Q&A: Mary Randolph Carter on the joy of junking

Nov 08, 2018

Mary Randolph Carter is not into the decluttering movement. The long-time creative director of Ralph Lauren has written eight books, mostly on how much she loves collecting stuff. Her latest book "The Joy of Junk" for Rizzoli celebrates thrifting and flea markets and the treasures that make your house a home. The book has lots of tips from other collectors with full houses and a "Junkers Guide" to some of the best places to hunt. Talk to her about your stuff and how to find it and live with it.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers, Marie Kondo or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small, send them over.

Mary Randolph Carter, an author, photographer and designer, is a believer of making your home a place full of things you love. She loves seeking out curious and beautiful objects and finding ways to display them. She is a fan of the hunt - foraging and finding amazing things in thrift shops, flea markets and yard sales.  The long-time creative director of Ralph Lauren has written eight books, focusing on how much she loves collecting. Her latest book "The Joy of Junk" for Rizzoli celebrates the treasures that make your house a home. The book has lots of tips from other collectors with full houses and a "Junkers Guide" to some of the best places to hunt. Talk to her about your stuff and how to find it and live with it.

Hi Junkers one and all!

I'm so excited to be back on Home Front with my pal Jura!

As you know I LIVE & LOVE for JUNK! In my life, it has never been a four letter word. It's all about the "eye of the beholder!" Your eye! What you love! What makes you joyful! WE NEED JOY in our lives! My new book--The Joy of Junk--is about how to hunt down that JOY and how to make it part of your very own personal environment and aesthetic in YOUR HOME! A lot of very generous collectors shared their STUFF in the pages of my book. Thanks to all of them and to you for being part of this fun today and for being fans of mine and the world of Joyful Junk for so many years!

Junkfully, Mary Randolph Carter (aka CARTER!)

I always seem to die just a little bit inside each time I go to a yard sale, and I ask the person holding the sale, "Do you have any old keys? You know, a coffee can full of old keys that you don't know what they go to, but you hang on to them anyway?" And then the person responds with, "Oh, I just threw that away yesterday when I was getting ready for this sale." Ouch. I use them for artwork. Other than yard sales, where can I find old keys that are reasonably priced in bulk? Any suggestions?

Hey, One Woman's Trash!

Oh, boy, do I relate to your pain! How often I have asked for something like an old key and heard--"Oh, I threw that out yesterday or the person in front of you just picked up 100 old keys from a chateau in France for a dollar! I can't tell you where to find keys, but they're out there and if you're passionate you'll find them. Do you ever hunt online? Check out Etsy or Ebay when looking for something really specific. I just found great collections of vintage brass candlesticks for my son's wedding last month. Now I have to sell them since our apartment looks like the Sistine Chapel. LOL!

Have fun! Go Junk! 


I was handed down the early Barbies with bald heads and wigs, Skipper doll etc along with some clothes. I let my daughter play with them so they are not collectors items but do I hang on to them when I down size? My daughter lives in a studio in Brooklyn so not on her radar yet. How do you know what to keep?

Hey, Vintage Barbies!

You won't believe it but I bought a collection of about fifty Barfies and Kens with handmade outfits! You know how much I love Fashion, well personal style, and these dolls were AMAZING! I never grew up with Barbies (after my time!) but then I had an instant collection. I actually gave them to my Daughter-in-Law's young neice visiting from Poland years ago! So I am not faced with your problem of What now? In general, I'm not thinking ahead about the INEVitable! I just love what I love and keep holding on to it. Keep what makes you happy!

Junkfully, Carter

Dear Carter Can you please describe a few favourite, rare, extraordinary items you have found for next to nothing when out thrifting or junking? Thank you Megan

Hi Megan!

This is hard! I love all my collections, but there was one lately that Mike Wolfe of American Pickers gave me when I visited him in Nashville last year! It's a ONE WOMAN BAND made out of a wash board, bells, horns and you hand it around your neck and go to town! But, what really love is how handmade it is and it looks like a primitive sculpture! It was featured in Country Living Magazine in November! I write a column them every month on my Passion and yours--the hunt for treasure!



I am intrigued by the junking "movement" which seems to have, in reality, been around for quite some time. I always felt I should have a bumper sticker that said: "I stop for Yard Sales!" My question is: Can Ms. Carter offer suggestions for how to handle situations where others in the household are not as enthusiastic as the "primary junker?" I'd also love to see any organizing solutions for displaying the treasures.

