Mary Randolf Carter decorates with junk to create unique personal style

Reading: The Joy of Junk and Clutter

Parenting & Caregiving

The Joy of Junk and Clutter

Mary Randolph Carter finds beauty and style by collecting junk

By Katie Weisman

“What I learned from my parents is the love for believing in your own eye and creating personal style for yourself.” This from Mary Randolph Carter, a semiprofessional junk collector, author, photographer, designer, and a Ralph Lauren veteran creative director.

Joy of Junk cover

Photo by Carter Berg

Carter, who uses Carter as her first name, was talking about her passion for collecting junk: items for sale at flea markets or tag sales that might be invisible to others but speak to you and wind up in your home. Carter’s latest book, The Joy of Junk (Rizzoli), is filled with images from her photographer son Carter Berg, and it extols the virtues and sheer fun of collecting things to create one’s own interior design style.

In addition to explaining and illustrating her own collecting habits, Carter reveals those from others with the “junking bug,” including interior design and antiques couple Bunny Williams and John Roselli, and Mike Wolfe from the History Channel’s “American Pickers.” Carter discusses the how-tos of “junking,” including what to wear — a fishing vest with lots of pockets! — when you’re setting out for a day of picking.

Carter in her fishing vest with a cart

The final chapter of the book, “The Junkers Guide,” lists addresses of Carter’s favorite flea markets and antiques stores in the US, including the monthly Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena, CA, and the Renninger’s antique and flea markets in Pennsylvania and Florida.


Junk — in Your Genes

Junking in her jeans

Can you be born with the “junking bug”? Carter thinks so.

She grew up in Virginia, the oldest of nine children. Her family went through two major house fires, the first one tragic when three of her mother’s family members died. Her parents had to be resourceful about filling their third residence with furnishings in order to create yet another family home.

“We didn’t have ancestral portraits. When [my parents] decided to hang paintings, they had to borrow other people’s ancestors,” Carter recalls. “They filled the house with American and English antiques, but they were always thinking about a house filled with people. They brought a picnic table into the kitchen one Thanksgiving and the table stayed.”

When Carter moved to New York City and her first apartment, she wondered what she wanted to surround herself with. She realized that she wanted items that reminded her of the family home in Virginia such as old quilts, samplers, and “things that had a timeless beauty.” But Carter had limited funds and turned to flea markets to furnish and decorate her pad, a move that sparked her passion for treasure hunting thrift-style.

Carter and her husband Howard Berg have lived for over 40 years in their current Manhattan apartment where they raised their two now-adult boys, Carter and Sam. Photos in The Joy of Junk reveal paintings covering apartment walls, while books and knickknacks (including her mini-collection of religious icons) are packed into shelves and nooks. Eschewing curtains or shades, Carter uses vintage exterior shutters as window treatments. The top of a cricket table — an occasional table with three legs that she’s had since she moved in — is adorned with “a bizarre mix of objects,” Carter writes in her book. These include a wooden bunny and a wire basket of eggs.

Vintage shutters in Carter’s master bedroom

The ten-foot-long shelf in her kitchen holds Quimper plates, a porcelain gnome, and a bouquet of dried flowers in a vintage teal blue vase, among other pieces. To some, it might seem like a haphazard mishmash of stuff.  To Carter and her admirers, it’s eclectically curated interior design that she calls “scrapbook style.”


It’s Clutter, Not Hoarding

“I’m not a hoarder,” Carter says emphatically. “I would say there is clutter but it is not a disorganized mess.” Carter explains that the key to her style is mixing. “I love layering, texture, folk art and then I started to add quirkier things to what we had,” Carter explains. “I mix vintage with new, old jeans with tuxedo jackets.”

Making clutter look great involves choices about where things should go, or not go. For example, you should leave some surfaces free of objects.  Carter also suggests that you curate your finds into collections in order to better show them off. Glass-front cupboards, vintage pharmaceutical cabinets, or simple shelving are great for displays, Carter says. And she has plenty of  Swiffers on hand for dusting.

“Jane Ives collected old chipped blue ware,” Carter notes, referring to one of the former actor’s collections. “She built a little shelf in her bedroom and has all the cups lined up. Your eye appreciates when you see them all there together.”


Thrifting is Here to Stay

Collecting, thrifting, and junking has not changed much for Carter over the years. The Internet, however, has added a helpful new dimension to the process of procurement, notably if you are looking for quantities of a specific item. For her son Sam’s October wedding, the family wanted to decorate the space at New York’s National Arts Club with “a million old brass candlesticks.” They also wanted to adorn the tables with piles of vintage books and figurines of woodland creatures in materials such as ceramic or papier-maché. Carter purchased most of these items in lots on Etsy and eBay, noting that if she’d bought them individually, she would have paid much more.

Collecting, Carter feels, is a hobby here for the ages. This, despite the fact that we live in a consumer era where noncommitment is pervasive, where you can rent everything from handbags to wedding dresses, and ride-sharing is a popular mode of transportation.

“I think that the transient themes of our culture will pass,” Carter observes. “It will drive energy towards the impulse to create something that is ‘mine’ and more permanent…People want pieces that express who they are.”

Carter’s family has patiently indulged her collecting passion, even if countless car trips were halted for piles on the street or tag sales.

She’s heard the refrain “Come on, mom!” many times and she strives to make her “obsession/passion not a burden to my family and friends.”

Carter’s NYC apartment with serape-covered sofa

Carter truly dislikes the idea of a home and its interior décor being “done.”  She even wrote a book called A Perfectly Kept House is The Sign of A Misspent Life.

“That would be too boring and too sad,” she says. “Your home is a living space. It can’t be ‘done’. I don’t believe in ‘done’; I believe in process. Never stop to think: do I have a place for this? If it moves you, if you love it, if there’s a place for it in your heart, then there is room in your home.”



  1. Laurie Thurman

    I just read your article in this months country living magazine. Your joy of Girl Scout memorabilia warmed my heart! I have my mom’s brownie flashlight, two of my Girl Scout handbooks, my sash with all that hard work attached to it AND my vest with its patches from the Girl Scout jamborees. Only I don’t think they were called that. I also have my brownie hankie and my brownie and cadet little glass figures. Your article has inspired me to get them out and frame them and display them!!!

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