Decor How-To: Breathe New Life Into Old Furniture
These out-of-the-ordinary ideas will turn tired stuff into treasures
I just hung up the phone with Peter Dupré and I’m wondering why I’ve ever thrown any furniture away. Dupré is a successful restauranteur in New York City, but his passion is refinishing and restoring midcentury furniture. Most of his treasures fill his Rhode Island and NYC homes, but many others can be found at high-end auction houses and antique shops.
A voracious shopper and expert Dumpster diver, he’s a pro at uncovering hidden gems in the unlikeliest of places and reworking them into something beautiful and functional. His secret is to turn even the most boring piece into something extraordinary, using just a little bit of money, some elbow grease, and lots of creativity.
Here are his best tips on how to transform the mundane into the sublime — read on and get inspired!
Look for “good bones.” When you’re deciding whether something is worth salvaging, keep an eye out for signs of quality workmanship, like strong, clean welds, and good materials, such as a dried hardwood. The piece should have some weight to it. Also inspect the finish — is it in decent shape or can it be restored, refinished or painted?
Think about the upgrades you want to make. Consider what it will take to make the piece more contemporary and livable for you. Use materials and colors that excite you. For example, Dupré freshened up a pair of midcentury wrought iron Salterini chairs by covering them in on-trend long-haired goat skin.
Take a chance. Who says a vacuum has to stay a vacuum? Not Dupre´. “The thing that dazzles people the most is when I’ve taken a piece and created a new purpose for it,” he says. For example, he bought a pair of 1930s aluminum vacuum cleaners on eBay and turned them into bedside lamps by buffing them to a mirror shine and adding an aluminum stem, fixture and shade. He also transformed vintage grade-school pull-down maps into quirky-cool blackout shades just by cutting them to fit the windows. And he screwed together a stack of hard case luggage and used it as a combo end table/storage spot.
Choose good fabric (but don’t pay a bundle for it). A swath of beautiful fabric can do wonders for an otherwise ho-hum piece. Dupré’s advice? Go for the best quality you can afford, even if it means choosing a lesser pattern. To avoid blowing your budget, shop “end runs,” which are oftentimes expensive fabrics that are now available at rock-bottom prices.
Be willing to put in some work. Want to make your street corner find look like a million bucks? Give it some shine. Dupré is a huge fan of French polishing, a technique that involves repeatedly shellacking then sanding a wooden piece until it’s as glossy as a Steinway piano. (Dupré favors black lacquer for the shellac and cigar ash for the mild abrasive at the end.)
He also uses a jeweler’s rouge or buffing wheel to shine metallic pieces. Recently, he polished a turn-of-the-century, stainless steel hospital gurney and replaced the mattress with distressed leather cushions. Presto—instant (and insanely cool) chaise lounge.
Know when to outsource. Sometimes, it pays to call in the pros. Do your research beforehand, though — you could save hundreds on a job and get the same results. Case in point: If you’re not a great painter, Dupré’s recommends hiring an automobile body shop. They often charge significantly less than a traditional furniture painter and have access to the highest-quality paint sprayer.
Tell us the story of a piece of furniture you’ve salvaged below!