Hey Junking,

Do you not know that I created a "junker sticker"--I BRAKE FOR JUNK!??? It comes as a gift in my new book-tye Joy of Junk! As for the OTHERS you share your life with--believe me, I have experience with that--a long-suffering husband and two now grown sons (out on their own!) They have been more than generous with my addiction, but I have always tried to listen to their wants...My husband: All I want is One Comfortable Chair. He got it...then the dog took it over!

Organization is important so your STUFF doesn't overwhelm! A little discipline allows you to really enjoy your collections. Try to curate on shelves, cupboards and the like. Or you won't see the forest for the trees!




I love thrifting and purchased all of my decor items and some of my furniture from thrift shops when living in DC. I have since moved to Portland, Oregon and haven’t found a favorite thrift store here. Do you have any suggestions of where to go in Portland, or Oregon in general?

Portand? Wow! Never been! How's the JUNK?

Oh, boy...I don't know your hood, but check local newspapers or better yet online! Please share what you find!

Sorry! Junkfully, Carter

We are doing a story this holiday season on gifts for the unsung heroes in your life, the special people you might not know well but who make a difference in how your day or your child’s day goes -- perhaps the dental assistant who always manages to squeeze you in at the last minute, or the security guard who has a smile every morning when you arrive at work, or your school bus driver. Got some other ideas? Please share them by emailing me at jura.koncius@washpost.com 

What should we do with 100 yr old monogrammed table linens - some stained and with small holes? Do you just throw them out or donate? It is overwhelming.

Overwhelming! Yes, but you have real Treasures! I am always looking for my monogram on an old piece of linen! I actually make them into Pillows! I have a great one that says, Sweet Dreams, that is now a unique bolster on my guest room bed!

Junk ON! carter

Could you explain what you mean by collecting and collections (because people are going to say it's just other ways to describe hoarding) and how you maintain your collections? Do you sell/donate things when you bring new things in? Do you store things away? Do you rotate what's on display and how do you decide? Are there specific things you look for? And, how do you answer people when you say that you absolutely are keeping that beautiful etched glass 1920s barware you just found in your mom's attic no matter how un-minimalist it is and hopelessly old-fashioned and out-of-date it looks?

Oh my gosh! I feel like I am at PRESS CONference for Junkers and there are so many questions you've shared and I think I have to pick just a couple or else check out my new book--The Joy of Junk--for more answers and thoughtful suggestions from other collectors (WE ARE NOT hoarders!) like us! 

I don't think maintaining my collections...I LIVE with them and somehow they add a personality to our home. I do dust occasionally, but I love the patina of age.

I do rotate, especially when I come home with a new FIND! This is a great way to make room for the new and have a ball rearranging and rediscovering what you had forgotten about!

And those people that ask those questions like--"Why would you keep that old thing?" Well, that's easy! YOU LOVE IT! AND IT GIVES YOU JOY! Don't be rude, but listen to what makes your heart beat! 



How do you make your junk look modern?

EEK! What's Modern? I believe in Timeless things that bring a certain personality and uniqueness to live and home. Modern today seems to be about a certain kind of minimalist look. Yikes! Not good at that, but sometimes celebrating one special thing by giving it prominence in your hope works wonders. 



A lot of my friends have those old fashioned glass fronted hulking brown wood breakfronts in their dining rooms. They are filled with dusty old china and crystal and they don't look very current (yes we are Baby Boomers). What's a good way to update what is in these cabinets?

I have one of those in our NYC apt. My husband gave it to me years ago and its filled with "dusty" pewter plates and goblets!

Now I am mixing quirkier things along with the pewter--a unique sculpture, a fun painting...things like that. I am a junker Baby Boomer and so not so good about being current. I love it all!

Good luck and love the dust!



Carter , love your books.. I have them all. You have a demanding job, now grown children and a husband of 48 years. What role does your family play in helping you do all of this ?

So sweet of you to ask and include them! Howard will be particularly thrilled! He and our sons have always been incredibly supportive of my junking habit. Specifically, Howard has always been my chief navigator driving me to the outposts of junk everywhere. Then, he usually stays in the car and reads his newspaper and calls his friends to complain about "Carter" at it again...out in the fields of JUNK. What a blessed MAN. My children--Carter and Sam--seem to love to bring their friends to our home and relish the fact that nothing much has changed--just more has been added! They are my LIFE!



