New furniture has etchings of age WELL WORN

April 10, 1994|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff Writer

When John Kiryanoff, director of finishes at Baker Furniture, goes to work on a new $5,000 sideboard these days, he starts by hand sanding and cleaning it. Then he beats it with a chain.

Maybe he'll take a skeleton key to mark the surface, or scratch it with a wire brush. To simulate the work of beetles in the joints, he'll use a specialized tool, a wormholer. He might even scrape the edges with a chisel.

Then he'll smooth the marks with more hand sanding so they look subtle and worn, and the piece is ready for its painted or lacquered finish.

The finish might include simulated sun-bleaching, alcohol or water stains, half a wine glass ring -- even a mark where a candle was put every day.

Faux dust will be inserted in the corners of the drawers, the places where even the most conscientious cleaners can't get to. The final step is to oxidize the hardware.

"We give our customers 175 years," Mr. Kiryanoff says, "and we let them put the next 25 on it."

What's going on here? Just a few years ago, in the '80s, antique reproductions were the rage. But they were new and proud of it, with their pristine surfaces and shiny finishes. Nobody confused a chair from the Winterthur Collection with a chair from the Winterthur Museum.

Now that's changed. Recycling is in. Conspicuous consumption is out. People are shopping at flea markets and consignment shops in record numbers. They are more interested in restoration than innovation.

Antiques are valued for their original finishes, where the integrity of the piece is preserved. People like it to look as if it's never been tampered with.

"The owners feel they're gaining a bit of history," says Peggy Kennedy, editor of House Beautiful. "They become part of the time when the piece was first around."

Even for those of us who can't afford antiques, the sense of continuity -- of history -- they bring to our lives is more important than ever. We buy something simply because it's old, weathered and cherished-looking, even if it's not an antique. Its age gives it value.

Or we buy our antiques new.

It's a logical extension of the country look, which may finally be running its course. The new twist is that people can have a comfortable, casual, warm environment and the stately 18th-century look (or whatever period in the past appeals). Here's furniture you can really use, no matter how elegant, because it already looks worn and lived with.

You could tie it in with the aging of America -- and some sociologist probably has -- but there's a new appreciation of things that look old. They seem more cherished somehow.

Donna Warner, editor of Metropolitan Home, thinks it may be because people are traveling more. "They've seen more ruins," she says. "The patina. The gentle wear. They come home and they simulate crumbling plaster with faux painting."

Closer to home, David Wiesand of McLain Wiesand on Howard Street sells real antiques, but he also designs and builds instant ones.

"I collect bits of ancient stuff for inspiration," he says. He has, for instance, a leg of an Italian chair with the gesso and gilt scraped off.

Handling real antiques also helps him. He knows where an old chair really would be worn, how a surface might be crackled by the hand of time, so he can duplicate such ravages on a piece of furniture he's creating.

One of his customers wanted to see multiple layers of paint on the faux antique he commissioned. Mr. Wiesand created what he calls a "crusty old finish" by building up layers of paint-saturated tissue paper, then scraping through it. He might add sand or fine gravel or even the dust and dirt from the vacuum cleaner bag to the paint to give the piece plenty of texture.

The fact that most of us can't afford rarified antiques is one reason for the popularity of the faux version. But more than that, we've lived through the grunge look and shabby chic. We've given up on everything's being perfect. As editor Donna Warner says, "If it has a chip, it's OK. It's a sign of life."

Perhaps you can't -- or don't want to -- spend $5,000 on an instantly aged sideboard. The easiest way to incorporate the look into your home is through accessories. The newest metal ones are distressed for the aged look. Brand new chandeliers have rust. Copper candlesticks are dipped in acid to create verdigris.

The look extends to fabrics: some of the most expensive upholstery linens are tea-dyed for a weathered look or sun-bleached. "It makes them look dingy, but people like it," says Alan Ferguson, president of Alan Ferguson Associates, an upholstery and design company.

Interior designer Henry Johnson of Johnson/Berman sometimes buys an old piece of fabric or uses an old Oriental rug or tapestry for upholstery. The worn places, he says, add to the charm of the piece.

Most of us can relate to the beauty inherent in a well-used Oriental, a worn piece of folk art or the crackle finish of a bookcase. But some designers are taking the ruined look to the extreme.

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