As the interior designers of beloved New York drinking establishments Smith & Mills and Five Leaves, Johnny McCormick and Alex Kravchuk dive into many a dumpster to create spaces that are both bang-on contemporary, yet straight from the past. Their chosen aesthetic—weathered and industrial but still comforting—springs from a shared obsession with salvaged materials. Kravchuk first got his hands dirty tinkering on motorcycles in his grandfather's garage, while McCormick started out reupholstering old furniture as a child.
"A lot of stuff we get new we'd just end up making look old anyway," says McCormick. "If you factor in labor and the cost of materials and all the work that goes into something to make it look old, it's actually a more economical solution to go with salvaged materials."
During a look at their 2011 project, the 6,000 square-foot Brooklyn beerhall and restaurant Spritzenhaus, McCormick and Kravchuk taught us how to mine for the architectural treasures that, without some urban archeology, might become trash.
Click below for a slideshow of their tips and an inside tour of Spritzenhaus.
Alex Kravchuk: "As soon as you see a dumpster, you have to get in there."
Johnny McCormick: "It's kind of a sixth sense. Some people are amazed when we're driving along, and in our peripheral view we'll see something on a sidewalk or in a dumpster or a pile of garbage. We'll pull over, and they'll say, 'How did you see that?' We're always scanning everything, dumpsters, old buildings that look they're going to be restored. You have to keep your eye out."
Above: McCormick checks a dumpster in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn.
McCormick: "Build It Green! NYC, a non-profit that sells salvaged and surplus building materials from construction sites or demolished buildings—the profits go to support environmental education programs. You walk in there looking for one thing and end up seeing a bunch of other stuff you want. I've found everything there from vintage electrical supplies, to toilets, sinks, and reclaimed lumber.
Above: Build it Green! NYC.
McCormick: "Try and keep an eye out for businesses closing, owned by second or third generations of families in neighborhoods that are being gentrified."
Above: This fur shop in Greenpoint, a family-run business since 1916, recently closed.
McCormick: You don't need much.
Kravchuk: A screwdriver… an adjustable wrench.
McCormick: Probably just a handful of tools.
Kravchuk: A hammer…
McCormick: Yes, a hammer.
Kravchuk: An impact wrench.
McCormick: OK, a lot of tools.
Above: Construction at Spritzenhaus.
Alex Kravchuk: "I can't live without the McMaster-Carr catalog. You get the item the next day and they have hundreds of thousands of items in stock. Just looking through the catalog, at one thing on one page, and another thing on another page, an idea just kind of pops into your head. We probably have designed a dozen fixtures that way."
Above: A few of Spritzenhaus' 100 taps.
Kravchuk: "We use a lot of old tools to create elements. We're using a vintage press to create the brass storefront of Spritzenhaus. We get those things in machinery auctions. I collect pumps and gears, sometimes from eBay. I'm obsessed with old tools."
Above: This vintage press was used to create Spritzenhaus' brass storefront.
McCormick: "These are pickle barrels that used to be 10 feet high. The rust marks were the metal straps that went around them."
Above: Old pickle vats on their way to being tables at Spritzenhaus.
McCormick: "We both have vans, and it's a plague for us. We could drive around all day on the hunt for new materials."
Above: McCormick, left, and Kravchuk, right, in front of McCormick's van.
Kravchuk: "These lights are comprised of parts from five different fields of industry, from plumbing parts to automotive parts to decorative wrought iron parts."
Above: A fixture at Spritzenhaus.
McCormick: "The bench seats are reclaimed lumber, southern pine, courtesy of our friend Jim Morgan, who does demolition of old houses in the South. He takes them apart, piece by piece, and salvages all the wood."
Above: Bench seats at another one of McCormick's interiors, The Nameless Bar.
McCormick: "There are symbols of good luck and prosperity in it. We needed to have this piece in here."
Above: Purchased from a Chinese importer, this carving at The Nameless Bar was more than 100 years old.
McCormick: "I often use the book What Modern Was to describe what we do. The book shows what people in the 20s, 30s, and 40s envisioned the future was going to look like. It's kind of modern archaic, with a mix of materials and designs."
Kravchuk: "I've always liked Jules Verne. He thought about what modern would be someday while writing science fiction novels in the 1860s."
Above: A Verne-inspired bathroom (left) and a French-bistro style table at Spritzenhaus.
McCormick: "When I was a kid I started reupholstering old metal and vinyl office chairs. I acquired old lamps, too, from the Salvation Army and junk shops. You don't have to go to school to learn how to build or design. Get a few textbooks, center in on what you love, and just start making your own stuff."
Above: For The Nameless Bar, McCormick reconfigured old colanders to look like trade scales. Carousing customers have started throwing coins in them.
McCormick: Of the massive hydraulic doors shipped in from Minnesota that front Spritzenhaus, McCormick says "They weighed so much we had to re-engineer the building to handle the weight of the doors."
Above: Spritzenhaus' front windows.
Spritzenhaus is at 33 Nassau Ave., Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY
By Jami Attenberg