I'm curious where you got your thrill of the hunt. I got mine from my grandfather who used to take me to garage sales and flea markets. It seems junkers often have an influence.

My book is dedicated to my incredible Mother--Mary Randolph Christian Carter (aka Pat!) She had the eye, the energy, the spirit to hunt for that one of kind thing that transforms us! Here's to Mom and all those mentors that gave us permission t fall in love with the WHACKIEST, most beautiful thing in the world! 

Mom's on a hunt in heaven now!





Hi, I was a member of the Elvis Presley Fan Club as a girl, and have an old document from the fan club! Do you have any suggestions for displaying personal mementoes like this in my home? "9"

I am so JEALOUS! You know, of course, I was the President of the ELVIS fan club in 7th grade! He sent me a Holiday card at that time with jivey reindeers on the front and a message--Wishing you a Cool Yule and a Frantic First! That card has been long gone and I still search the attic in Virginia for it! My answer is to  build an altar to it and be careful not to Lose it like I did!

Go Elvis fans!


Where is that fine line between being a collector and turning into a hoarder? We recently had to sell our home and everything in it, and I was surprised at how much STUFF I had acquired over the years. We couldn't get a car in the garage, much less walk through it easily. I miss it all - the house and all the half-finished projects I had in the garage. When I have room again to start collecting (we are living with my aging father-in-law and have no room for our own furnishings), I would like to try and keep it (somewhat) under control. Any rules you follow to not become overwhelmed?

I feel for you! When my first son Carter got married I threw out a lot of treasures from our barn upstate to make room for the party. I was bereft afterwards! All i can say is what fun you will have starting to collect new/old things! NO RULES! Just LOVE what you LOVE and give yourself permission to live your life with the things that give you great joy and pleasure! You deserve it!

Junk ON!


Where is your favorite find junk treasures? I picked up an antique bentwood chair on the side the road and then spent way too long learning to recane it. Now I love it but my family and friends still tease me about my roadside finds.

I'm totally with you! Today I hunt on the sidewalks of New York, and OH the treasures to be found. did you know there's a Trash Museum in NYC curated and collected by an amazing retired sanitation worker named Nelson Molina. He took me on a tour of the Trash Museum filled with the abandoned goods of city dwellers. You would not believe what people give up!! Google him and try to visit this WONDROUS Place. 

Of cours, in the country I'm always on the lookout for roadside finds. So many are FREE! You must have my I BRAKE FOR JUNK bumper sticker to protect those unsuspecting drivers behind you! There's one waiting for you in my new book--The Joy of JUNK! 

Junk On, my friend and don't worry about the teasing of others! They're secretly jealous of your keen eye!


Carter... I've been a long time fan of yours. How did you do it all with a fulltime demanding job, two children a husband and two homes and dogs. What role did your family play in all of your endeavors ?

I love to hear from long time fans! It's so inspiring to know I 'm not out there ALONE! I guess that's why I love Jura's Home Front chat! Get to really hear and touch those like me that can't help but love Stuff!

How do I do it? I guess I'm just relentless and committed to doing it ALL. But, always helped and supported by my FAMILY and Friends who are always encouraging! I have had many mentors along the way--like my Mother Pat who had nine kids, started her own business, survived two fires, restored with my Dad a 17th center ruin and always lived her life giving and loving every day of it! What an inspiration. Short answer: Just do it--EVERYTHING is possible!



After many years, I've come to the realization that I am more of a hunter than a collector. I love the thrill of the hunt, the excitement of an auction, poking around an old barn or dusty shop. I love doing the research and learning about the item. I love to clean it up and see its beauty. But then it's all over for me. Luckily, I've figured out how to get the best of both worlds, and just had a pop-up shop! I could display and sell all of my gorgeous things, share them with others, and make some money to continue the cycle! Meg PigtownDesign.com

Hey, Meg! Good to hear from you! Thanks for sharing out how you have figured out! Thrill of the HUNT always!



trying to join the chat

Please keep trying...

Make it fit in more modern interiors without painting it a circus color. Love the sturdiness and quality of the furniture.

