Make Old Furniture New Again With These Designer Tips

Revitalize thrift store finds with these modern fixes.
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There’s a line in my all-time favorite black comedy, Ghost World, where an 18-year-old Scarlett Johansson says to her best friend, Thora Birch, “This reminds me of your little old lady phase.” She was referring to an eccentric non-conformist’s brief stint wearing clothes meant for women four times her age. The character didn’t care that others considered her style of dress lame, silly or little-old-lady; she thought it was cool and rocked it out.

What the hell does this have to do with a decorating blog? Well, I often feel that items deemed little-old-man or little-old-lady-ish are often the most awesome pieces simply awaiting creativity for a fresh new look. In fact, it’s what I search for first as I sift through the inventory at flea markets and thrift stores. Luckily, it’s usually the last thing others pay attention to. Speaking of paying attention, take a look at these pieces once deemed old but show no signs of their secret past thanks to some clever reinvention. You know what else is in the past and I hope it stays that way forever? The mauve and brass combo circa 1986. Good riddance!

My assistant, Dayka, is kinda obsessed with taking traditional pieces, then giving them much more youthful identities with unexpected color. These bentwood chairs were bought for next to nothing. A great sanding and glossy coat of yellow instantly took ‘em from why-so-serious to color-me-happy. Accent pieces like these are fair game for bold color because, well, they’re simply accents and can punch up the energy in a room with a small dose of a high-energy hue.

Since the heavy, bulky size of larger pieces such as dressers or consoles can command a ton of attention and dominate the room, going bold with color isn’t always the best option unless you want the pieces to be the star of the space. Black and white are pretty much always a safe bet. Here’s an example of a previously-cheesy 1980′s dresser Dayka modernized with a coat of white paint. She wanted it to simply do its job and shut up; having it be the star of the space was not part of her agenda. Did she succeed? I’d say so.

I was recently asked to redesign the basement of a friend’s grandma. Believe it or not, Grandma wanted me to de-Granny her stuff. Weird huh? No, it’s more like awesome and amazing! She loved the ornate detail of her mid-1960′s dresser but found the light brown stain a total snorefest. For that new lease on life, we dropped it off at an auto body shop and had it sprayed with fire engine red auto paint. How the hell did we do that? Well, it’s not very complicated: You pick up the phone, ask a local auto body shop if they accept furniture, then drop it off. As far as pricing goes, shops usually charge by the booth, not the piece. So, you can drop off several pieces and have them all sprayed the same color for one set price.

For those of you without DIY skills, here’s an update you can handle: Juxtapose traditional style furniture with modern fabrics. In this bedroom, I kept 60-year-old traditional beds, then dressed them with graphic, modern textiles. It keeps the integrity of the original piece but makes it a lot more hip.

Something that’s been huge in Los Angeles for a while but now spanning globally is using modern upholstery on older, non-modern chairs. Thanks to my sinister iPhone, I can no longer find my before shot of this chair; however, it’s probably a blessing in disguise since its hideous tan, mustard and beige floral print may have harmed your retinas. Being that the lines of the chair were simple, all it needed was a streamlined fabric to bring it up to date. My choice? A quilted silver silk.

Rescued, Rehabbed and Resold Furniture

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Flip That Furniture

You can turn almost any hopeless flea market find into a pretty piece of furniture — and maybe make a little extra cash! HGTV Magazine posted the "afters" from their projects on eBay, Etsy and Furnishly. Some sales proved tougher than others. Find out what they learned, and earned (after deducting original costs and materials), and how you too can turn a profit selling your DIY creations. All profits from HGTV Magazine’s sales were donated to AmeriCares, which delivers medicine and aid to people in need.

Photo By: Thomas Liggett

The Before

This piece was in pretty good shape, except it had some stubborn old stickers on a drawer. Goo Gone was used to remove them, and any nicks were concealed with a wood conditioner (both available at hardware stores). To play up the desk’s midcentury-modern style, the drawer fronts were painted lemon and lime, and satin nickel pulls were added. Original price: $20

Photo By: Thomas Liggett

The After: Retro Painted Desk

The desk was originally listed at $225, but it didn’t get any bites. The price was dropped to $175 and, voila, it sold on Etsy in six days. Total profit: $115 Paint: From top: June Day and Sassy Green, both by HGTV HOME by Sherwin-Williams; drawer pulls: Sumner Street 1 1/4" satin nickel symmetry rectangular knobs, $3 each, lowes.com

Photo By: Thomas Liggett

The Before

After filling nicks and holes with spackling putty, the piece was sanded. Using sample jars of paint — just $5 each — it was given a fresh coat of white around the sides and top, then the shelves were color-blocked with three bright hues. Original price: $12

Photo By: Thomas Liggett

The After: Color-Block Bookcase

It took almost a month for this bookcase to find a buyer. Once the description was updated, suggesting it would be “perfect for a kid’s or teen’s room,” more inquiries started coming in — and eventually it sold on eBay. Lesson learned: Give potential customers ideas about how to use a piece to draw them in. Total profit: $10 Paint: From top: Cloud Nine (white), Rejuvenate, Exuberant Pink and Gulfstream, all by Sherwin-Williams

Photo By: Thomas Liggett

The Before

Simple white chairs: There wasn't much more to say about this pair. A modern paint treatment made these traditional chairs feel totally fresh. First, most of the chair was painted a sunny yellow. After it dried, the editors marked 7 inches from the top with painter’s tape, and then painted everything above it gray. Original price: $14

Photo By: Thomas Liggett

The After: Two-Tone Chairs

Thanks to their cool color-dipped look, these seats flew off eBay in five days. Selling a pair, or a set of four, is a good idea, since people are often on the hunt for more than one kitchen or dining chair. Total profit: $61 Paint: From top: Midnight Blue and Cheerful, both by Benjamin Moore

Photo By: Thomas Liggett

The Before

The campaign-style drawer pulls and brackets on this chest of drawers were keepers, but the rest needed a major update. After coating the wood in orchid-hued paint, the front drawers were decoupaged with textured paper and coated with a clear sealer. Original price: $40

Photo By: Thomas Liggett

The After: Patterned Dresser

Willingness to negotiate really paid off on this transaction. The dresser was first listed for $225, but didn’t have many bidders. After a few weeks, the price was dropped to $150 — which led to a bidding war on eBay, and one lucky buyer! Total profit: $125 Paint: Orchid Kiss by Behr; paper: Flocked Aubergine Khazana fine paper, $5 per 22" x 30" sheet, paper-source.com

Photo By: Thomas Liggett

The Before

A dingy paint finish and missing hardware hid this two-door cabinet’s high style. To bring it out, the outside was painted teal and the inside a slightly lighter shade. Brass ring-shaped pulls were also added to glam it up. Original price: $25

Photo By: Thomas Liggett

The After: Faux Bamboo Cabinet

This cabinet’s fancy hardware and versatile size made it the most looked-at piece. (All the sites used track product views — very handy for sellers.) Because of its popularity, the price was never dropped, and it sold for the full amount in about a week. Total profit: $99 Paint: Baltic Blue (outside) and Sunwashed Blue (inside), both by Ralph Lauren Paint; pulls: 3" Mission solid brass rings, $13 each, lookintheattic.com

Photo By: Thomas Liggett

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