From tiny custom shops to mass-market retailers, the centuries-old art of painted furniture is back, despite prices that can go from about $1,000 to $7,500 or more.
Why now? Industry observers have different theories.
Nancy High, director of communications for the American Furniture Manufacturers in High Point, N.C., sees it as a way for people to express their individuality in a high-tech world.
"When you collect art, it is an expression of your preferences and your taste," she says. "This furniture is art in a different medium. It's a great way to theme a room. You buy that one piece of furniture and build a room around it. It becomes the focal point, like a fireplace or a big Palladian window."
Leonard Eisen, who has been designing for Pulaski Furniture for the past 30 years, agrees that people want to make an individual statement in their homes. He also sees this as a way to create furniture that reflects today's more casual lifestyle. At the April furniture market in High Point, he used painted finishes on at least 25 items. More painted furniture was on display during the fall furniture market.
One of Mr. Eisen's best examples from the April market is the Croquet Chest, a four-drawer chest with distressed finish and a painting of a croquet game. The suggested retail price is about $930.
"Formality seems to be out of the window," he says. "This type of furniture is totally informal. It represents the way people like to live today. Their lives are not regimented. Everyone wears jeans, and they like to come in the house and throw things on the sofa. We are doing nothing more than hitchhiking on this casual lifestyle trend. And I don't see us going back [to formality] any time soon."
The use of painted furniture also reflects the popularity of eclectic design -- where old is mixed with new and everything doesn't have to match. Because of this, designers like Mr. Eisen are creating pieces that stand on their own and can mix easily with existing pieces.
"I think it's a matter of people gaining more knowledge about the art," says Darrell Scott, a furniture artist. "There are a lot more books on do-it-yourself furniture painting, and the more knowledgeable customers are asking for it."
Even the mass merchandisers are hiring artists to do lines of painted furniture. Lexington Furniture Industries also has made a commitment to the painted furniture look with the Art Cetera Collection, a group of items crafted in hardwoods and individually hand-painted.
The company has about 40 Carolina artists on staff to produce the line. The designs range from armoires with beach scenes ($2,925 suggested retail) to small chests where the artists create a portrait of your home or boat from a photograph ($2,730). One of the least expensive is a nautical three-drawer chest with a painting of a clipper ship (about $1,430).
The most formal of these offerings from furniture manufacturers comes from Habersham Plantation, whose artists create museum-quality pieces. For example, a hand-carved French +V cottage trunk is based on a painting called "The Shepherd's Daughter" by William Kay Blacklock (1872-1922). It is a limited edition, and it has a suggested retail price of $1,499.
Habersham's pieces can get even more expensive. The autumn Frontgate catalog features a limited-edition armoire inspired by the early 19th-century artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute's botanical paintings -- it shows a basket overflowing with French flowers on the terrace of a French garden. Each armoire is signed, dated and numbered by the artist. The price? $7,500.
Books on painted furniture
If you want to try a painted furniture project yourself, start with advice from the professionals. Here are several books that might provide inspiration and instruction:
"Simple Painted Furniture" (Grove Weidenfeld, $19.95) by Annie Sloan shows how to decorate 20 items found in most houses -- from chairs and tables to chests and cupboards. The author gives separate instructions on distressing, wood-graining, dragging, combing, sponging, marbling, crackling, stenciling and decoupage. A list of suppliers is also included.
"Painting Furniture" (Henry Holt Co., $15.95) by Jaclynn Fischman shows how to decorate 12 pieces of furniture. The book provides a history of decorative furniture, gives suggestions on materials and equipment and summarizes basic techniques. A chapter on the work of professional artists and designers provides inspiration for the novice.
"Fantastic Painted Finishes" (Crown Trade Paperbacks, $30) by Lisa Wassong with Steven Schwartz provides the best step-by-step photographs. It also gives a detailed glossary of materials -- from alcohol to water-based varnish. Preparation, varnishing and cleanup are handled in informative separate chapters. Another bonus for the novice: The 28 recipes included in the book start small with projects like inkwells and candlesticks and build up to screens and dressing tables.
"The Country Decorative Painting Companion" (Collins Publishers, $12.95) by Judith and Martin Miller is the USA Today of this genre. A small-format book (6 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches), it gives concise information on paint effects used on walls and furniture. More an overview than a how-to primer, the book is best used for inspiration rather than solid hands-on advice.
* Frontgate catalog, (800) 626-6488
* For information on where Lexington Furniture is sold, (800) 539-4636
* For information on where Habersham Plantation is sold, (800) 241-0716 * For information on where Pulaski Furniture is sold, (703) 980-7330; ask for the sales office.