When we moved into our new home, I had envisioned myself setting up a quasi paint shop in my garage, filled with loads of goodies found in small antique/junk shops. I planned to be the next big flea market flipper, creating and selling unique pieces that reflected my creative style.
Let’s just say painting a sideboard dashed those dreams. Yeah, I sucked at it. The piece looks nice, but by the end I looked like a wild woman with my hair all over and sweat rolling down my face. There would be no flipping in my future and I happily left those young dreams behind. When I found a 1920s buffet for our master bedroom, I gladly hired the talented ReFind Design by CoCo Clare, who created a stunning and unique piece that I love.
Turn on HGTV, DIY network, look through any resale pages on Facebook and the boards of Pinterest, and/or go into many vintage stores and you find various painted furniture pieces. At the same time, you find that many individuals have transformed many “vintage” pieces and discarded “junk” into useful/unique home décor once again. As I’ve become more knowledgeable about vintage goods and engaged more with the vintage and local decor business community, I have come to admire the work they do to repurpose and remake furniture that would have ended up in landfills. In the sea of suburban homes, these pieces offer many homeowners an opportunity to bring into their home character and history.
There is some controversy around painted furniture. Some purists believe that it is a sin and argue that wood was meant to be seen. Others argue that painting furniture gives it a new purpose, a new life. I can actually see the validity of both sides, but there is an assumption that the popularity of painted furniture is a new fad, something done by uneducated consumers, unaware of the value of wood furniture.
Painting furniture and repurposing items has a history. Cabinetmakers made most furniture for homes and those pieces were passed down from one generation to another. By the mid-19th century, showrooms emerged as retailers began to separate furniture makers and sellers. Furniture was increasing mass produced, giving consumers easier opportunities to buy new furniture. Yet the readiness of availabilty, especially as demand grew, decreased the quality. Mass production lead to fewer special features and unique styles. It also meant similar styles found homes in thousands of living rooms, bedrooms, and dining rooms. Instead of being heirlooms, furniture became disposable.
But even as furniture inventories rose, people still desired individuality when it came to home décor. The various brown wood hues were consider perfect canvases for the bright and jewel hues that were part of the 1920s color revolution. In many paint ads, women, who resembled the Flapper ideal, used color to reflect a modern and youthful feel to home décor, much like the Flapper style. Many of these women in these ads were wives, who were indeed following the feminine ideal, but a deep green or bright yellow color allowed them to display both their domestic bliss and independence. Painting furniture was a way to satisfy a hunger for color and a desire for modern style.
On November 2, 1942, Life published “Made Over Junk” that followed Peter Hunt, a former antique dealer who, with the help of four assistants, transformed “a mess of items…into gay, useful pieces of furniture.” His advice for beginners was to “start with furniture which is in good condition but has been discarded because it is scratched, stained or plain ugly.” His business of restoring and repurposing furniture flourished in the 10 years since he opened. He had no qualms about changing a piece to suite contemporary needs. He advised, “If lines are unpleasant, cutting down the legs, sawing bit off tops or chiseling off gingerbread will help.” (Life, 1942).
If it was sin to paint colonial style furniture, complaints were few. Painting furniture makes sense when you place it within the larger historical, social, and cultural context.
When Hunt opened his business, the U.S. was in the midst of the Great Depression, which did not essentially end until the beginning of WWII. Repurposing furniture made sense in the 30s as thriftiness became an essentially part of everyday survival and when the war began, forgoing new furniture saved raw materials for the war effort.
Painting furniture continued into the 1950s. It remained a wife’s task, yet more traditional colors, such as red and blue became more of the norm. By the 1960s, painting furniture did not seem as popular within the context of second wave feminism, gay and civil rights, the sex and drugs of the 70s, Cold War concerns, 80s yuppies, and the grunge and the internet’s birth at the close of the 1900s. But like 1930s and 1940s, the Great Recession in 2008 and slow recovery from the housing market, made painting furniture and flea market flipping an increasingly appealing feminine and masculine ideal that reflected a change in economics, a rise of creativity and DIY capabilities, and an focus on sustainability.
While purists rightly raise the alarm about painting historical pieces, much of the furniture pieces manufactured in 20th century were produced in mass quantities. They are indeed vintage, but far from antique. Thus, painting furniture is not painting away history, but in fact painting a new history.