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 high-end catalog shoot - 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."
The basket that holds Finn's books? "The dump."
Transfer station, recycling center - use phrases like that if you must. Wurst feels no such compunction. She is proud of her dump finds: Weber grill, bird prints, glassware, ironing board, old flour sifter and coffee grinder, 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. 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.
Fleming and Wurst have a talent for living and for furnishing a home stylishly on a budget. Their annual income is about $17,000, and they decorated their home for just under $4,000. The furnishings in their living room came to $828: That includes the priciest item, a $150 sofa from an antiques market, 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 local 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." And the dump, she noted, "has the best return policy."
Living in the woods
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. Inside, the walls have been painted off-white, many of the found sofas and chairs have been slipcovered in bone-colored linen and Fleming's driftwood art hangs 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.
They found this three-bedroom, two-bathroom house eight years ago. The living room was purple, walls were water-damaged, and much needed to be fixed.
They pay $600 a month in rent and do all the repairs and maintenance themselves. 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; 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 from a high-end shop. The design books in the living room cost as much as the sofa. And mattresses are always purchased new.
How they live cheap
The pieces Fleming makes are far more expensive than the ones the couple would buy. 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 are 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. 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.
And the draft snakes are made from shirts Wurst finds in the freebie racks at the dump - linen shirts, of course.