When Hungarian immigrant Max Englander founded the Englander Spring Bed Co. in New York City in 1909, it’s unlikely he ever dreamed that more than a century later a spring bed of his making would be thought of as a work of art. That, however, is exactly what John Hiden, owner of Mongers Market — a new, 75,000-square-foot wonderland of industrial, architectural, vintage, salvaged and reclaimed objects set in a former Bridgeport factory — considers it. “Look at the rust! The patina!” Hiden says of the Englander artifact he has hanging on display. Even its original label, promising a 25-year warranty (bonus!), remains intact. “I can see it as wall art over a sofa,” says Hiden — and, suddenly, it’s easy to imagine.
Hiden, who discovered a passion for “all things old” at the age of 12 while digging for weathered bottles on the shores of Long Island Sound, hasn’t always sold objects with more rust than gleam. In fact, for 21 years, he operated Hiden Galleries in Stamford, a celebrated multi-dealer shop that specialized in fine antiques. He purchased the former Pratt, Read and Co. factory in Bridgeport in 2012 with the intention of relocating, and began to collect pieces of industrial salvage as “props” for a similar business he envisioned for the cavernous factory space in serious need of an overhaul. As renovations moved forward, however, the market began to shift.
“Sensibilities changed; tastes changed,” says Hiden, who closed his Stamford showplace in May 2017. Millennials seem to have no interest in what he calls “brown” furniture (Empire or Victorian behemoths like those grandma made sure to dust once a week) — or even in antiquing itself.
“They don’t take the time,” Hiden laments. “They find stuff online. The search, the hunt, the quest isn’t considered romantic anymore,” which is exactly what Hiden, and the team of mongers he continues to add to the market, hope to change.
“The real joy in this business is in the finding,” says Hiden — and he is always looking. The fact that some of his favorite hunting grounds are former mills and factories is reflected in the staggering amount of industrial salvage waiting at the market to explore: factory machine legs in all heights, weights and colors, sawhorses, scaffolding hooks, coal scuttles, shop stools, wooden conveyor belts and who knows how many miles of reclaimed lumber. The list goes on and on, but, amazingly enough, if you ask Hiden the story behind each, he is likely to know.
“I pretty much know where everything here came from,” he says. Over there, employee lockers from Ansonia Copper & Brass and copper vats from a perfume factory in West Haven; around the bend, ventilators from a tobacco barn in Windsor, wooden lanes from the late Sky Top Lanes bowling alley in Torrington and molds once used to cast steel and iron parts at U.S. Baird in Stratford (where Two Roads Brewing Co. now stands); in a far corner, dozens upon dozens of steamer trunks stacked floor to ceiling (oh, the stories they have to tell); on a mezzanine, rows upon rows of vintage doors waiting for a new purpose in life (perhaps as a headboard or as the top of funky new dining table). So much to see!
Kate Hauser, an interior architect in Weston who was one of the first tradespeople to bring clients to Mongers Market, certainly likes what Hiden has done with the place. “The way John has styled the market is a complete labor of love,” Hauser says. “It’s an art installation, really, if not a bit of a museum — and an ideal spot to spend a few hours dreaming.”
Does Hiden truly believe he can draw people away from their screens to embrace the space he has reimagined? “What we’ve done is so unusual, so eclectic, that I really believe we can,” says Hiden, who also hopes that the current “green movement” to recycle/upcycle in order to maybe, just maybe, save this planet of ours will help. “The truth is: I don’t know if it’s going to work,” Hiden admits. “The jury is still out, but I’m all in. Every square inch of this building has been touched by my hands.”
Mongers Market, 1155 Railroad Ave., Bridgeport, is open Sundays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Monday through Wednesday by appointment; 203-583-5899, facebook.com/mongersmarket
Finding the right found objects for your home
John Hiden guesstimates that he has hundreds of thousands (perhaps even millions) of industrial, architectural, salvaged and reclaimed objects for sale at his massive Mongers Market. Thrilling to consider? Yes. A bit overwhelming? That, too. No worries: these tips from industry experts will get you headed in the right direction.
Tell me a story: “Always ask about the story behind a piece you’re considering,” says Steve Garceau, founder of Reworx in Watertown, which designs and makes custom furniture and handmade pieces from reclaimed barnwood, rescued and salvaged materials. “The emotion lies in the story.” For a nation at a “very nostalgic point in its history,” adds interior architect Kate Hauser of Kate Hauser + Co in Weston, “reclaimed objects provide a powerful connection to the past.”
That being said …: “What [a found object] once was is secondary,” says Frank Conroy of 21 Tables in Hamden. “Look at what it can be.” Conroy, who pairs local woods with industrial elements to create his one-of-a-kind tables, has repurposed everything from engine lathes to compressor tanks to serve as table bases. “Look beyond the original purpose,” Hauser agrees. “What was once an exterior shutter can go on a track to become a window treatment for your interior ... a former barn door could serve as a room divider or just as easily a piece of art.”
Baby steps: “Start simple,” suggests Joe De Risi of Urban Miners, specialists in building-material salvage and deconstruction, and a prominent monger at Hiden’s market. Find a piece of reclaimed wood that catches your eye and put brackets on it to create a shelf. (Floating shelves and live edge are trending.) Take a factory beam and have it cut to length to become a mantle.
Balance your act: “The best interiors have a balance,” Hauser says. “A blend of masculine and feminine, yin and yang.” With the colors that are trending quite feminine (“taupey mauves,” pale green, violet …) and the focus on modern, curvaceous forms, “reclaimed pieces tend to lend a more masculine edge.”
Take lots of pictures: “Shopping with location in mind is important,” Hauser says. Bring photos of the specific spot you’re decorating and “be sure to consider the volume of the rest of the room,” Garceau adds, as well as its size and shape, how much natural light shines in, and elements already in place that might compete.
Less is more: “Architectural and industrial pieces have a purity of form that’s pleasing to the eye,” Hauser says. “Against a blank, contemporary background they can appear almost sculptural — but they do need some air. Vintage on top of vintage can get a little lost.” Time to banish that clutter.
Respect your elders: “It’s a challenge to work with a found object,” Garceau says. You want to be respectful of the original craftsman, but you do need it to function in your world. “Just don’t over-manipulate.” That rust? Those chips? They’re part of the story.
Be brave: “The new [and perhaps next] generation of antiques are things craftspeople have made out of salvaged and reclaimed pieces,” De Risi says. Be the trendsetter, but ease up on trying to control the outcome. “With reclaimed you have to have some flexibility with your expectations,” Garceau advises. “Enjoy the journey and celebrate the result even if it surprises you.” And no worries if you think you’ll need a little help along the way: Hiden is planning to add still more mongers to his market (the goal being a dream team of between 40 and 50), including those who will help take the raw and wonderful materials of your choosing and turn them into the one-of-a-kind finished products you envision.