Hand-me down furnishings, pick-me-up flair

September 19, 1993|By Ro Logrippo | Ro Logrippo,Contributing Writer

Imagine transforming chipped metal beds, a dilapidated school desk and a small beat-up chair into furnishings fit for a child's room on display.

Preposterous? Guess again. These postwar items highlighted a benefit showcase setting designed for two young brothers destined to occupy the space. Of course, by the time the bruised '40s and '50s finds were permitted public scrutiny, they'd been refurbished to original glory.

All old furniture isn't face lift material. What made these ideal hopefuls? Sturdy construction. Interesting shapes. Family history.

Designer Irene Sohm of Santa Rosa, Calif., recognized their worthiness on seeing them in the attic of the home she was helping restore. With sanding, repainting and minor reconditioning, their timeworn looks vanished. (The furniture's nicks and scratches had been inflicted by the boys' own father; he grew up in the same room using the same furniture.)

When they undertook this project in 1990, Ms. Sohm and her clients didn't view themselves as trendsetters. Now recycling is in vogue as a way to save not only money but also the planet.

Similar success can be yours, whether the hand-me-downs you target for pick-me-up are in Granny's basement, a stranger's yard sale or a secondhand shop.

As you and your child search for used goods for his or her room, take pride in breaking the habit of a throw-away society.

Rummaging for finds to fit a child's lifestyle takes more than common sense about what's worth salvaging. It takes know-how.

"Look past the current finish," Ms. Sohm advises. "It could be great once sanded, stripped or repainted." Pay attention to "good lines, good proportions and interesting shapes," she continues.

"If it's wood, be sure it's solid, especially on the bottom of the drawers, which should pull in and out smoothly when a child tugs.

"If it's really beat up," she adds, "beat it up more by whipping it with chains for a distressed look. Then go over the surface with a coat of paint that you wipe off immediately. What little remains is enough residue to give the piece a whitewashed look that endures if covered with flat polyurethane.

To breathe new life into old pieces bound for kids' rooms, Ms. Sohm also recommends zippy paint finishes. Use two or more colors on the same item to give detail, she says, or use a technique such as sponging, stenciling or marbling. For specific instructions, consult a paint store owner or buy a kit with simple directions.

Hardware is easy to replace, so don't nix something with shoddy handles. But do think twice about trying to resurrect furniture with unsafe construction or trying to repair an item that would be costlier to fix than replace.

Once more with feeling

As any antiques dealer knows, old-fashioned upholstered designs can have new-fashioned appeal once TLC is given to them.

On worn upholstered pieces such as chairs, an uplift obviously translates to fabric replacement. But don't get new material before considering slipcovers made from old sheets or bedspreads.

In your quest for hand-me-downs, don't overlook the closet. Consider that ancestral staple -- a patchwork quilt made with clothes outgrown by family members. For just a touch of nostalgia, do what one Missouri clan of relatives did: use remnants of fashions worn long ago by grandparents to make teddy bears.

Enjoying the family heritage benefits both generations psychologically, Ms. Sohm believes. "Parents like handing down a piece of their past as much as kids love receiving something their parents had growing up. It's tangible proof parents were kids, too," she says.

Not-so-instant replay

Depending on the piece in question, playing the recycling game with hand-me-down furnishings may call for innovative strategy.

What may have been used for one function a generation or two ago could be suitable today for an altogether different purpose. That cradle you slept in 30 years ago, for example, may be just the right repository today for the stuffed animal collection in your young one's room. Does a photo exist showing the piece's original use? Hang it in an old frame near the present setting.

If you can find them, other old discards worthy of adaptation include these items that may rate reconditioning first:

* Trunk or footlocker: Because of their size, turn these into storage compartments for athletic gear. As a precaution, disengage the lock and add a safety latch.

* Kitchen or other tall table: Cut down the legs and create a low "bunching" table for kids. Use pillows for seating.

* Small dresser: If drawers are deep enough, stack artwork in them and store supplies there in used, clean coffee cans.

* Step stool: Let this do double duty as pull-up seating for someone small. It's also a good resting place for a loved doll.

* Mug racks: The hooks on this catchall invite all sorts of possessions from belts, hats and scarves to jewelry and whatnots.

If you're limited to bits and pieces of your ancestry, such as photos and buttons, create a collage of them in a shadow box. Keepsakes like this in a child's room instill a sense of family roots.

As for present-day tiny treasures, encourage your child to set aside a few favorites in a storage box whose contents may inspire another collage in later years.

Sentimental journey

When you show a child how an old possession can be rejuvenated for current use, you teach appreciation for items with sentimental and historic value. Consequently you instill a desire to take good care of possessions so they won't join the refuse already heaped in the world's junk-yard piles.

Design journalist Ro Logrippo, co-author with Antonio Torrice of "In My Room: Designing for and With Children," welcomes ideas for a column about holiday decorating ideas in a child's room. Write to her at Living & Learning Environments, 1017 California Drive, Burlingame, Calif. 94010.

) Universal Press Syndicate

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