“My name is Olivia Mercadante, and I’m a full time mess.” This is how Olivia Mercadante describes herself to me at the beginning of our interview. While many people can relate the title of “full time mess,” Mercadante’s messes lead to unusually impressive results. When she is not studying at law school full time, the twenty-four year-old Mercadante dedicates almost all of her spare hours to artisan refurbishing and refurnishing. She refurbishes vintage couture handbags—unloved Chanel bags for sale on eBay, for example—and also refurnishes decrepit furniture collecting dust in family attics and abandoned on the side of the road. “I like to be surrounded by beautiful things,” she explains to me.
She’s found pieces at flea markets, in her local town, and in her grandparents’ garage. “The chair you’re sitting in right now was my great-grandmother’s from the 1930’s,” she chimes in, and then adds, “the chair I’m sitting in used to be a piano chair from my great grandparents’ cottage on a lake. I found it in the attic.” Mercadante tells me of a kitchen table she refurbished that belonged her great-grandparents, which her mother used to sit on during the 1950’s and watch cartoons. “It’s not just recycled. It’s personal.”
Part of what draws Mercadante to refurnishing and refurbishing is maintaining the old, while creating something new. “It nurtures a creativity that pays homage to the original maker or designer, but in a way that still utilizes my skill and creative mind.” She explains that she embraces the integrity of the original item, to showcase and celebrate it. She turns a piece into something appreciated, rather than depreciated, “which is how most things, as they get older in our culture, go.”
Mercadante takes handbags whose edges are scuffed, the leather not as soft, the color a little patchy; and though she admits she cannot fix it all, she doesn’t really intend to “fix” anything. Her primary intention is to return a particular item to the state it should be. “I’m not going to pretend that I can make a ruined bag look brand new,” says Mercadante, “but you make it look like it was intended to look and how it should be. Bags are like people. They have imperfections you work with.”
Mercadante’s artistry seems obvious to the casual visitor to her apartment, which is scattered with lovely furniture and handsome handbags. However, this was not always the case. As a fifth grader, she received a B- on an art project. “I was a total nerd, and if I even got an A instead of an A+, I would be really upset and crying,” she confesses, “and I got a B- on a charcoal drawing of a sunset.” This catastrophic art project became a learning experience for the young Mercadante. “I think I just used too many colors and my brain was spinning really fast, and my hands weren’t able to catch up. Part of what my artwork improvement and growth is—90% is my hands being able to catch up with my brain or my brain slowing down to let my hands catch up.”
As Mercadante grew up, she overcame shyness at new schools by sitting one-on-one with acquaintances and painting their profiles. She jokes about using painting to get past the anxiety of meeting new people. “I’m very introverted—you can probably tell by the fact that I live by myself with a lot of polyurethane—but one of my ways of getting to know people was to draw them.”
Mercadante later went on to study beauty at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She titled her major “marketing a cultural aesthetic.” In particular, she studied the notion of beauty as a social construct, as currency. “People are worth how beautiful they are” in our society, she laments. “I studied how [beauty] is traded, and bought, and sold, and sought after, and chased, and how so in different cultures, and why.”
While studying at Gallatin, and abroad in Florence, Italy, Mercadante was influenced by the idea of beauty as a striking quality. “The Japanese word for beauty is ‘wabi sabi,’ which roughly means ‘beauty in dissonance’—something broken in a pattern that catches your eye and lures you in. I think of jazz music, like Miles Davis. [There is] something about that one note that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable because it’s off, but you keep listening because it’s beautiful—the imperfection.”
She admits her unease with the modern conception of beauty. In college, she debated with professors and other students about the definition of beauty in art. Mercadante felt her definition of beauty would not hold up in today’s art world. “I’ve said that art is dead, which is why I pay respect to those things that have already been made. I like the concept of creating out of something forgotten or broken, rather than something completely blank. [There is this idea that] anything you write has been written, anything you think has been thought. Okay. I’m going to embrace that, and I feel content working with something that somebody else designed.”
Mercadante spent the summer interning in Atlanta, Georgia, and was able to reunite with her boyfriend who lives there as well. She invested her spare time in fixing up one dilapidated oak table that appeared to have been used as a child’s art table. “[My boyfriend] and I like to pretend we are billionaires, so it’s nice having this really fancy desk that really costs nothing but my own sweat and humiliation—walking around like a hobo all the time.” Mercadante wasn’t the only creative soul in the house, though. She describes to me the unfortunate fate of a pair of her boyfriend’s shoes. “Like I said,” she reminds me, “[he] and I both think we are billionaires living in very poor people’s bodies. So, he has this same taste for high quality in the things he wears, particularly shoes. He has several pairs of nice shoes, and he read somewhere that you can treat your nice leather shoes by putting body lotion on them. So, he took my Jergens Body Glow lotion—which is intended to change your skin color, but he didn’t know it— and smothered it all over them.” She opened the shower curtain the next day to find his beautiful chestnut colored leather shoes covered in shimmering goop, and colored a muddy, reddish brown. “It’s okay. He has several other pairs,” she sighs.
Despite her penchant for pretty things, Mercadante stresses that beauty is not about quantity, but quality. She cringes when I mention the fast fashion culture that modern consumers have siezed. “People at school think ‘Oh, Olivia, she loves Chanel, she’s so materialistic—it’s always about the new bag,’” but, she clarifies, it’s not about having the latest bag. “It’s about an artist loving another artist’s ideas.”
As I leave Mercadante’s apartment, she continues effusive apologies for the haphazard placement of supplies and the smell of polyurethane (she spilled some during the interview), but explains that despite her preference for order, the beautiful end product is worth the mess and wearing painting clothes non-stop. “I’m so obsessed with beauty, but I’ve never been so comfortable looking so ugly. It’s funny.”