I have a little obsession at the moment that involves wood, velvet, deep dark gunmetal grey and a very specific shade of pink and it all started with a thrift shop and a piece of secondhand furniture.
It took me many years to get to the state of mind where I am now. I always grew up with antique furniture; it was, well, ‘a part of the furniture’, if I may use the pun. I never gave it a second thought. And between Roddy and I we inherited enough of it to furnish our home. To the two of us it was how it was done, and as we had both grown up with the same mindset, we never gave it a second thought.
But then slowly over the years I started to yearn for something different. I even went through a stage of longing for a minimalist white house, a rather laughable idea with five children, and of course it never even came vaguely close to becoming a reality.
Then at some stage I discovered the excitement of painting wood. Of course we just can’t paint good antiques, that would be complete sacrilege. However, browsing through good quality brown furniture, most often dating from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, has changed my outlook completely. For my purposes, I look for well-made and heavy pieces, many of which are oak and were originally designed to serve a purpose; as a result they are not typically very decorative but just plain old-fashioned honest bits that have stood the test of time.
In general no one is buying ‘brown stuff’ anymore; it’s not in vogue, and while a nice Georgian lowboy, a Regency sofa table or an early Victorian commode might still sell well at the bigger auction houses, nothing is attaining the exalted pricing of the 90’s anymore. I’m not looking to buy in that league anyway, and as we already have too much furniture I’m really only interested in playing with the treasures one finds in the local thrift store; and here in France one can occasionally pick up a real gem for just a few euros. Then I have absolutely no problem in giving whatever it is I have bought a new lease of life that involves anointing it with glamour via a paint brush. A vintage dressing table or a freestanding baguette box suddenly offer a wealth of possibilities.
This little chair was divine and would have come home with me for sure but someone beat me to it, one has to be quick!
When we bought our first house in France two decades ago, I remember one thing everyone always complained about was French paint; it was quite literally awful, exceptionally thin and to get a decent covering took many coats – and even that routine was not a guaranteed success. French paint was so poor, that anyone driving from the UK across the Channel would always have a car full of not just personal belongings, but also gallons of paint. At last though I am happy to say that France has caught up, and even if where we are there are no local shops selling Farrow and Ball, we do finally have available some very good quality makes in a huge variety of colours. My ‘go-to’ covering at the moment when I feel the need to feed my little obsession, is Dulux Valentine, and the colour I’m seriously into is simply called ‘Poivre‘. It began in the kitchen when white furniture turned into the deepest, dark grey. The colour harmonises perfectly with wood and makes a striking contrast to our simple modern white cabinets.
In fact this year our guest-house kitchen also got the poivre touch! A makeover which I have loved doing.
Looking back, it was the sitting room in this little cottage that received the first painted item – we hauled out from the kitchen a huge cupboard in a lurid green that the previous owners had left behind and changed it forever.
Visiting out nearest secondhand store is like visiting a treasure trove of a bygone era. So much wood, so many things all discarded, so many things that can be reinvented, painted, spruced up, cleaned and loved once more.
I was really taken by this traditional antique French wash stand with a fully fitted marble interior and mirror. If only I had a place for it!
The huge armoires we find here all the time are too large for modern houses and you can pick them up for around 100 to 200 euros.
You can do far more than just paint if you are handy, especially if you buy a wardrobe with ‘dodgy’ doors – these can be used as an excuse to haggle genteel-ly over the price, and then you can discard them to produce a one off bookcase. They also make wonderful utility cupboards, perfect for a mop, broom, vacuum, iron and ironing board; the list is endless. Surprisingly they can also look fabulous in a kitchen as a ready-made pantry cupboard or somewhere to keep your china.
I also never overlook old marble coffee-tables. We have bought two now, discarding the ugly bases (both were tacky gold painted metal monstrosities), and re-inventing them as standalone island units. As a result both have found their way into the kitchen.
Now these chairs have sorely tempted me. I could snap up all four for under 100 euros. They are heavy (always a good sign) and they are well made. I would strip them down, paint them and then re-upholster them, another thing I have learnt to do this winter. Now if there had been six chairs it would be a done deal, but with only four of them on offer, I am just not sure. I would have had to find another two from somewhere and mix and match. I’m sorely tempted, the shop does not reopen until tomorrow, so I will sleep on it (in itself always a good idea and something I really do very firmly believe in). The number of times I have fallen in love with something, walked away, slept on it, and then awoken only to find I can actually quite happily live without the said item, has grown exponentially – I am no longer instantly smitten perhaps! Maybe on Friday morning I’ll have made more sense of the situation. I will either forget about them or I will be hotfooting it down there as soon as the children are in school.
How about a refectory table? I think I need to buy another house!!
I think I have inadvertently found a marriage made in heaven, a mix of furniture – some of it touched by a little dark paint to add some va va voom, and some of it the beautiful traditional antiques which I will always love. I admit to sometimes looking at a piece and thinking about how it has been dusted and polished for over 200 years – how many hands and fingers have touched a key, turning it in an ancient lock? This is the furniture I cherish most of all.
Perhaps it is the winter months but I’m also having a bit of a love affair with velvet in a certain shade of pink, it’s almost ‘heather’, a difficult colour to describe. I’m thinking of an old, really old, upholstered sofa or chair – something our grandparents might have had. I found a roll of material in the precise hue I wanted in a local brocante store, I pounced upon it; however on closer inspection the smell of damp and mildew was unbearable and as I doubted I would ever get rid of it, I passed it by. Incredibly I found a brand new version a few days later, a soft velvet in almost the same colour and I bought a few metres. It changes with the light and it goes perfectly with the grey. I’ve been making cushion covers for days, in between finding time to paint.
Some might call it an obsession, but I can think of worse obsessions to have!