Upstyling Furniture Provides Creative Outlet

‘Upstyling’ Furniture Provides Creative Outlet
Stacey Wiedower
10:00 AM, March 27, 2015
home and garden
Copyright 2015 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Photos by Stan Carroll/The Commercial Appeal. Designer and owner Amy Howard demonstrates an “upstyling” technique on a chair she rescued from the roadside. “If I couldn’t afford it, I’d make it,” she says of getting started with fixing up furniture.

One surprising fact Amy Howard learned when she began holding workshops on furniture refinishing was that attendees weren’t simply seeking an inexpensive fix for an old piece of furniture. They were seeking a break from routine.

“They wanted a creative outlet,” said the Memphis-based furniture designer. “Here I thought upstyling or recycling was for people who didn’t have the money (for a new piece). That’s the way I’d always looked at it. If I couldn’t afford it, I’d make it.”

Ever since the start of the green movement made “reclaimed” and “recycled” the hottest buzzwords in design, items with age, patina and a nifty back story have been sneaking their way into interiors of all sizes and styles. Painted case goods, reupholstered seating, weather-beaten antiques and homespun accessories are key to the eclectic mix and collected look that characterize stylish interiors both modern and traditional.

“Upstyled” furniture, though, is more than a look or a design trend. It’s a lifestyle — as evidenced by the many project ideas featured on websites such as Pinterest and the beautifully styled photo tutorials on blogs across cyberspace.

The people who are replicating these looks and completing these creative projects for their homes run the gamut in age, income level and profession. They’re doctors, writers, salespeople, lawyers, stay-at-home moms.

“These are people who want to press pause for a little while,” said Howard, who now teaches “train the trainer” sessions to the instructors who present her Amy Howard-branded workshops. “They want to come into a creative environment and learn from someone who knows their stuff, and to learn how to create really beautiful finishes.”

“Pressing pause” is how Memphis artisan Stephanie Jones, owner of the Me & Mrs. Jones locations in Midtown and Germantown, got her start in furniture refinishing. Jones worked in insurance and investment banking before opening her studio and shop, which offers painted products, pieces by local artisans, gift items and an array of refinishing workshops.

“When I had my first child, I started playing around with furniture,” said Jones, who began her experiments with faux finishing kits she bought at home improvement stores. “And then friends asked, ‘Would you do that for me?’ It turned into a thing.”

Jones expanded her expertise through trial, error and training, and now she shares that expertise in a new book, “Upstyle Your Furniture,” published March 1 by Barron’s, a U.K.-based publisher.

Jones, Howard and several other retailers and studios around town offer workshops that train people in the art, craft and creative possibilities of furniture refinishing. At these sessions, consumers can purchase products, practice techniques and learn how to find, prep, finish and seal furniture pieces to give them a new lease on life.

These days, chalk paint is a major trend in refinishing, thanks to the popularity of lines such as Annie Sloan, which Jones’ shops carry, and Howard’s own line, Amy Howard at Home.

Broad Strokes, a retailer in the burgeoning Broad Avenue district, sells painted furniture and paints by American Paint Co. The shop also offers a range of refinishing workshops — including “bring your own piece” furniture painting parties for groups of six. Co-owner Rick Britton said the term “chalk paint” speaks to the finished feel of the painted item, not the content of the paint.

“Chalk paint really has limestone as its base, and it’s been used for thousands of years,” said Britton, whose background is in historic restoration. “The Romans and Greeks used, quote, ‘chalk paint’ to make furniture, and then the French. And right now it’s premixed in a range of colors and easy to use.”

Lauren Savage, who works for Kelley’s Attic in Collierville — a retailer that offers CeCe Caldwell’s chalk paint products and General Finishes milk paints, along with furniture refinishing workshops — said she often recommends chalk paints to customers because they’re practically fool-proof.

“This paint is really hard to mess up because it’s just so easy, and it covers really well,” she said.

Savage added that furniture pieces painted in chalk paint, milk paint or other coatings can be sealed or finished using waxes or sealers in a range of sheens. The options on the market these days are almost limitless.

Jones, whose shops also carry Miss Mustard Seeds milk paints, said she’s seeing a resurgence of Earth-friendly products to redo pieces.

“There are some new old-fashioned products, if you will,” said Jones. “Things like milk paint and hemp oil and tung oil are very much at the forefront again.”

In the ’70s and ’80s, she said, people’s interest turned to oil-based products. But now the tide has shifted the other way.

“Now people are getting back to appreciating and seeing those (natural) materials as durable over the long haul,” she said, “and without any damage to the environment and your lungs for using them.”

The same thing is happening from a design standpoint, Jones added. For example, she’s seeing more tables with stained tops and painted bases.

“In the old days, when a tabletop got ruined, people would put a new top on an old table base,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of people who want to recreate that look. There’s a lot of repurposing, creating a new piece out of old parts — using pallet wood or old metal pipe as table legs. Kind of that industrial, warehouse chic look.”

Along with replicating the past, Howard encourages people to think about what has not been done before. For instance, everyone’s seen a painted Windsor chair. But how about a two-thirds painted Windsor chair?

“It’s called ‘dipping,’” Howard said. “Let’s say you have an old Windsor chair in a stained walnut. You could do a white lacquer gloss all over the chair, but stop a third from the foot. That takes it to a different level. A lot of people think, ‘I’ll paint the whole chair,’ and that’s standard operating procedure. Take the next step, and think outside the box.”

In her eponymous classes, Howard’s instructors teach techniques ranging from gilding to embossing to distressing — a method of refinishing with its own set of rules. The most important one: Don’t overdo it.

“Heavy distressing is out,” Howard said. “Sometimes people think if something is supposed to emulate an antique, it should look like it’s been hooked up with a chain behind a pickup truck and dragged down the road. I tell people, ‘Let’s look at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. What’s the color palette? How did it wear?’ When you get ready to do a piece, figure out where that chair would have gotten wear on it — maybe where you pull up the chair or where your foot wraps the base. Not every inch or two is there a worn place with some sandpaper.”

Howard plans to release a book of her own in coming months, “Building Wealth With Your Passion” — also the title of an upcoming community workshop she is teaching in partnership with Memphis College of Art — and she’s working on a second book titled “Crafting a Beautiful Life.”

Meanwhile, she enjoys watching the students in her workshops do just that.

“You get people in an apron in a creative environment, and a 65-year-old turns into a 10-year-old, in a great way,” she said. “There’s giddiness and excitement and tears and saying, ‘I did this.’ That’s why our tagline is: ‘Enjoy the bragging rights.’”

Copyright 2015 Journal Media Group. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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