Hand-painting turns ordinary furniture into extraordinary décor

With a measured gait, the client led the way up the curved staircase, followed by my wife, (interior designer Barbara Woolf) and me, who brought up the rear. We were headed for the space on the second-floor landing of a home we had been working on for some time; it was to be utilized as the client’s office — a place for the computer, family photos and things of that nature.

Up until this point, most of the furniture used throughout the home had been custom designed by me, so I already knew that no ordinary run-of-the-mill desk setup would do. No, this area would call for something especially charming and lovely to look at as our client was of a most gentle nature and disposition — a lover of flowers and impressionist art — which, by the way, filled nearly every room of her spacious home.

This area, one in which she planned to spend her quiet time, would need to be especially soothing and beautiful. We decided between us that pretty flowers would be the theme, one that reappeared throughout the home in the art as well as the furnishings. Only this time, we would utilize a trellis suspended from the ceiling as a way to seductively dangle any number of gorgeous lavender silk flowers. The desk and side cabinet would feature a glazed base coat of the loveliest yellow and then be hand painted with flowers that would simulate and expand the foliage up above.

The client was already a big fan of hand painting on furniture as we had utilized this type of finish on several pieces in the master and guest rooms. But our greatest claim to fame was a console in the formal living room, a brilliant example of intarsia (a highly developed form of marquetry first produced in Italy during the Renaissance period). Where the artisans of old used variously colored inlaid woods, our brilliant local artist achieved an even greater effect with her paints! Naturally occurring stone could never produce such a glorious look. This could only be attained through the genius and talent of man guided by divine inspiration. (Or in this case, woman.)

In our use of hand-painted furniture for this client, Barbara and I were carrying on a craft that few people realize has such a long and brilliant history. It reaches back to the use of resin lacquer in ancient China almost 3,500 years ago. It is thought that Marco Polo brought news of the highly developed state of Chinese lacquer to Italy as early as A.D. 1283. I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by this bit of research as the only report I ever heard regarding Mr. Polo and his adventures was that he was the individual responsible for bringing to Italy the Chinese noodles we’ve come to know as pasta.

But seriously, in my own design business I have turned any number of times to local artists both here and in Los Angeles to create a look for a piece of furniture that either couldn’t be produced with the use of natural stone such as marble or granite or couldn’t possibly reach the excitement level I was seeking.

For example, I could have utilized an amazing piece of marble for the top of a silver-leaf table, but I chose to go with the artistry of a brilliant painter and the results didn’t disappoint. The same held true for one of my pivoting side tables finished in gold leaf and topped off with a painted fantasy top. In this case, real stone would have been impractical due to its weight and so once again the artist’s brush saved the day.

Recently, a client ordered one of my up/down television cabinets for her bedroom with the stipulation that it would have to appear as a chest of drawers and be beautiful and graceful in her room. Once again, art came to the rescue where stone could never have tread.

And finally, for me one of the most splendid of all hand-painted creations that I was happily called upon to execute was a vanity table for a lady’s dressing room. She was a client who worshipped at beauty’s door and loved anything “over the top.” The piece had a light-celadon base color with beautiful, delicate garlands, the most heavenly irises adorning its sides and top, and was finished with the words “to Iris with love” since it was a gift from her adoring man to his ladylove, Iris.

I encourage you to consider hand-painted furniture when that special touch is needed to bring grace and charm or the unusual to a design project. However, there is one caveat that I urge you to always keep in mind. It’s a golden rule that every seasoned designer knows all too well: You’re only as good as your supplier. Find the right artist for the best results.

Stephen Leon is president of Soleil Design International and has been designing and manufacturing custom furniture and cabinetry for more than 25 years. He is on the board of directors of the Central California/Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. Questions can be sent to soleildesign@cox.net.

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