To Paint or Not to Paint - (Is that really a question?)

Updated: Apr 19, 2019

Now don't get me wrong, over the years we have been the ones yelling "For the love of god, Google before breaking out the chalk paint!". However....some discussion on this topic is warranted.

The above statement is absolutely true. If you are somehow holding an original Pearsall, Kagan, Eames, Wormley, Larsen, Nelson, Risom, etc.....PUT....DOWN...THE....PAINT....BRUSH. Famous Mid Century designers weren't envisioning their pieces in a lovely shade of turquoise with yellow edging...just sayin'. They chose striking angles and gorgeous grained, expensive wood for a reason (paint not being one of them). However when it comes to the more "run of the mill" vintage pieces, now we can have a discussion.

When you find ugly vintage (not Mid Century Modern) pieces for $10 at a thrift, such as this one.... all means...paint away....slather it all over, add pink circles, leopard print top.....whatever you fancy most, because no matter how good or gawd awful you make it, it's never going to be worth much.

When it comes to Mid Century Modern furniture, well....first let me tell you how we approach this in our business:

We tend to buy only solid wood, mostly designer pieces. Some North American furniture manufacturers such as Lane, United, Bassett, Broyhill, American of Martinsville, etc...collaborated with some great designers in the 1950's, 60's & 70's, but they also put out some really nice product that were not associated with a particular designer. There are also some pieces (like Johnson Carper) that have great lines but a Formica top. Here at DGR we will very very rarely buy a Carper (see below) in pristine condition (but no other Formica pieces ever).

We will very, very rarely buy a blonde piece, only if it is in pristine condition and has amazing lines (like the set below).

We will buy non-designer pieces as long as they are solid wood, and we obviously buy designer pieces (any condition). We also buy Scandinavian / Danish Mid Century furniture. Occasionally we will come across a piece that has great lines but is damaged and has a proprietary finish - and THAT is what we consider applying paint to in order to retain value.....(shocked??).....let me explain:

We have a dresser in our shop right now that has nice lines, no famous designer and it has a proprietary finish. Proprietary finishes are ones that were applied during the original manufacturing process and cannot be duplicated no matter how hard you try. Most people think of blonde finishes when they hear "proprietary" and that is true, but the ones we are referring to are pieces that "appear" to be walnut or sometimes maple... it's actually more of a strange wood color that you can't duplicate in touch-up or refinishing. A good example of this is the Drexel Profile line by John Van Koert. So, if you find furniture with a proprietary finish, you have to find it in flawless condition OR you have to come up with plan B because Plan A (restoring without sanding) is not an option.

Your only options are to either sand every last inch of the proprietary finish off .....or paint. If you sand a blonde or proprietary finish, more often than not you will find some type of red or darker wood underneath. Which means once you sand it - it will look nothing like it did before you sanded it. Here is a Drexel Profile example - original proprietary finish and then refinished (not ours).

For the dresser we have in our shop right now, the top has severe damage but the rest of the dresser is in good shape. We have decided to paint the top and restore the original finish on the rest of it. Yes, sometimes paint is a decent option to retain value. For example on this particular dresser, if we sold it in as-is condition we might get $100 for it. If we attempted to restore the entire piece including the top, we would get maybe $150 for it because the top is too damaged to properly correct. If we completely sanded every last inch we would probably sell it for around $350-400 because it would either be red or it would be dark. Specifically if it is red (and for some reason most people don't want reddish wood furniture), usually a dark walnut stain is added (in an attempt to cover the red)....and then you are left with a really really dark wood piece that looks "refinished". A newly refinished dark wood piece (that resembles something you can now buy at Target) would also be listed for around $350-400.

By restoring 75% of the dresser and adding a complimentary contemporary color paint to the damaged area (the top), we can sell the dresser for $600-800. So in this case, as well as other damaged proprietary finish pieces....painting can be "OK".......If done well.

This is one of our pieces that had a damaged top which could not be duplicated or repaired so we applied a heavy stain/light paint to just the top and restored the rest:

Just a small note here: There were some Mid Century Modern designers that put out painted pieces. An example of this is Raymond Loewy for Mengel. The dresser below is one of his that is exactly the way it was designed and manufactured. No paint has been added:

Here is our list of general rules at Dirty Girls Restoration: (We are talking about genuine Mid Century Modern furniture here, not reproductions and not "vintage" furniture. Just because something was made in the years 1950-1970 does not make it "Mid Century Modern". For a more detailed description please see our other blog Mid Century vs Mid Century Modern.)

Back to the guidelines....

1) If it's a designer piece - DO NOT PAINT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE

2) If it is a solid wood piece without a proprietary finish - DO NOT PAINT

3) Never paint a piece in it's entirety

4) Never paint shapes, stencils, or add stickers

5) Never paint bright (turquoise, orange, pink, purple, etc...) colors

6) If it is a damaged proprietary finish (non designer) you can paint a portion of the piece, only to accent the lines or cover the damage. Stick to neutral tones that accent or blend well with the original finish.

This list is how we run our business, obviously there will be differing opinions. Keep in mind our goal (always) is to restore and not to change what the original designer or manufacturer intended. With that said, yesterday we walked into a shop and found a painted Lane Perception small sideboard. The entire piece was painted white with gray base, and yes, it was a hard thing to see.

It was at the ripe "restored" price of $89. Had paint NOT been applied this piece would be worth $600-1200 depending upon market. We did consider for a moment buying it and putting the work into removing the paint, however as most of you know - Lane Perception has basket weaving. Ever tried to remove paint off basket weaving?? No?.....Yeah, don't bother unless you have nothing else to do with the rest of your life.

So, we implore all of the furniture painters of the world to please just open the drawer, grab the manufacturer name and do a quick search before completely ruining a gorgeous Mid Century Modern piece that is forever lost to the world....

© 2019 Dirty Girls Restoration

740.507.7330   |   |   Oak Ridge, TN 

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