Make The Most of Inherited Furniture

Reconfigure, reupholster, relocate, or (when all else fails), let it go

for Inspired House Magazine
by lauri ward
July/Aug 2004

PHOTO TOP LEFT: ERIC ROTH (DESIGNER: GAYLE MANDEL);
PHOTOS TOP RIGHT AND LEFT: JESSIE WALKER

Inheriting furniture can be a blessing and a burden. Torn between wanting a COMFORTABLE, livable space with a cohesive style and feeling obliged to keep gifts that have emotional connections, we often try to keep everything AND THEN FIND OURSELVES FEELING UNCOMFORTABLE WITH THE WAY OUR OLD AND NEW FURNISHINGS LOOK TOGETHER. While you may not need another chest of drawers, the fact that it was left to you by your dear aunt makes you want to find a place for it in your home. Finding the right place and the right use for inherited furniture is the key to making it work in your home.

Through my business, Use What You Have Interiors, I have taught clients, readers of my books, and other designers, that BY FOLLOWING A FEW simple design principles you can transform your home using the space you’ve got, the things you like, and a VERY reasonable budget.

When you inherit furniture you should first reassess your needs and see how the new piece can fit into your home and your lifestyle. Equally important is THAT YOU know what to keep, how to make the most of it, and THEN how to let go of the rest.

Get ready to transform

Whether you’re decorating a room or house your first step is to define your priorities. DECIDE what TYPE OF furniture you need for relaxing, entertaining, storage and hobbies. You should also know your budget—for new furniture as well as for fixing up old FURNISHINGS. HAVING A PLAN AND FORESIGHT WILL SAVE YOU TIME AND HELP YOU AVOID WASTING MONEY.

There is value in keeping the furniture you inherit: not only do you retain a connection to the past, but often older furniture is well-made and can be restored for far less than it costs to buy similar new furniture.

Think about how your newly acquired furniture can best fit into your home. Does it need minor finish work or a major overhaul? Can the purpose of the piece be changed to make it more useful to you? Making the best use of inherited furniture is a great way to show appreciation for the gift you’ve been given.

Rundown and time worn furniture can be revived and made to fit into your existing décor when you send it out to be reupholstered, repaired, or refinished. If you’re feeling bold, or if you’re on a tight budget, you may EVEN want to take on the project yourself but make sure you are prepared: read, take a class, or consult with an expert before you start.

Repair and Refinish

If you have a glass-topped coffee or dining-room table and are tired of wiping off fingerprints, replace the glass with marble, granite, distressed wood, or even metal, depending on the style of your room.

Period hardware can make a dresser look dated. For a chest that is the perfect size and the finish in good condition, add new hardware to complement the style of a room. (Just make sure that doing so won’t damage the finish.)

Reupholster or Slipcover

The goal of reupholstering or slip covering a chair or sofa is to add a fresh new fabric that matches your style and décor, and also to make the piece more comfortable with new cushioning.

Slipcovers (DELETE either ready-made or custom) are MUCH less expensive than REUPHOLSTERY. (GENERALLY, THEY COST HALF AS MUCH.) And while the new generation of READY-MADE slipcovers SEEM TO fit better and LOOK more fashionable, it’s still difficult to find off the shelf slipcovers that fit furniture really well. For slightly more than the cost of catalog slipcovers you can order custom slipcovers (DELETE through an interior designer or) from a local business THAT WILL FIT PERFECTLY AND MAY BE BETTER SUITED TO THE FABRICS AND COLOR SCHEME OF YOUR ROOM (see SIDEBAR).

Your existing décor will help you determine whether to go catalog or custom. A casual, loose fitting slipcover fits well in a country style room, while a tailored, custom cover is more appropriate for a traditional or modern, streamlined styles.

Reconfigure: changing purpose

(intro text)

A small old-fashioned chest can find new life as a nightstand. A more adventurous use of it is to transform it into a bathroom vanity (see PHOTO).

If you have enough closet space in the bedroom but lack storage in your kitchen, transform grandma’s armoire into a stand-alone pantry. You’ll appreciate it and use it daily.

Use an inherited hope chest as a coffee table. Protect the top with a piece of glass, marble or granite. This trick also works for scratched table tops. If you use glass, you can slide photos or old postcards underneath to create a display. In addition to having a beautiful, interesting focal point in your living room, you’ll also gain storage space for seasonal linens and blankets.

WHEN MY DAUGHTER WAS BORN I USED AN ANTIQUE DRY SINK I HAD INHERITED AS A CHANGING TABLE IN THE NURSERY. ITS WOODEN RIM PREVENTED THE BABY FROM ROLLING OFF THE TOP AND THE CLOSED CUPBOARD UNDERNEATH WAS HANDY FOR STORING EXTRA DIAPERS AND BABY GEAR.

Relocate

(intro text)

What to do with a piece that just won’t fit in anywhere? If you won’t be reworking or refinishing it, consider using it as the inspiration piece for a vignette -a small well-designed scene – in hallway or guest room.