Great solution! I have been doing that quite a bit adding color to drab furniture adds COLOR to our lives! Except my walls. I 've always kept them white as a canvas for my collection of Thrit Shop Paintings, or as I call them--my Junk Masters!

Junk on!


I hope you are taking a break after just publishing your wonderful "Joy of Junk." But down the road -- do you have other ideas and topics you'd like to explore for your Junk series? You've been a big part of so many beautiful weddings, especially your son Carter's, that I'm hoping to see tips on that topic at some point.

Who is this? Member of my family???

I guess the next book could be "Wedding Junk!" How to collect 500 vintage brass candlestick holders, 1000 woodland figurines spray painted gold, hand made candles, etc. etc. 

Another thought would be "Holiday Junk." How to find those one of kind things that create FUN and MAGIC during each holiday!!! Thanksgiving coming ups with my funny collection of wooden painted TURKEYS!

Stay tuned for more Carter JUNK!


Junking in Provence this summer--my FAVORITE place to junk, I purchased several of what seem to bolster size linen pillow cases that are very long--think 4-5 feet--that button up the middle and have lovely lace on the ends. They seemed very common at these flea markets but I can't seem to find any pillows to fill them? I've googled extra long pillows, asked on French vintage facebook pages but don't get an answer. I'd love to use them on my bed. Stephanie

Hey Stephanie,

Lucky you! Wow Provence in summer! I think you have to resort to finding a way to make your own pillows or like me find a great seamstress to help you! I am totally inept with sewing--except hat one green velvet jumper I made in Home Ec Class in 8th grade! (Actually, Mom did most of the work.) 

Junk on!


I find re-creating junk into interesting decor is so much more fun than going to Home Goods (which I love too). Yard sales are so much fun! I recently found a large wood-framed mirror with fabulous floral carvings for $15. I spray-painted it with gold color & put it up in my bathroom over the sink. Old dressers at the curb are in my home, repainted & stenciled. If you are creative, you can add so many interesting, antique & modern items in your home decor.

So there you have it! The amazing finale of going out and enjoying that amazing hunt and then making engaging in that creative act of making it into something unique that express YOUR TASTE and then finding the perfect place for it in your home! There are so many layers and joys to getting out there (not in retail shop) but in the glorious fields of junk--flea markets, tag sales, yard sales, stoop sales, boot sales, auctions, online hunts!  We are so lucky to live without boundaries!



How do you keep up with all the dust that gathers around tabletops and shelves full of collections?

Just walk by it! LOL!  I love Swiffer dusters!

Can you imagine the layers that form on my things living with open windows in NYC???

Be Brave,




What are the best places to sell the junk you get tired of?

Well, I will soon be investigating that as I have 50 vintage brass candlestick holders leftover from my son Sam and his new wife Cassie's wedding a month ago! I bought most of them on eBAY so that's where I'll start. My husband keeps challenging me to have the ULTIMATE YARD SALE cleaning out all my decades of STUFF stored in our barn. HMMMM...mayebe one day!

Love your JUNK!



When you visit a new place, what's the first shopping source you look for? Thrift shop? Antique mall? Flea market? Estate sales?

Really depends. I rely on my junker friends when I'm in a new place! In LA working on my latest junk tome--THE JOY OF JUNK--my friend in junk Ramona Otto and her husband Steve took me and son Carter (who photographer all the images!) to an outpost in the Mojave Desert called Antiques in the Barn. It was incredible! So I go where my junkers point me!

Junkfullly, Carter

How refreshing to be talking about finding good stuff rather than decluttering it - thanks so much Mary Randolph Carter! Good luck with your new book The Joy of Junk. Next week I'll have Nancy Fire, design director for HGTV HOME chatting about what's in and what's out right now for your home.

Hey my Junking friends!

I had such a blast being with you the last hour. Look for me on Instagram--Carterjunk and on Facebook Mary Randolph Carter and let's continue our junking dialogue! Thank you Jura and the Washington Post for paying attention to other subjects--not just politics! Now, go out there and love your Junk and search for more to bring that very special MAGIC to your life and home!

Junk on my friends...I will be with you!


I have a lot of old things I'd like to frame, put in shadowboxes, etc. It is so expensive. Any ideas on how to do this without busting my budget?

so many of the paintings that i"ve collected I just hang frameless! 

Junk on!

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Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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