in hay and plastic, and they heat the house by burning wood they chop themselves. During the winter, they cover the windows in plastic, hang curtains and use draft snakes (door draft stoppers).
And the draft snakes are made from shirts Wurst finds in the freebie racks at the dump — linen shirts, of course.