Banking on Rust
Words by Lara Knight. Photos by Angie Roe.
A crowded junkyard is not the first place you’d look for a sound investment. But… dig around a little and you’ll find the growing vintage/upcycled trend has landed pickers like Rob O’Brien in a welcome sweet spot. Long years of rummaging, haggling, collecting and transporting is starting to pay off as Australians catch on to rural and industrial scrap with decorative potential.
In Rob’s case the seed of an idea planted 12 years ago is finally flowering.
When you first meet Rob in his bower of rusted metal on the outskirts of Perth it’s hard to imagine him anywhere else. Rustic Gallery looks like the lifetime hoard of a slightly crazed junker, and Rob holds sway behind his tiny counter with piratical charm.
Then you notice the forest of neat price tags and beautifully ordered rows and wonder how this unusual shop came to be.
The journey to Rustic Gallery had several twists and turns but the most surprising one is Rob was once senior management at R&I Bank (now BankWest). When you listen to him rattle off figures and dates to customers, and watch him sort through reams of old fashioned accounts, it’s easy to see a sharp mind still at work.
The 1987 crash led to a redundancy package which Rob used to set up a furniture store. That was successful for a while and, in his free time, Rob indulged his love of music by setting up a band practice room and regular jam sessions for musicians out in the country. He decorated the property with rusty old farm machinery and band members, music fans, neighbours and friends were always commenting on it and asking where he found it.
Fast forward to another wrong place wrong time glitch and the furniture shop was out of business. Flat broke and desperate for a new direction Rob gathered all his farm trimmings, a handful of wheels, some rabbit traps and old tools and started Rustic Gallery.
As pieces sold Rob listened to his customers and bought more of what they wanted. He made long 800km round trips to country clearance sales and hauled machinery and old shed clutter back to Perth. He spent years and thousands of dollars on Ebay sourcing strange collectables; and put in hours at local tip shops. Friends and family thought he was crazy but he persevered doggedly, sure there was a growing market for beaten up junk.
Slowly the yard filled up and Rustic Gallery today is a riot of rusty metal, machinery, tools, petroliana, crates, bottles, suitcases, antique farm equipment, garden sculpture and vintage homewares. It’s ideal for stylists and set dressers looking for heritage props. It’s a rich source of materials for artists and sculptors. And it’s paradise for collectors and designers who see value in aged surfaces and old-world memories.
Keeping the gallery accessible is hard work. Apart from hunting down stock, Rob has to document, price, display and constantly rearrange each section of the tightly packed yard as pieces come and go. It’s a vastly different life to his white-collar past but when new customers browse for hours and call it “heaven” Rob’s eyes sparkle.
Junk hunting is all over TV; upcycling is in; and Rustic Gallery is thriving in a falling retail market. Most people would consider 30,000 rusty doodads an insane superannuation plan. Rob hates the idea of retiring but, if he did, insanity may turn out surprisingly well.