Old Pieces, New Life

Appears in the September 2019 issue.

They don’t make them like they used to” is a familiar refrain among furniture shoppers, who often long for the unique designs, classic craftsmanship or sentimental associations of an old end table or bookshelf. But can’t quite make those outdated pieces work amid their more contemporary surroundings. Decorative painter Laura Campbell believes that in many cases all it takes to bridge the gap between past and present—and to save money, update one’s home and help reduce waste in the process—is a good coat of paint. 

Best bets

Campbell says end tables, bookshelves, and bedroom furniture tend to be the most common redo projects, especially when someone likes the look and size of a piece but it just doesn’t match their décor. Other popular candidates are items where the owners like the sentimental value, but not the look—like grandma’s curio cabinet or an old portable bar cabinet from the ’50s. “There’s a sense of pride when tackling a project, especially with a piece of furniture that has a special history or meaning to it,” she says.

The right materials

Just about anyone can be a furniture rehabber, according to Campbell, as long as they do some solid prep work. This means having sandpaper, oil-based primer, quality paint, and a wax or polyurethane sealer on hand and ready to go.

Eschewing perfection 

Campbell says to start small with something small, like an end table or accent piece, and just let the muse take it from there.  “Remember that there’s a little artist in all of us—it doesn’t have to be perfect,” she says. “Painting something with a perfectly smooth and flawless finish can be hard to do, but nowadays everyone likes the distressed/worn look anyway.”

Photograph by John Jennings