There's painted furniture, and then there's painted furniture.
To some, it's simply a matter of giving a new look to an old but still-functional table or chair. Those of us familiar with the history of the decorative arts know, however, that painted furniture can be much more than the result of a spruce-up.
For centuries, woodcarvers and cabinet makers have further embellished their creations with decorative designs in paint. Examples of this art form can be found in many parts of Asia and continental Europe as well as in England. The styles range from sophisticated lacquered patterns and chinoiserie to the more naive painting typical of Bavarian pieces and of rustic antiques in the United States.
This decorative genre has again become quite popular in the past few years. Many contemporary furniture designs have begun to feature painted finishes. They're applied with a variety of means -- including sponges, rags and spray guns -- to produce a variety of effects such as brilliantly smooth lacquers and fresco-like matte textures.
Tradition France Inc., for instance, imports a armoire in the style of Louis XV. The handsome, hand-carved reproduction is given several coats of paints and binders to produce a thickly textured finish resembling the look of Renaissance frescoes. That technique is especially compatible with hand-worked furniture because it highlights the carver's art.
You're probably wondering how pieces of this sort should be displayed in a late 20th-century American home. My first bit of advice is a warning to enthusiasts that they really ought not fill a room entirely with painted furniture. Pieces done in so distinctive a manner have to be used judiciously, or else their aesthetic impact will be much blunted. In general, a room is able to accommodate a few smaller and delicate pieces but only one painted piece as commanding as an armoire.
So large an object would make an excellent focal point in a living room. Let it have the attention it deserves -- don't force it to compete with similarly spectacular objects.
Either metal or stained wooden furniture would make an appropriate accompaniment for an imposing painted piece. In the bedroom, painted night tables will look wonderful in combination with, say, a brass bed. Other examples of this type of furniture could be used in a dining room or even in a so-called entertainment center, where they can go well with everyday furnishings.
Be sure to choose the wall colors carefully. My own rule in such situations is the plainer the better, with the guiding principle being to establish a foil for the painted furniture.