Who would take a French Provincial chair, reupholster it with a zipper down its middle, then coat the whole thing in off-white rubber?
Carter Averbeck would. Did, in fact.
“I took it to a place that dips tools in rubber,” he explained. The chair, now sitting in the living room of his North Loop loft, manages to be both elegant and edgy at the same time, Old World Parisian with a hint of attitude. “It’s a favorite piece of mine — because I made it.”
Averbeck has made — or creatively remade — a lot of the pieces in his home. There’s the bed he designed for himself, a platform of Madagascar ebony topped with an upholstered mohair headboard made from men’s suiting. The classic Milo Baughman dining set, whose chairs he recovered in a graphic black-and-white print. And the old rusted filing cabinet Averbeck transformed into a rooftop planter, by laying it on its back and filling it with dirt, dark-red foliage plants and ornamental grasses.
Transforming old stuff is both a business and a way of life for Averbeck, founder/owner of Omforme (Norwegian for “to transform”) Design (www.omformedesigncom.ipage.com). In addition to interior design, he rescues castoff furniture, salvaged and surplus materials, and repurposes them into “something gorgeous” that will find a home in someone’s home, rather than in a landfill or incinerator, where tons of furniture end up every year in the United States, according to Averbeck. “I find a lot of beauty in imperfection.”
But if that suggests a shabby chic aesthetic, all distressed finishes and faded floral fabrics, think again. “There’s nothing shabby chic about it — it’s all spot-on trend,” Averbeck said of his creations. He follows trends as religiously as the fashion industry does, trying to stay abreast of what finishes and colors will put a fresh contemporary spin on a timeworn settee or club chair.
“What’s flying out the door [at his south Minneapolis shop] are all blues, greens and turquoise,” he noted. “All the cool tones. People are using those as a way of introducing color into neutral spaces.” Minnesotans love their muted interiors, he’s observed. “We live through long winters, and there’s a weird comfort to it,” he theorized.
But distinctive color is important to Averbeck, a tool he uses to individualize every space he works on. “I pay attention to what the architecture tells me, then infuse the personality of the client,” he said. “Don’t you love a home where you love walking in the door?” (His store’s slogan is “Go Bold or Go Home … Hopefully With Our Stuff!”)
He often coaxes clients into incorporating more color. “You’ve got to base it on their personality. I ask them their favorite color. One client, all she could tell me was ‘neutral.’ But she had a garden, so I asked her what colors she liked there. She said, ‘I love pinks and fuchsias.’ That’s how I got to it. You have to figure out what people like in the real world. In their house, they get scared. But it’s so easy to paint.”
For someone who loves bold color, the palette in his own home is surprisingly quiet — whitewashed brick walls and light wood floors. “I keep it mostly neutral here so I can dream ideas for clients without being influenced,” he said. But there are splashes of bright color in artwork and accent pieces, such as the sunburst-hued antique Iranian rug in his living room. “It’s one of the few that doesn’t have floral patterns. It’s more geometric, which I love.” He also has an old door painted bright orange, propped in his office. “I like having it there. Orange and bright yellow are my favorite colors.”
Garage sales and frescoes
Averbeck, a Wisconsin native, grew up watching his parents take old things and breathe new life into them.
“My mother hit the brakes for every garage sale there was,” he recalled. “People would look at our stuff and say, ‘Where did you get it?’ And my parents would say, ‘We just transformed it.’ ”
But Averbeck didn’t start out intending to make a career out of transforming old furniture. First he studied fine arts at Western Washington University and then trained in Europe as a fresco artist, where he learned the ancient art of painting murals, relying on eggs, stale beer and chicken fat. “They didn’t have acrylics in 500 B.C.,” he explained.
He moved to Minneapolis in 1991, figuring that a city with a lot of theater would need a lot of painted backdrops, arriving just in time for the famed Halloween blizzard. “I remember looking out the window and seeing a guy skiing to work. I thought, ‘No way I’m going to stay here.’ ”
Yet he did stay, eventually launching Trompe (as in trompe l’oeil or “fool the eye”), a decorative painting company that he still operates under the Omforme umbrella. Averbeck designed murals and decorative finishes for homes, restaurants and boutique hotels, but eventually got bored with the “beige-aholic” projects he was getting. “There wasn’t any challenge,” he said. “I’d gone as far as I could.”
And after the deaths of several people close to him, he needed a fresh creative outlet, “to help me with the grieving process,” he said. “I was ready to transform myself.” He started to transition into interior and furniture design, and finally launched Omforme, first as an online store with a series of pop-up sales, and eventually as a permanent brick-and-mortar shop. (It’s open every Saturday and Sunday, and by appointment weekdays, at 613 W. 24th St.)
Now that his neighbors know what he does, they drop things at the back door. “Thrift stores don’t take furniture that’s torn. I do,” he said. “If they’re cool, I keep them and transform them. If not, I put them out on the curb. In this neighborhood, they disappear.”
Last year, he figures he saved 4,100 pounds of furniture. He knows, because he has to weigh it for shipping — 80 percent of his furniture is sold out of state.
Averbeck’s loft is a real loft — not a new facsimile — in an ancient industrial building without an elevator, just a dark, creaky flight of stairs. He bought into the loft, part of a cooperative, 15 years ago, when the Warehouse District was gritty and less glamorous than it is today. “Everybody thought I was crazy,” he recalled. “The area was a ghost town for a while, and it’s near Sex World.”
But Averbeck needed a proper studio. “At my old house, I did everything in the basement,” he recalled. “It was dark and dank. I’d have to roll things up, take them outside in the light and roll them out to see them.” The loft offered lots of space (2,500 square feet) and lots of windows, and he knew he could make it work.
He found out later that the 19th-century building was originally home to a furniture manufacturer. “It’s hilarious, because that’s what I do,” he said.
He raised the loft’s floors and added insulation. “You could hear your neighbor breathe.” And he redid the “crap-tacular kitchen,” which consisted of a sink, a stove with two burners and “a college refrigerator, with stickers all over the place.”
He redesigned his kitchen to add built-in storage, which he clad in textured panels made from recycled milk jugs. He covered his new, full-sized refrigerator with chalkboard paint, so he can jot down phone numbers or reminders. “It’s better than a Post-it note,” he said. Today, the refrigerator also displays a poem. “I wrote it for my New Year’s cards and never erased it.”
The rest of the loft is an eclectic mix of styles and eras, plus pieces from his travels, such as the African masks he picked up in London, that now hang on the wall of his den. Averbeck freely mixes high-end modern classics with Ikea pieces and Craigslist finds. “It’s that mix that makes things interesting,” he said. “If people have multilayered personalities, and we all do, your house should reflect that as well.”
He has no favorite era. “I like them all. There’s good design from all eras.”
Even the much-maligned ’80s? “You know how big the ’80s are with young people?” he replied. “Mauve and brass are coming back. Midcentury modern has run its course on the coasts. It’s scarce, high-priced, and it’s been done. Even ‘Mad Men’ is closing its run. Everything is cyclical. I base the shop on different eras, so I don’t become one-note.”
Not likely, not as long as his creative impulses keep inspiring him to transform old vases into light fixtures — or dip chairs in rubber.