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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

To Enliven Dated Décor Try Taking a Risk

The move was risky. And I don’t regret it one bit.

For all my decorating life, decades, I thought animal prints were for other people. Although I coveted the exotic look of a leopard-print throw or a tiger-striped rug, I lacked the courage to put one in my home.

That was then.

I now have two zebra-striped chairs in my living room. With the blessing of a designer I trust, I tapped the animal within. Now I wonder what took me so long.

My odyssey began a few months ago when I looked at my adjoining dining and living rooms and decided they looked tired. I wanted to update them, make them come alive, but I couldn’t afford to start over.

So, I called Christopher Grubb, a notable designer based in Los Angeles, whom I’ve known for years, and asked for a consult. I would do all the legwork, if he could just tell me what to keep, get rid of, add, and revamp. We agreed I would keep the traditional dining table, but replace the stodgy tapestry dining side chairs, which I’ve had for nearly 30 years, with more modern ones.

We would also keep the two dining room armchairs but reupholster them in a more contemporary fabric and move them into the living room. I’m loving this plan.

I gathered nine fabric swatches to test drive. I sent photos of all nine to Grubb. Then, before he could answer, I narrowed the selection down to six and sent him a picture of the finalists. Among the three fabrics I’d eliminated was a bold zebra print I grabbed on a whim but ruled out. (It’s for other people.)

“What happened to the zebra?” Grubb asked.

“Oh, it seemed a little, well, wild.”

“It would look fantastic on those chairs,” he said. “And paint the wood glossy lacquer black.”


Designers take risks where the rest of us fear to tread.


My little heart turned a somersault. “Really?” That permission felt like the time my Dad let me drive our family’s red Dodge Charger by myself.

Next day, the tired tapestry armchairs along with seven yards of zebra fabric and I were exuberantly off to the upholsterer, who took one look at the project, raised his eyebrows and said: “That will be fun.”

When the chairs came back, I sent Grubb a photo.

“Dang! Those look great!”

I had to agree.

“You just created art chairs,” he said. “You turned them into not just useful pieces of furniture, but pieces of art.”

Many homeowners have furniture pieces that would look great flipped, he added, they just don’t see it. “They have heavy Mediterranean furniture that they are trying to bust out of to make their homes more contemporary, but don’t think the pieces belong going forward. Then we give it a twist. Maybe we paint a hum-drum brown end table robin’s egg blue and turn it into a fun and functional accessory.”

If they’re worried they will “ruin” the piece, he says, “You don’t like it anymore as it is, so what’s to lose?”

“I’m a big fan of doing what you did,” said Dean Stills, co-owner of Stills Upholstery in Longwood, Fla. “I love to see people repurpose old furniture to make it fit their homes today by recovering it with more-modern fabric and changing the finish. It’s so much better than taking it to the curb.”

Grubb encourages anyone who wants to take a risk with their decor to go for it, but to bounce it off a designer first. “Most people know what they like, they just don’t know how to get there. We can help them add the wow factor.”

He encourages DIY decorators to work with designers like I did. “Do the legwork, then hire a designer to consult for an hour or two,” he said. “People don’t take risks, so we walk through room after room of beige and grey.”

None of us wants to be that person.

If you’d like to add some pizzaz to your home, here are some risky moves Grubb and Stills suggest you consider.

·      Use the power of paint. A glossy fun color on a dull brown piece of wood furniture is an inexpensive way to modernize it and turn it into an art piece. (It’s also easier than refinishing.) Consider painting a chest glossy lime or the frame of a mirror bright orange. When painting my wood chairs gloss black, Stills used Crystal Conversion Varnish, because it creates a tough, hard finish that holds up.

·      Change the hardware. Switching out distressed iron knobs or ornate vintage pulls for sleek ones in brushed gold or polished chrome can instantly and inexpensively enliven old furniture.

·      Refresh fabrics. Before retiring a piece of upholstered furniture, think about recovering it with an updated fabric. Older furniture, Stills said, is typically much better made than newer furniture sold today. Upholsterers can also replace and repair worn inner springs and foam.

·      Add a wow fixture. Chandeliers are a great place to take an expressive risk, Grubb said. “These standalone accessories don’t have to go with anything. They could be covered in feathers and look great.”

·      Incorporate some Lucite. Because it leans contemporary, just one Lucite piece, such as a chair, end table or bar cart, can bridge old and new looks, Grubb said.

·      Mix in some metal. Shiny metallic finishes also feel contemporary. Adding chrome table lamps, bookends or side tables can modernize an otherwise traditional room.

·      Reframe the art. Traditional art doesn’t need a traditional frame. Put an old painting in a contemporary frame or eliminate the frame altogether.

CAPTION: The Animal Within — A glossy coat of black paint and some exotic new fabric gave these dated tapestry chairs a lively new look and a new life. Photos courtesy of Marni Jameson.

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