Face value

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 July, 2009, 12:00am

In these straitened times, spending money on redecorating may not be a priority, but you can enjoy the psychological benefits of upgrading your home without spending a fortune simply by resurfacing your existing furniture.

As well as saving money, revamping or adapting what you already have is unquestionably the most eco-friendly way to go about any redecoration project. Just as green, although it might cost a little more, is having your way with vintage or second-hand furniture. Hong Kong has a thriving online second-hand market and a number of weekend flea markets where interesting furniture can be found.

Some DIY will be necessary, but the impact of the following methods owe more to imagination than to renovation experience.

The cheapest and most obvious is painting. Bright white latex paint is a popular choice for those wanting to give their old furniture a contemporary look, while matt alabaster white is more suitable for 'shabby chic' endeavours. For a storage piece, consider leaving either the frame or drawers unpainted; the two-tone pairing of creamy white and natural wood is vintage-inspired, but also quite at home in modern surroundings.

A good source of inspiration for this kind of look is the website of White Attic, a Chicago shop that specialises in refinished vintage furniture. Owners Terry Ledford and Doug Stucky look for furniture in need of recreation and Ledford handpaints their finds, often using bold or contrasting colours.

The style is easily adapted to any colour scheme and can add a lot of character to the dullest furniture. Take it slightly further by painting the inside of drawers and cupboards in a colour that contrasts with the main body of the piece. Black and pink, lavender and mint, orange and gold - you can try all sorts of over-the-top combinations knowing that one of your colours will generally be hidden away, only flashing at you from time to time.

Damaged tabletops can be refurbished with a new surface material, particularly if the legs are in good condition. A made-to-measure sheet of Chinese slate or marble glued on top with a construction-grade adhesive such as Liquid Nails creates a completely new piece of furniture and taps into current trends for natural materials with a contemporary edge. For an extra design touch, glue a slightly smaller square of plywood in between so that the stone slab appears to float on top.

Another option is to decoupage one or more surfaces of your furniture. This traditional Victorian technique has had a modern revival recently, spearheaded in the US by Durwin Rice. According to Rice, old furniture can be updated easily and stylishly with nothing but paper, glue and a pair of scissors.

One recent Rice convert is Hong Kong-born interior designer Jonathan Fong, who was inspired by a visit to an Andy Warhol retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where Warhol posters were on sale.

'While a normal person would think 'Wow, I should get one and frame it,' I thought, 'Wow, I'm going to buy every poster they have in stock and decoupage them onto my kitchen cabinets,'' he says.

The process was simple, if a little messy. After cutting the posters to the size of his kitchen cabinets, Fong soaked them in his bath briefly. He then painted a layer of white glue on the cabinets and placed the wet posters on top, using a wet sponge and a rubber hand-roller to smooth down the posters and remove excess water. After a day's drying, he applied several coats of clear lacquer, otherwise known as acrylic polyurethane, to ensure durability.

'The amazing thing is they don't look decoupaged at all,' says Fong. 'There's no crackly wrinkled finish; it looks like the artwork was actually printed onto the cabinets.'

Fong is an interior designer, but he says no particular craft skills are necessary and that 'if I can do it, anyone can.'

Those willing to give it a try but are unsure of technique can take an item of furniture to drop-in sessions at Chameleon Workshop in Wan Chai for decoupage tutorials.

If permanent upgrades of this kind seem too risky, consider using removable vinyl instead. Assia Bennani, the force behind Marguerite & Gribouilli, a designer wall decal company in Wan Chai, encourages customers to try her designs on furniture and walls for quick and easy transformations that can always be peeled off if you change your mind. One striking example is the use of wall frieze stickers on a table with steel hairpin legs. The Moroccan and Andalusian patterns in chocolate and teal lend the table a vintage vibe, creating a characterful focal point in an otherwise simply furnished room.

'The table was a cheap, basic, white table, which is why I wanted to customise it,' she says. 'But I think it could be very interesting to juxtapose old or antique furniture with this kind of new material.'

Because of the delicate nature of Bennani's intricate designs, she also suggests covering stickers with a glass top to protect them from cleaning and everyday friction and to extend their lives.

If you feel sufficiently inspired, you could even have a go at designing your own decals using contact paper, a low-tack adhesive paper usually employed to protect textbooks or line the insides of drawers. These days it comes in an array of different colours and finishes including shiny metallic and realistic woodgrain. Strips of different woodgrains in different widths could be applied side by side for a modern wood inlay effect. Or you could cut out simple shapes or patchwork squares to be applied to a cabinet door or a chair back. It's important to remember, however, that contact paper is a short-term option, particularly in high humidity.

Even upholstery is in the realms of viable DIY, as long as you keep it simple. Rather than your sofa, focus on square or rectangular pieces that can be covered with fabric and stapled in place: a piece of plywood for a pretty noticeboard or a pelmet for your curtains, or even small cabinet doors.

With so many inexpensive resurfacing options available, it definitely pays to be superficial when it comes to furniture.