Distress Call: Reviving Tired Furniture In More Ways than Chalk

Do-it-yourselfers flocked to the chalk paint fountain of youth 20 years ago when Annie Sloan’s new revolutionary paints nixed the need for priming and catapulted the average painter’s abilities to new heights. The shabby chic look became so prevalent that oceans of distressed furniture in every shade of white and grey fill not just the specialty boutiques now, but mainstream furniture stores.

Like all trends, this one is evolving, according to some boutique owners. New products on the market offering alternative benefits to chalk paint are making more vintage style finishes easier to achieve. People can create a multitude of looks on their own so much easier.

“People are looking for something else.” says Joanne Cembrook, owner of Shabby Cottage Home Decor in Hamilton, Va. “With chalk paint you’re limited because you can’t do anything to it other than distress it. People are just over that. I feel like we’re moving away from that by what I’m hearing from people,” she says.

She prefers a newer paint line by HGTV’s Cash and Cari host Cari Cucksey that adheres the same as chalk-based paints and can be easily painted over or given a quick wipe-off wash or stain on top. The RePurpose Chromacolor paints don’t need a wax sealing, like traditional chalk-based paints, but can take an optional matte polyurethane, which can also be painted over later. “It’s very versatile,” she says, pointing to the variety of 25 colors the line comes in, catering to a demand to move away from strictly neutrals. “Grey is still in but people have had enough of it.” Cembrook says. “People are starting to bring in a lot more color. They’re adding accent colors like greens or oranges.” Red is always a big seller, too, she says.

It’s not uncommon for the handiness and ease of chalk style paints to “create the temptation to refresh every old piece of tired furniture with a coat of Paris Grey chalk paint,” says Denise Nolan, owner of Repurposed and Refined of Frederick, Md. “But what happens when you want those pieces to return to their natural wood state?” Because of the wax finish, it has to be completely stripped. And if you’ve used chalk style paints before you know the wax finish can be the most time-consuming part. Think of all the sanding required.

“I always joke that whoever can come up with the thing that strips all that wax will make a small fortune,” says Nolan. She has been painting furniture with distressed finishes since before it became popular. She sticks with time-tested paints like Sloan’s, as well as milk paints — which of course, are as old as King Tut — because she finds enough versatility in them. Other products like Artisan Enhancements can be mixed with them to create finishes like crackling, beach sand textures and metallic or pearl finishes.

Demand is still heavy for the vintage distressed pieces but she does see a lot of people preferring to add more natural wood back in to their decor mix, she says. “A lot of people went a little far with paint, painting everything in their house. I think people are starting to learn how to balance it,” she observes. “We are getting a lot of requests for the natural look. A lot of people are falling back in love with English pine.”

Amy Riedel, reverently dubbed Chief of All That is Paint by her coworkers at Lucketts vintage store in Leesburg, Va., sees the shabby chic look slowly waning among store patrons. “It’s not selling any more.” And it’s being replaced by more refined Italian or French Provincial styles, which are just that much easier to achieve now.

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More people are braving DIY projects and can see the positive results of their labor with relative ease, thanks to what’s on the market now, she says. Lucketts uses almost exclusively Amy Howard at Home paints that include products like Toscana milk paints, Cracked Patina and gold and silver gilding paints that create an aged finish.

She runs a variety of classes on how to use the Amy Howard paint finishes. “We’re steering away from that overly-sanded shabby chic look to more high-end Italian style of faux finish antique look,” she says. “I think that with so many different options now to get a finished product with texture and dimension, the shabby look can be a little contrived. It can be more difficult to pass it off without it looking overdone.”

Demand is still high for people doing their own refinishing, she says. A lot of students are surprised at the level of finish they’re able to do. “People are becoming more brave and there are more products that make it easy for them to do,” she says. “People are starting to see that there are different choices out there that aren’t the shabby chic look.”

“It’s hard to figure out trends and where people are headed because of the mix of styles and tastes,” Nolan says, “It depends on the market and your client base. To me furniture and design is just like the US — it’s just a big melting pot. There’ll be a trend but then people end up sticking to their own tastes.”

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