Tuesday, July 18, 2017

An Antique Dresser in White

I spend a lot of time mulling over wear patterns. Probably I'm not a normal person, and I should be spending more time worrying about...the bachelor? Or adult issues like, we need a new roof pronto.
Who wants to fret over such weighty matters, though! Wear patterns are fascinating. In a way, each piece of furniture carries its history on its surface, whispering subtle tales of daily life, of unfortunate accidents, or thoughtless owners. And then I undo it all. Nothing thrills me more than uncovering the secrets that furniture has to tell; but sometimes, those secrets aren't so sexy, and are better off erased. Aaaaaand I've buried myself in this metaphor.

        More to the point, I'm of the opinion that there are two overarching categories of wear: Chaotic/Neglect, and Thoughtful Use.

Thoughtful use is beautiful, in many ways lovelier than brand spankin' new could ever be. Maybe I'm the only weirdo who does this, but when I see a surface worn soft not just with time, but hundreds of touches, a hand that opened that same drawer fifteen thousand times over the course of a lifetime, I impulsively touch it too, and it feels a bit electric. You're laughing, but I have "antiques" tattooed on my back. I'm pretty bought into this jazz.

          When I worked at Liverant Antiques (the single best education of my entire life), I remember my boss Arthur reaching up to the top drawer of an 18th century highboy. He's barely and inch taller than me, so I think he might have been on tippy toes. He slid the drawer out, and handed it to me, upside down. "What do you see?" he asked.
            I'd only been there for a few weeks, and was desperate to prove myself, I stared daggers at the chamfered plank of chestnut (or was it butternut?), willing it to speak to me, to tell me anything more erudite than "that wood is smudged and dirty". Time hardened, and clearly far more willful than me, the drawer bottom remained silent, and I went with "Well, it's much darker in the center than at the sides, is it some sort of oxidation???". (within a well built case piece, the secondary wood is exposed to very little environmental contamination or oxygen, and therefore oxidizes very little. In fact, a highly and irregularly oxidized drawer bottom in an otherwise intact case is a red flag that someone's been up to something). Which is to say, dumb guess Kate, F-.
          Arthur went on to explain that, like he and I, most of the owners of the last two centuries had found those top two drawers a bit of a reach. They wouldn't be able to just pull the drawer out halfway and remove whatever contents they sought, but rather would have to take the drawer out entirely, placing their hand in the center of the bottom board as they did so. Two hundred years of thoughtful use looks like a faded greasy smudge, and it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.
           I don't paint antique pieces with thoughtful use if I can help it. They're generally better off just as they are. I do paint vintage pieces with thoughtful use from time to time, because, well, a gal's gotta make a living.

Chaotic/ Neglect is an entirely separate bag of spiders. Chaotic/neglect wear patterns are not glowy sheens, or paint worn thin in delightful patterns, they are battle scars, ugly and disruptive to the appearance of the piece. They're big chunks of missing veneer, and naughty words carved on the top center drawer by a mad nine year old. They're drawer pulls that have lost one post, and hung sideways for so many years that they've scraped a giant compass-esque gouge in the drawer font. Neglect is rotting feet, mildew, drawers repaired with duct tape, and feet held together with rusting wire. It's not pretty or charming. Sometimes it's down right scary (ask me some time to tell you my cockroach story, or the bullet story).
            This c.1880 dresser is a victim of Chaotic/Neglect wear. It's surface was Jackson Pollocked with bizarrely nonsensical scrapes. All I can think is that the poor thing got in a switch blade fight with a drunk badger wearing a blindfold...and lost. Though this was the original surface, darkened to a delightful onyx over time, it was not at all worth saving, but the dresser itself was. Despite it's late night badger fighting habits (tsk tsk), it was structurally sound, and certainly lovely, somewhere under all that mess.
          And luckily a client shared my vision. She opted for a soft antique white, and a dark top. She left the hardware up to me, so I swapped the wood knobs out for a set of antique bail brass pulls. Slightly more sophisticated, and just the weensiest hint of sparkle to dress the piece up. It took me almost three hours to sand the top. The old surface turned to an impassable quagmire of sludge as soon as my sanding pad hit it, but I refused to give up, under all that gunk was mahogany.


  1. It is beautiful! As all your work is.

    Have to tell you I finished 2 end tables last week. Thanks to your wonderful videos.

  2. Reading this post, I was remembering the way you caressed the table in your first live video :) Even before you explained the beauty in the history of touches, you kept rubbing the soft corners and curves. I remembered that when I distressed my first piece (the downside is that now I kind of judge pieces with haphazard sanded streaks). Thanks for the education!