published Friday, January 13th, 2012

New Chattanooga business owner makes treasures out of discarded objects

Zach McDonald poses for a portrait at his shop, 86 Things, in Warehouse Row. McDonald, a Southern Adventist University graduate, works in design, wedding styling and repurposing of old items.
Zach McDonald poses for a portrait at his shop, 86 Things, in Warehouse Row. McDonald, a Southern Adventist University graduate, works in design, wedding styling and repurposing of old items.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

Zach McDonald, 27, makes new things out of old things: a table from an old suitcase, a lamp from a tuba, a sculpture from a telescope.

He uses the word "things" intentionally. His company is called 86 Things.

"I use the word because it's less pretentious," he said. "Everyone can connect with 'things.' It's a more universally relatable word."

The "86" is in reference to restaurant slang for "get rid of" -- as in "86 the bacon" -- and is based on the designer's penchant for finding uses for discarded items.

"Older stuff feels less mass produced and manufactured," said McDonald. "It's like treasure hunting. When I go junk collecting, I really am looking for things that are unique."

Each week, he said, he goes collecting -- in thrift shops, in antique stores, in the woods, along the roadside.

"I've always been a collector of random stuff," he said.

He finds ways to make random stuff beautiful or useful. A twist of vines and an old heating duct becomes a lamp. Discarded washers and watch gears transform into jewelry. An old milk bucket, painted teal and filled with cotton blossoms, makes a charming visual element.

A 2008 graduate of Southern Adventist University, where he studied fine arts and entrepreneurial management, McDonald is a believer that art doesn't have to be just something done for play.

"I really want artists to do what they're supposed to be doing," he said. "A lot of people are hearing 'good luck, have a Plan B, art's not a career.' I think it could be."

He hopes to be able to act as a mentor and offer internships to local art students, helping them to turn creative ideas into commercially viable ones. University art programs, he said, don't always do enough to help students make a living from art.

"I think [young artists] need to know what they're looking for and who can help them," McDonald said.

McDonald has returned to his alma mater to speak to art students about the possibilities available to burgeoning artists.

"It was really good because they were able to see a fairly recent graduate that is being successful and able to work for himself," said fine arts assistant professor Elizabeth Pontvik. "He was a very dynamic and engaging speaker and was able to share recent real-world experience, how to use his artwork to make a living in ways he never could have imagined as a student."

McDonald has partnered with another new local company, Homespun Parties & Events. The front room of Homespun's Warehouse Row storefront is dedicated wholly to 86 Things.

McDonald does anything he can to build a career out of his love and talent for art: He paints, restores furniture, designs, decorates and plans events.

Rene Mote's daughter, Tiffany Mote Roennfeldt, was a classmate of McDonald's at Southern Adventist University.

Roennfeldt got married in Australia, where she now resides, but her mother wanted to throw her a stateside reception to celebrate with family and friends at home. She hired McDonald to plan the event, which was held at Loose Cannon Gallery.

"I just said, 'Honey, it's all yours,' and I'll tell you what, I have never seen anything like it."

Each table featured a different theme and used branches, candles and pages from old books to decorate. A mixture of natural-colored texture fabrics were layered to create tablecloths. The buffet tables were set up with antique sleds upon which the food was set.

"He totally transformed the atmosphere," said Mote. "I wanted to spend the night there because the ambiance was so warm and inviting. I felt it would take me all night to really appreciate what he did. My daughter had tears in her eyes."

McDonald lives in Collegedale, in a basement apartment he describes as "not extremely homey." He has a roommate and a little wood shop studio. The porch is filled with the junk he collects. He spends his days designing on the computer and his nights making things.

His artistic mind is a family trait, he said. "My grandma and dad were both really creative."

McDonald began exploring art in high school. He dabbled in film and graphic design before focusing on fine art at Southern. He studied painting and eventually began exploring decorating and repurposing. He opened 86 Things in November 2011 and is hoping to get more custom work.

"I'd love to help people redo their own stuff," he said.

Customers say he is insightful and has a good eye for what would make someone happy.

"He kind of can read what you like," said Maria Nudd, who worked with McDonald to redecorate the interior of her Hendersonville, N.C., home. "The moment you meet him, he can tell your style."

Nudd, 31, has three children, ages 4, 3 and 19 months. One element of McDonald's work was to decorate rooms for the children.

"I wanted kind of a frou-frou room for my girls," she said, "and of course that's probably not his style, but he knew exactly what I wanted, and he did it."

To make Nudd's little girls feel like princesses, McDonald painted a dresser pink and silver while adding candelabras. In Nudd's son's room, McDonald painted murals of construction equipment.

"Another really cool thing he did is he got regular old clipboards and painted them black, then put pictures of construction equipment on the clipboards and arranged them really neat," she said.

The most important thing he's learned, McDonald said, is the value of trusting his own instincts.

"I think you have to trust yourself, trust your ideas, and go for it," he said. "Do not be afraid to fail."

He has one big idea he just can't shake.

"I want to make a dining room table out of a grand piano," he said. "That's been in my head for five years, but people don't really want to give you their grand piano to cut apart."

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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