When you go to a flea market or a swap meet, you try to find things that aren’t all worn out. You want the Stanley plane that looks like new, a penguin ice bucket whose chrome isn’t scarred with rust, a Pendleton wool shirt that hasn’t been shrunk in the wash from Extra Large to Small.
But not David Palos. His one condition as a collector – be it clothes, furniture, machinery, you name it – is that it’s been adequately warped by time. He says it all started the first time he went to a flea market, which he says was "pretty heavy. "I thought it was amazing, and I loved everything. I remember thinking that I wanted to have a store."
Palos remembers marveling at an endless sea of rusty souvenirs, feeling time whooshing through every tent. So he started going to flea markets every week, and soon after, to local estate sales and auctions. Before long he was scavenging on his own.
First it was little things like old clothes, rubber stamps, and clipboards. But soon he found himself prying into factories and warehouses and haggling for old machine parts. He was salvaging pipes and valves and using them to build furniture. He didn't really have a plan, but he was slowly carving out an aesthetic, and his finds were piling up.
"I was doing it at my Dad’s shop in Alhambra," says Palos. "I was storing stuff and cleaning it off. I finally had to get my own spot - I just had too much stuff."
Palos has arranged his best collection at a garage in Vernon. It's part showroom and part art installation, but it mostly feels like a flea market that's been frozen in a state of platonic perfection.
His favorite piece is a 4-foot cast-iron spinner he found at a textile mill.
"There's this scrapper that told me about this place in downtown, this old textile mill that's been around since the early 1900's. They're pretty much clearing everything out to turn into lofts. I found this piece in one of the closets. It’s pretty much to wind up fabric in spools. I think it’s one of the sickest things I’ve ever seen. It’s a piece of art to me. They were probably going to throw it away."
Palos then points to the far wall, to a jet-black, 10-foot-long chest of drawers.
"This piece, actually, is from the same mill. It was on the 4th floor, and it was a nightmare to get down. It was full of machine parts, and we had to empty out some 100 drawers, and carry it down 4 flights of stairs. I'll never sell it, mostly because it still has all the drawers on it. I can't believe it still has all 100 or something drawers."
His shop is also speckled with faded rags, laundry bags, and crusty, sweat-stained t-shirts. Palos says he found the shirts in a trashcan. "They were completely rusted out and deteriorating," he says, "but they're the coolest things I've seen. It takes so much time to make it look like that. Imagine if it took a person 30 years to make a painting - imagine what that might look like, or how valuable it might be. This takes years 50 years to look like it does. That's why it's valuable."
Valuable to him. But he won’t sell most of it.
"If it's anything that I found myself, or in the field," he says, "I never sell. I sell furniture that I buy from the middleman, that I have no attachments to. And the stuff we make."
His shop makes and sells furniture, mostly to retails stores looking for a vintage vibe. For instance, they'll make a table whose legs come from an old machine, or lights cobbled together from different parts. Palos gets his stuff everywhere: machine shops, old factories, salvage yards, and garage sales.
While Palos spends a lot of his time cruising around L.A. looking for junk, he says many people he runs into aren't always amused.
"We knock on doors," he says, "and everyone thinks we're trying to get stuff for free. They're scared, like we're trying to get one over on them. So they don't want to sell. And a few times I've gotten in trouble for going into yards that I wasn't really supposed to. There was this yard that was pretty much open and we thought it was free game and took it."
"Pretty much open." "Free game." Right. Somebody saw them trespassing and stealing and called the police. Palos was lucky the charges were dropped from a grand felony to a misdemeanor, and he's gotten a second chance at doing what he loves.
"The thrill is finding it, the hunt. That's the best part."
David Palos sells his wares at major L.A. flea markets throughout the year, and his shop in Vernon is called Irons and Duck. He's also curating an exhibit this evening (June 21), at The Holding Company, 104 Robertson Street.