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Thrift score

Hunter-gatherer Jennie Harned builds a nest from second-hand store and alley finds.

Photograph: Nicole Radja

As a kid, 28-year-old Jennie Harned became accustomed to extreme minimalist living: The furnishings in her father’s Atlanta apartment—where she grew up—amounted to a futon, a love seat, some nightstands and a junky desk from her father’s workplace (ironically, a furniture store) and a suitcase, which served as Harned’s makeshift dresser.

Some habits never die: She still keeps her socks in a weathered, vintage suitcase that rests on an IKEA bench in her bedroom. But other than that, spartan living fell by the wayside as soon as she started decorating her own place; she’s garnered quite a collection of furniture and decorative odds and ends, some of which she’s been toting from apartment to apartment for the last 17 years. Since fleeing New Orleans post–Hurricane Katrina and moving to Chicago in 2005, Harned’s two-and-a-half-year stay in her current Humboldt Park apartment is the longest she’s lived in one place since age 14.

“I’ve carefully put things together and burrowed down,” Harned says. “Whenever I’ve moved, I have always taken two days off from whatever is going on in my life to do it; all the boxes…get unpacked in the first day and the second day they all get moved to [their] spots.”

As a result, for every apartment she’s considered renting, she says, “It’s not so much about how I’m going to decorate [a place] as how well my stuff is going to fit into the space.” For instance, her picnic-style table—a relic from her childhood home—requires a spacious kitchen; and the collection of bulky furnishings—such as the mint-green metal cabinet her mother salvaged from a public-health center in New Orleans, pharmacy drawers found in a parking lot and the floral-fabric-upholstered chair she scored at a thrift store—necessitate a sizable living room, too. None of this is to say that Harned exhibits a sense of materialism or pack-rat-style collecting. Rather, the manner in which she prizes her possessions exudes sentimentalism tempered with a keen eye for aesthetics.

Black-and-white photographs of family members hang framed or strung from twine with mini wooden clips in nearly every room; dozens of keys from old haunts fill the glass-covered wooden coffee table that a friend made; yellowing multiplication flash cards scavenged from the copy room at a school where she taught History adorn the shelves; and seashells her grandma collected fill a large glass vase.

Her biggest splurge dates back ten years—the cushy bed set she purchased at 19. For the most part, though, the furnishings find their way to her home from the alley and thrift stores. For people like Harned, it’s less about having enough money than capitalizing on ingenuity and inspiration.

In the kitchen, she dressed up plain plastic cabinet handles by wrapping them with mossy-hued yarn. In the bathroom, she covered the tacky metal wall trim with lilac grosgrain ribbon; she obscured the inside of the shower walls by adhering a simple, circular design made from contact paper. Taking a cue from a design magazine, she turned all of her books on their sides to maintain a neutral palette in the living room, reserving the deliberate splashes of color mainly for art on the walls.

“I can never see the forest. I always see the trees,” she says. “[Decorating] is one of the most comfortable ways I self-express. Some people draw or cook; I decorate my space.”

1 Old family photos clipped to twine hang on a salvaged sauna bench mounted on the kitchen wall.

2 Getting creative with framing, Harned abandoned the “suburban frames” and mounted art prints on thrift-store-bought fabric. She used a branch as a rod to hang a quilt tapestry in the living room.

3 Live-in boyfriend Cesar’s childhood shoes perch on a paint-splattered ladder—an alley find—which rests atop a table in the kitchen.

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