In 2017, Sara Chen and her husband, Justin, moved from a small house in Charlotte to a four-bedroom, three-bathroom home in Matthews. They had a lot of space to fill. “I wanted to find some funky stuff for our place,” Chen says, “but I didn’t want to spend a whole lot of money.”
She found used furniture on Facebook Marketplace and OfferUp and at estate sales and thrift stores. Most of it needed repairs and fresh coats of paint, which she did in her garage during time off from work. Chen has taught Chinese—first in Denver, Colorado, and now at Providence Day School in Charlotte—since she immigrated from Chengdu, China, in 2010 as part of a teacher exchange program.
Soon, friends started asking Chen to find and update furniture for them, too.
“Eventually, my husband said, ‘Why don’t you try to sell this?’ Chen says. “I was like, ‘Nobody wants to buy.’ But he’s like, ‘Well, I think you should try.’”
She humored him. She flipped a midcentury-modern dresser, which she repaired and painted forest green. “I posted it on Facebook Marketplace, and for the first week, no one even asked me about it,” Chen says. “I told myself, ‘OK, it’s OK because I like it, and it looks good in my living room.’” But then she got an offer.
“The woman showed up on my doorstep to pick it up. She was pregnant, and she drove, like, two and a half hours each way from Raleigh for this piece,” Chen says. “I’m so, so honored. And she was so happy. It gave me gas to keep going.”
Today, in addition to working as a full-time teacher, Chen runs Sara Chen Design, an online furniture upcycling business. Her garage is a revolving door of furniture—dressers, tables, benches, cabinets, bedframes, credenzas. During summer and winter breaks, Chen says she can typically finish a piece every two to three days; when school’s in session, she upcycles about a piece per week.
Chen cleans it, deodorizes if necessary, and restores any defective parts—broken legs, rusted hinges, drawers that get stuck. Then she patches surface damage, sands it, and either stains it or primes and paints it.
“I used to paint all my pieces, and then I got yelled at by the purists,” Chen says with a laugh. “At first, I was kind of offended. And then I was like, Oh, yeah, they’re actually right. And now, I really only paint it if the piece is in bad shape—like veneer is missing or there’s a giant hole I couldn’t fix. Otherwise, I always try to restore instead of paint now.”
When she’s done, Chen moves it into a sunny front room, styles and photographs it, and posts it on her website and social media pages. It doesn’t collect much dust before a buyer snatches it. Most small pieces sell for $450 to $650, larger ones for $950 to $1,200, and she sells and ships all over the country.
Chen wants to keep Sara Chen Design as a part-time gig and has no plans to expand. “I try to still think, This is my hobby. This is something that brings me joy. I shouldn’t be really stressed about it,” she says. “I have turned down a lot of customized orders because I just don’t want that extra stress on myself.”
Restoring furniture has also helped Chen build self-confidence in a country where she’s long felt like an outsider.
“Because I’m an immigrant, I feel like my English isn’t good enough. I feel like I can’t talk with people, or they’re going to make fun of my accent. But doing this, Sara Chen Design, really gave me a lot of confidence because it provides me opportunities to communicate with people,” she says. “Because of this work, I feel like I am coming out of my shell finally at age 40 and feeling comfortable with my own identity and happy with who I am.”
TESS ALLEN is the associate editor.