L’arte di arrangiarsi


There is a real delight that comes in taking a small bit of nothing and making it wonderful. Who’s with me?!

Not a new concept, the Italians have long had a phrase for this idea: “L’arte di arrangiarsi” which translates as “the art of making something from nothing,” or “the art of getting by.” A simple bouquet of wildflowers, a pleasant arrangement of food on a plate, a stew made from what’s on hand, basically the art of beauty-in-resourcefulness.

I have long lived the concept of resourcefulness (and its hot lover: frugality) but I wouldn’t say that I had mastered the “art” of it. In fact, some of my on-the-cheap ideas have been down-right ugly. Like, “woof.” But I think the Art of making something from nothing is my arte vida pursuit. I’ll never have an opulent design sensibility and I love humble materials. So really, this is a no-brainer.

When I started keeping my own house, I was 18 and in college. I so wanted a gracious home like the ones I lusted after in decorating magazines. But I had a third-floor apartment. And no money. So I tried to “make do” and come up with something from nothing. I dragged odd chairs from the dumpster, I took hand-me-down tables, and painted them white. I sewed curtains from muslin and used bargain-big upholstery scraps to make throw pillows (stuffed with old shredded t-shirts). I also wandered around clearance sections of department stores. Part entertainment, part money-management and part addiction I stalked cute accessories and waited for the price to drop into my range. My apartment was full of funny orphan pieces, all pulled together with creativity and a fierce desire for a beautiful space.

While I have a romantic nostalgia for those early bohemian years, I’m happy that I don’t have to worry about every 50 cents I spend anymore. And thanks to 17 years of filling up my home with furniture and pieces from here and there, I don’t have to add anything. I have sewn pillows and curtains for every room. I have scored cheap garage sale furniture for every corner.

But I still love the thrill of a little something from nothing.

A few weeks ago, I set out for my usual Saturday morning of garage sales. But as the light drizzle turned to full-on rain, sellers packed up their sales and quickly posted signs that read, “Sale Cancelled [sic].” Problem was, I didn’t feel like going home yet. Garage saling solo on weekend mornings is a time that I cherish. For a little bit, I don’t have to worry about household tedium and more importantly: I don’t have to talk to anyone.

So, with bargain hunting in mind, I headed to Tuesday Morning, that lovely store that has sweet, sweet stuff for cheap. With great prices on wool rugs and nice furnishings, this store already is doing things right. But they also have nice clearance sections on top of that. Perfect.

Because this store is already a discount shop, a lot of things that make it to the clearance section are “scratch and dent.” But that’s cool; I was in garage sale mode anyway, and your know garage sale pieces are “scratch and dent.” So I cruised the saucerless teacups, the bonked and scuffed candles and the terribly tacky garden stakes. All the bargain bin misfits.

And then I found a cool set of napkin rings. The set of six was down to five, but besides that, they were in great shape and SO pretty. Lacquered bamboo cubes with a sexy-cool ebony stain on their innards. Loverly. I debated for awhile how I could justify buying these. I couldn’t kid myself into buying them for dinner parties. (I’ve used that excuse hundreds of times. And I’ve thrown exactly six dinner parties. Ever.) But these were so pretty! Curtain finials? No, too sleek and modern for me. Window scarf tie backs? No, I never use those. Hmmm.


And then it hit me: tea light holders. Their size was just perfect, with the opening a bit larger than a tea light, and petite enough to make a pretty, ambient glow. I imagined them lined up down the center of my dining room table. Or on a shelf, or here-and-there. And because I hate one-trick-ponies, I like that these are dual purpose and I CAN use them as napkin holders as well.*

Last night, as we were enjoying a summer’s twilight on the front porch, I got out some tea lights and my little napkin rings for just a little candlelight. ++ I’m including a picture from inside my too-organized supply closet. “Nerd Alert!” (In Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, the lovely Elizabeth Hurley plays Vanessa Kensington, a competent and very Type-A femme spy. In her suitcase, Austin Powers [Mike Myers] sees that each article of clothing is folded and sealed in a Ziploc bag, neatly labeled [e.g. “Yellow Dress”]. Austin turns to the audience and quietly commentates in a Mike Myers’ falsetto aside, “Nerd Alert!” Whenever I see that I’ve done something fussy and nearly-neurotic, I turn to the camera that I wish was always with me and narrate, “Nerd Alert!” ) ++


These little tea light holders are nothing big, I know. But they gave me that fabulous “you’re ingenius” glow for seven minutes. Something from nothing.


* Now dear reader, before you place a tea light in a raffia napkin ring, burn down your house, and blame me, I implore you: don’t. I will simply file your lawyer’s Letter of Lawsuit Notification in my “You Should’ve Known Better” file.