So… there it sat. A beautiful antique French chair that once graced my mother-in-law’s living room. Its graceful lines and elegant workmanship always charmed me. But the dull mauve silk with the Napoleonic bee motif was stuffy, boring, and lifeless. How could I perk up this tired looking piece?
I called my wonderful artistic friend Diane Killeen who painted the frame several coats of a creamy white, allowing much of the old wood to peek through. The chair was beginning to regain some of its youth. Now I needed fabric.
A yummy fabric in soft neutrals or a muddy green might work, but formal? No. My living room was French enough. If I added one more dressy piece, the room would go all Marie Antoinette-y. I needed to go fun and young. The room needed a punch.
After months of searching and more months living with a large swath of fabric draped over the chair, I chose a bold coral piece. The once tired, mauve chair now makes the room.
“Choosing a modern, young looking fabric for an antique adds excitement to a room. It’s unexpected,” says Patricia Cordaro Daigle, owner of Fairfax Fabric Company, a small, European-style textile boutique on Magazine Street. “It adds the ‘wow factor’ to a room.”
Patricia once covered her grandmother’s sofa with a bold purple linen blend, but left her grandmother’s worn floral print on the base for sentimental reasons. For one client, she upholstered two French chairs in a large geometric print in a creamy white and coffee color, making the duo a hip addition to a living room. Two antique English chairs that reside in the entrance of her shop are now upholstered in a flame stitch in watermelon pink, yellow and white.
“The key to working with modern fabrics in a formal, antique-filled setting is balance,” she says . “Mixing the old and the new gives freshness to a room.”
Don’t limit your modern fabrics to chairs and sofas. Think about upholstering an ottoman in a striking print. Or you might want to use a luscious solid as the backing of a china cabinet or buffet du corps. And don’t forget the power of throw pillows, covered in an exciting print.
Patricia often has clients come into her shop and complain that they’ve just inherited a piece that doesn’t work. “I tell them: don’t leave that the way Granny had it! Make it your own. Paint it. Add a cool fabric. It becomes a piece of art.”
My friend Jenny inherited a Duncan Phyfe sofa from her grandmother many years ago, when we were all penniless graduate students at Tulane. She needed the sofa but wasn’t sure how to liven it up. While on a search for the perfect fabric, she found a Chinese print in cobalt blue on a white background. The large dragons and lanterns were dazzling and the sofa made a sophisticated addition to her small apartment.
If you don’t have the courage to cover an entire chair or sofa with a dramatic fabric, think about covering it with a solid and use a contrasting fabric for the piping. The subtle trim can take that piece from drab to fab.
“Most people who want to perk up an antique have no idea where to begin,” says Patricia. “I like to show them a range of options to see where their comfort level is. I tell them to look at everything…prints, solids, florals, bright colors and soft ones. Take a sample of the fabric home and live with it a few days.”
Once you have decided on a fabric you love, do as my mother advised me years ago: Buy several extra yards and keep it on hand for that inevitable moment when a guest accidentally spills a glass of red wine on your sofa or your child has a diaper accident on that beautiful chair.
Yes, sometimes Granny knows best.
1. In mixing patterns on a piece or in an entire room, think about scale. One print shouldn’t overpower another. The size of the prints should blend seamlessly.
2. Think about color. Do the colors work well together, or do they fight each other?
3. Ask for samples of various fabrics and take them home with you. Colors can change in different settings and lights.