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Vintage Finds for a Cool & Breathable Space

5x7-_DSC2908_SS2-1Joanne Palmisano with one of her finds.
Photo Credit: Susan Teare

Hunting for antiques and salvaged stone and wood is easy on the environment and the wallet. And done the right way, it’s smart for asthma, too. From Allergic Living magazine; to subscribe click here.

Joanne Palmisano jokes that, for someone with serious allergies to dust and mold – not to mention horses, mice and more – she might not have chosen the best line of work.

The award-winning interior designer, home stylist and author regularly scours dusty old antique shops, flea markets, yard sales, second-hand stores, architectural salvage sales and even garages and barns, looking for that perfect find.

“My husband says, ‘Of all things to choose as a business, you go into old barns and salvage stuff where you’re allergic to almost everything,” she recounts with a laugh. “And when I go into old barns and buildings, sometimes I can only stay for a short time, so I have to plan ahead.”

But there’s a reason that Palmisano suffers through symptoms: for her design clients, she regularly blends old and new to create stunning, one-of-a-kind interiors – and although shopping for used items can have pitfalls for people with allergies, there are some big allergy upsides, too.


When it comes to buying items that are used, or that are salvaged from home or building demolitions, there are plenty of advantages: they’re usually cheaper, they’re  better for the environment, and, from elegant library tables to sleek ceramic tile to glittery chandeliers, you can pick up goods that have far more style and character than what you’ll find at a big box retailer.

But for people with asthma and allergies, there’s one more big advantage: you can buy items that are crafted from natural materials such as solid wood, leather, stone and tile that won’t gather mold and dust, or emit asthma-triggering volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as some goods made from vinyl, laminate or particle board do – and you can pick them up  or a fraction of the price that you would pay new. To boot, when you buy used, most coatings and sealants will have already finished releasing (or off-gassing), those harmful VOCs.

Palmisano’s favorite things to pick up second-hand include stone, which she can cut to size and re-purpose as flooring, counter tops, back splashes and more; recycled glass tile, which is very allergy-friendly; solid wood furniture, especially Danish modern which comes with simple, elegant lines and is easy to clean and re-coat; light fixtures, which can add sparkle to a room without upping the allergy load; and decorative items from vases to wood picture frames.

“It’s usually amazing quality,” says Palmisano, who has created dozens of projects for the DIY Network and has authored two books, Salvage Secrets: Transforming Reclaimed Materials into Design Concepts and Salvage Secrets Design & Decor.” And the character of salvaged, vintage, antique and recycled material is truly something you can’t find as much in new materials.”


5x7-Job_10072 3_SS2Restored furniture adds character but not VOCs. Photo Credit: Susan Teare

But before you hit those salvage sales and antique shops, it’s important to remember that not all used items are a good idea.

For allergic shoppers, two of the biggest deal breakers are mold and dust mites. Palmisano usually steers clear of used rugs because they provide a perfect home for those potent allergens and others, and they’re almost impossible to properly clean. For the same reason, she also recommends avoiding upholstered furniture – unless you’re ready to strip it right down to the frame and replace the cushions as well as the fabric. Watch out as well for the scent of mold in other items, from books to fabrics, as they can be too far gone to bring home.

With old wood, it’s important to watch that it can be cleaned and resealed, and that boards are not showing signs of rot. And while many people love the look of rustic wood floors, with allergic clients, Palmisano only uses wood that can be sealed and laid tightly with each piece butting against the next. Otherwise the wood will shrink and those natural-looking gaps will fill up with dust, mold and other allergy and asthma triggers.

Other deal-breakers include any items that may have lead paint (you can pick up an inexpensive testing kit at most home reno stores), old plumbing fixtures (they can also contain lead), old toilets, old tubs that have rusted, and anything that has too much damage. The U.S. government also warns consumers away from buying used cribs, high chairs, car seats and baby gates, because they can pose a safety hazard.

“But for me there is almost never an issue of no-go, because I repurpose a lot,” says Palmisano. “I’ll buy an old crib and use the base as a wall hanging, or I’ll use old stair railings that are no longer up to code as Candlesticks. You could even buy a beautiful vintage rug and just frame it in glass and put in on your wall, and you don’t have an allergy issue. You just have to see it in a different way.”

Next: Where to Shop & Feeling the Joy 

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