Shabby Chic, Henry III, and George Washington’s House

Before I properly got into woodworking and furniture making, I worked in Boston at an event decor company which made and provided props for corporate parties. We prided ourselves on making things look like other things (though, admittedly at the time I was less involved in the “making”). We cut rectangles of timber and applied sand and paint to make them look like brick. We painted things to look like marble. We built large facades of landmarks in Boston to display in hotel ballrooms while the staff of high value companies got drunk next to them. Our creative director prided himself on going beyond just producing film and theatre props and instead making something that you could walk up to, something you could touch.

Fake was the defining term of what we were creating (although my boss would have preferred Lifelike). I kept thinking, and I don’t know where I got this impression from, that what we were doing was the product of the last one hundred years of industrialised modernity. We were cheaply making replicas. These days it seems, extra effort is put into making things look old. You buy prefaded jeans with holes already in them. You can buy them with holes in them and patches over those holes. You can buy furniture with peeling paint at extravagant prices. Shabby is chic, and there is an industry around aging and antiquing newer wares. We had a special painter come in from time to time to paint cardboard tubes to look like marble columns and all that just feels so post-modern.

However, as it turns out, humans have been doing it for a very long time. In fact, Henry III decreed that decor in his chamber be painted marble in 1245. Marbling as a painting technique is not new. It has been done repeatedly through the ages, going in and out of fashion. We’ve also been covering beautiful oak furniture with veneers of ‘finer’ woods for ages and we do the same with plywood now (side note: the veneering of oak furniture with walnut or mahogany confuses me. I feel like walnut and mahogany were preferred by cabinetmakers because of their ease of use. Oak is a fucking hard material to work with pre-industrial equipment).

This isn’t to say the practice of making fake things is the best way to go, just that it’s not a contemporary phenomenon.

Take George Washington’s house, for instance. It’s terrible in my opinion. I remember visiting a few years ago with my family and here’s what I remember:

It was built in the 1700s in Virginia and at the time the highest construction fashions in European culture were sandstone and mahogany, two materials not overly abundant in Virginia. So what did the would be first President of the United States do? He faked it. Or more precisely he made someone else fake it. The exterior walls are made to look like sand stone by tiling beveled planks and painting them with cream colour and throwing sand at them! The walls of the entry hall are some kind of local timber (I can’t remember what) painted over really poorly to resemble mahogany. In my opinion, it looked nothing like mahogany and instead just looked like a child had played around with brown paint on the walls. One room was painted a horrendous shade of green simply because it was the most expensive colour of paint at the time.

So, jump forward. The first few years I did start getting into woodworking and furniture I was working at The Bower, a secondhand store of sorts. We were attempting to keep things from going to landfill as quickly as possible. In that world, shabby chic and painted furniture is very popular. People pick up ratty looking cabinets and give them an interesting new paint job. The practice is of great contention amongst craftspeople and artisans. I did it quite a bit myself because it worked. You could have a beautiful timber table that wouldn’t sell, and if you painted it white and sanded it back it went out the door the very next day, allowing us accept a new table to take it’s place. At the same time, I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for damaging the provenance of the piece. I still felt like this was a new trend, something horrible from modern society.

Well, it’s not new, but I don’t know if that helps.

I don’t know how I feel about shabby chic. In the end, what matters (as always) is that people get something quality that they like. If that means taking something terrible and making it look nice, I can’t say I approve. However, if the furniture itself is solid, and you want it to have a bit of creative texture and character, I see nothing wrong with that.

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