There it sat: the beautiful antique bergère chair that once graced my mother-in-law’s living room, its mauve Napoleonic bee fabric faded after nesting in a climate-controlled storage unit for several years.
The bones of the chairs were graceful, and the wood was in perfect condition. I knew that it would make a stunning addition to our new living room – but not in its present condition. What could I do to perk it up?
“Paint it. Then add a bold, unexpected fabric,” suggested a friend whose taste I love. I rid myself of a few preconceived notions that antiques shouldn’t be altered, voices from the past, for sure. Then I called decorative artist Diane Killeen, whose work I’d admired.
Killeen recommended we paint the chair’s frame with a soft translucent milk paint, allowing some of the rich wood to peek through. She accented the curves with a muted gold wash, a historically correct touch that ironically made the chair seem more youthful. A vibrant coral print silk upholstery was a courageous addition. The chair came alive.
Painted antiques are quite in vogue today. If done correctly, they can punctuate rooms in dramatic ways. In the hands of a master, a painted piece can revive the most forlorn antique.
Killeen, a New Orleans native and Hollins College art graduate, is certified by the City & Guild of London’s North American program, with a practicum at the famed Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. Her workshop is filled with treasures she has restored or will soon restore – furniture, frames, plaster molding.
“Painting a piece can make it look unique, one-of-a-kind,” she says. “It’s good to think outside the box with an antique and still maintain its integrity. Paint, properly applied, can turn an everyday piece into a work of art.”
Indeed. She points to a once-boring pine chest now painted a soft Swedish blue. A water-damaged armoire was resurrected when she matched the wood finish with a painting technique called faux bois, or “false wood,” on the faded half of the armoire. An antique demilune table is painted with layers of creamy milk paint and trimmed in 23-karat gold trim.
Likewise, decorative artist Bekye Fargason has saved more than her share of antiques and vintage pieces. In her Magazine Street workshop, she paints pieces she has found in the Paris Flea Market, at estate sales and even on the side of the road. She recently began collaborating with New York-based textile artist JoAnn Berman, who custom-designs vivid one-of-a-kind silks and cottons for each piece.
“I think of each antique as my canvas,” Fargason says. “Often it will tell me what it needs.” She points to a mid-century modern coffee table she restored by painting layers of tortoiseshell squares and edging with gold, a process that took months. Today, it is a beautiful focal point in a small room.
A Duncan Phyfe sofa’s wooden frame is silver-leafed. Berman’s black fabric – with large figures reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel’s depiction of God – are silk-screened in bold hues. It’s a daring look for a piece that could have been tossed. A Louis XV chair is silver-leafed and whitewashed and then covered with one of Berman’s signature fabrics.
Fargason, a native of Laurel, Miss., trained at The Finishing School and worked in New York for 20 years but is mostly self-taught. Her work has been showcased in all Junior League of New Orleans show houses since 1993, where her faux marbled walls and floors are highly sought after.
Both artists have been featured in magazines and work for top decorators. Killeen does only custom work, whether it be an individual’s antique piece, an elegant powder room or the plaster restoration at the Roosevelt New Orleans Hotel. While Fargason still paints walls and ceilings for clients, she prefers custom work on individual antiques. She sells pieces and her fine art from her Magazine Street gallery.
Almost any antique or vintage piece can be painted if it is in decent shape and the wood is of good quality. Consider where your piece will be placed in a room and if painting it will add or detract from the overall setting. Research decorative artists to see what they will recommend and look at their work. Find out what the artist knows about paint chemistry and historical renovation. And know that if done correctly, a beautifully painted antique can add just the “pop” you want to a room.
“Painted furniture goes back thousands of years, when all an artist had were pigments made from minerals from the earth,” says Killeen. “Today decorative artists know these techniques and are true preservationists of the decorative arts. It’s more than just adding a layer of paint to a piece of furniture. It’s breathing new life into your beloved chair or chest. It adds value to the piece and your room.”