FOR EXAMPLE, AN INHERITED BUREAU THAT IS NOT NEEDED IN THE BEDROOM MIGHT SERVE AS A HANDY ENTRANCE FOYER CHEST THAT HOLDS SCARVES AND GLOVES. PAIRED WITH AN OLD CHAIR IT CAN BE AN INVITING PLACE TO REST PURSES AND PACKAGES.

Letting Go

Holding on to too many pieces of inherited furniture can lead to clutter and chaos in your home. Sometimes it’s just best to let go. Old furniture finds new life through many channels. Ask relatives if they are interested in the piece. You may want to agree to send it out on “permanent loan” (meaning that if you absolutely must have it back, you can get it).

If you are really able to let go, your local charitable thrift store (Goodwill or Salvation Army) will take furniture and give you a receipt for tax deduction. Other organizations in need, like shelters, often accept donations. Depending on the vintage of the piece, you may try to sell to an antique or used furniture store and use the proceeds to fix up the pieces that you’ve kept.

Sometimes you just can’t—or don’t want to—work a piece into your home: save what you love and donate or sell the rest. ULTIMATELY, THE ONLY THINGS YOU NEED TO KEEP ARE THE FURNISHINGS THAT MAKE YOUR HOME feel MOST COMFORTABLE AND LOOK MOST ATTRACTIVE TO YOU.

Lauri Ward, allied ASID, is the founder of both USE WHAT YOU HAVE/ REDECORATE.COM AND THE INTERIOR REFINERS NETWORK and author of Use What You Have Decorating and Trade Secrets From Use What You Have Decorating. Her new book, HOME THERAPY FROM USE WHAT YOU HAVE DECORATING, will be published in SPRING 2005.

SIDEBAR: What to keep?

□   Assess your lifestyle. What are your needs for relaxing, entertaining, storage, projects

□   What will you really use? Keeping a formal dining set when you have limited space and never give formal parties means that space is essentially wasted

□   Does the piece express your style? Does it fit in with your other furnishings or can it by MODIFYING or UPDATING IT ( HAVING IT refinished, reupholstered or slip covered) so that it looks like it belongs?

□   Keep what you like. Holding on to furniture that you really dislike will not make your home better and will often make you unhappy

□   How much work does the piece need? And does the work required fit your budget? Is it well made, sturdy, attractive

SIDEBAR: The cost of fixing it up

I’ll call slipcover shops and get pricing, time turnaround, fabric or COM, and information about the process (how does it get done…do you go to them or do they come to you?)

ANNE- SLIP COVERS: YOU BUY THE FABRIC ON YOUR OWN OR FROM THEM AND THEY BRING IT TO THE HOME AND CUT IT ON THE PIECE. THEY TAKE THE FABRIC AWAY AND TWO TO FOUR WEEKS LATER THEY DELIVER THE FINISHED COVERS. LARGER PIECES ARE SOMETIMES TAKEN TO THE WORKROOM. PRICE: RANGES FROM $75 FOR A SMALL CHAIR TO $500-$1000 FOR LARGE SOFA. FABRIC AND PATTERN (COMPLICATED OR NOT) DETERMINE THE PRICE.

I’ll call about furniture reupholstering, repair & refinishing and get pricing, time turnaround, fabric or COM, and information about the process (how does it get done…do you go to them or do they come to you?)

ANNE- UPHOSTERY: LITERALLY TWICE THE PRICE OF SLIPCOVERS AND, AGAIN, IS AFFECTED BY FABRIC AND PATTERN. WORK MUST BE DONE IN A WORKROOM. CAN INVOLVE RESTYLING, REFINISHING, NEW DOWELS, RESTUFFING, NEW MUSLIN, NEW WELTING, WEBBING. FABRIC CAN BE COM OR THE REUPHOLSTERER CAN GET FABRICS (AND MARKS THEM UP) IF A DESIGNER IS NOT INVOLVED. TIME FRAME IS USUALLY 4-6 WEEKS OR MORE FOR EXTENSIVE REPAIR.

SOFA REUPHOLSTERY CAN EASILY COST AS MUCH AS BUYING A NEW ONE. IT CAN BE A DIFFICULT CHOICE.

SIDEBAR: Choosing fabrics and finishes

Fabric Tips:

□   buy the best fabric you can afford

□   choose COLORS that BLEND with your existing FURNISHINGS

□   IF YOU ARE USING PATTERNS, avoid having more than one busy pattern in a room

□   use patterns appropriate for the size of the piece

Finish Tips:

_ IF THE PIECE IS AN ANTIQUE AND HAS REAL VALUE, DO NOT REFINISH IT WITHOUT GETTING AN EXPERT’S OPINION. MAJOR CHANGES MAY DIMINISH ITS WORTH. OR JUST CLEAN AND POLISH IT AND USE IT AS IS.

_ WHEN YOU REFINISH, CONSIDER THE WOOD FINISHES OF THE OTHER FURNITURE IN THE ROOM. KEEP WOOD STAINS CONSISTENT FOR A MORE COHESIVE LOOK.

_ IF YOU ARE HAVING AN OLDER WOODEN DINING TABLE REFINISHED, ASK TO HAVE A CLEAR, PROTECTIVE SEALER APPLIED TO THE TOP WHICH WILL ENABLE YOU TO CLEAN IT EASILY.

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