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Distressed furniture is all the rage and easy to do yourself

Just as people with a past are interesting, so is furniture that looks as though it’s lived through some rough patches. Intentionally shabby, slightly worn furniture is in vogue, and it’s likely a sign of the times.

The economy may be turning around, but people want to make the most of what they already have – or what they can find on the cheap.

Jere Gilson, an interior designer and furniture painter who has a booth at Sleepy Poet Antique Mall, says the look is huge now. “This is what you see if you open Architectural Digest,” he says. When the style first became popular, it was all about what Gilson calls “old and chippy with paint falling off.” Now, he says, the look people want is old but clean.

“It’s more finished,” he says. “It’s distressed, but then it’s waxed and buffed and may even have a high sheen. It can go formal as well as country.” Besides, he says, the chipped paint on old pieces may be lead paint, which can be harmful to children and pets.

Suzie Freitag, a local authority on distressing furniture, says: “Decorating now is all about using different colors, textures, patterns and furniture pieces not matching exactly. Distressing adds depth and texture to a piece.” And it gives furniture instant character.

Freitag, a Ballantyne resident, owns Inside Out Home Decor Design & Redesign. She gives new personality to old pieces and sells them on local e-commerce sites, starting at $50 for a small table and running to $300 for a dresser. People also bring their old pieces to her for a new lease on life. If the piece is too big or impossible to transport – like a fireplace, for instance – she’ll come to you.

She finds furniture in need of rehab at Goodwill, but is not above picking up what she calls “curbside treasures.” She does not scour yard sales or flea markets because she finds them “time-consuming and hit-or-miss.”

Anyone can do it

Gilson says a down economy may have led to the distressed craze. “Let’s face it,” he says. “You can buy a piece and completely change the look of it for next to nothing.”

While Gilson makes his living selling distressed furniture at his Interiors 129 booth at Sleepy Poet, he’s happy to instruct do-it-yourselfers. He works at the Chalk Paint by Annie Sloan booth at Sleepy Poet two days a week and offers pointers along with the paint. (See box for more on chalk paint, which is popular with furniture- painting DIYers.) His prices start at around $90.

One of the hottest looks now, he says, is two-tone distressed. To get that look, apply one layer of paint, let it dry and then apply a layer of another color of paint. Remove some of the top layer with sand paper so that two colors are visible.

You don’t need any special know-how to get started with distressing. Even Freitag came across the craft by accident. “I’ve always been creative, but not necessarily artistic,” she says. “I’m good with scale, balance, color and hard work.” The work of giving new life to old furniture is very physical, she says. It’s also therapeutic.

When she left her job in 2012 as a kindergarten teaching assistant, she was looking for a creative outlet. She decided the economic downturn was the perfect time to demonstrate that people can reinvigorate what they already have.

Imperfections add to the character of distressed furniture; mistakes go with the territory. “If you’re not happy with the paint, you can always start over,” Freitag says. Or decide to live with it. Up-cycled pieces aren’t intended to be perfect.

For a first project, Freitag recommends something with clean lines. “Anything with four sides is easy – a mirror or a picture frame,” she says. “Tables have just a top and four legs; they’re easy, too.” Start with something smaller, like a coffee table or end table, before moving up to a dining table.

If you find perfect to be perfectly boring, furniture that looks like it’s been around the block may be for you.

In fact, you may find your first piece just down the block – in a neighbor’s trash pile.