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How To Make Any Piece Of Furniture Instantly Cooler

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We’re about to drop one of our favorite furniture secrets. It’s so simple, yet so effective. Any guesses as to what it could be from that slightly vague, but also totally obvious opener image? DON’T SAY IT OUT LOUD. First, let’s do a little light imagination exercise to get you in the right headspace . . . .

Imagine for a moment that you’re at a flea market, walking up and down rows of vintage pieces. The smell of aged wood and ancient rugs hangs heavy in the air like a comforting perfume. There’s a lot to sift through, but you know that your hard work will pay off if you just keep your eyes open. And then you see it, a little vintage side table covered by old books and hidden behind a stack of old frames. Easily overlooked by someone else, but not by you. YOU have “the eye” and you see it for what it could be. The shape is unique, the size is perfect, and the brass hardware is everything you’ve ever dreamed of. The only thing holding you back is the dull gray, chipping paint. But then you remember the words you read in this post . . . .

Should we have Emily write and record little stories like this for bedtime listening? “Imagine you’re in a cozy vintage shop, the rain softly falling outside . . . ” I’m already imagining sweeter, better-styled dreams. ANYWAYS, stay with me (focus on your focus, Sara). So you’ve got your little vintage table, perfect in every way except for the color or tone. Painting is the obvious choice here, duh. I WON’T INSULT YOUR INTELLIGENCE.

But let me ask you a question. What color do you paint your piece? Ah, now we get to the heart of this post. Because the one, sure-fire way to give any piece of furniture an upgrade is to paint it a DEEP, DARK, MOODY color. Yes, that’s right – paint that piece of furniture DARK.

WHY IT WORKS

There’s nothing wrong with painting a piece a light color, but in general light furniture pieces either tend to feel very minimal or have a sense of “youth” to them. There’s also a chance that your piece could end up looking a bit “shabby chic,” especially if you’re painting an already vintage piece. And let me tell you, a light paint is NOT a forgiving medium. It’s like highlighter for chips or dents.

Dark paint, on the other hand, can add a sense of sophistication, which can lean modern or antique. And dark paint is very forgiving. If your painting skills aren’t quite up to snuff, a dark paint is going to hide any mistakes more readily – including imperfections in the piece that may not be considered “vintage charm.”

FIRST, DETERMINE IF YOU REALLY SHOULD PAINT

Now before you start eyeing that little credenza you got from your grandma’s house a few years ago, determine if your piece really needs to be painted. There’s nothing more tragic than seeing a beautiful piece unnecessarily painted. If your piece is already a beautiful natural wood, or just needs a sand and stain to get there, really do some soul searching to decide if a painted piece is going to be able to compete with the seemingly ageless beauty of an all-wood piece. Wood is timeless, people.

But if the original wood of the piece is really not to your liking, OR the piece was already painted and you’re ready to give it a new life then keep heading down this path with me. For example, Em bought this vintage dresser a few years ago for her entryway.

There was nothing wrong with the wood, but Em wasn’t in love with it. The shape, however, was awesome and unique, so she thought a good coat of paint would take it to the next level. Originally she wanted to go for more of a monochromatic look in her entry and painted it a light blue-ish gray (Pike’s Peak Gray, to be exact). But the piece ended up feeling lost against the light wall. So instead, we visualized it in a few different, darker, colors (it was a whole debate, and if you’re interested you can read about it here):

In the end, Em ended up going with Newbury Port for the piece, and it felt so much better. The darker color just makes the piece feel a little more weighted, anchoring it in that space, rather than having it feel like it was floating against the wall.

from: how we shoot, edit, and hang family photos

THINK ABOUT WHERE YOUR PIECE IS GOING TO LIVE

Sometimes you have a gut instinct about a piece before you even know where it’s going to live, and that’s ok. I am you people, and I’m often handing my cash to a flea market vendor before either Mac or my brain can ask me “wait, what do we need a vintage milking stool for?” But if you’re shopping for a specific area of your home then you’ll want to keep in mind the color of the wall behind the piece and the other colors in the room.

photo by tessa neustadt | from: emily’s english tudor living room

Em had this rad demilune painted a dark navy blue (I believe it’s Hague Blue), and it pops off the light-colored wall in such a beautiful way. Em also had a lot of other blue elements sprinkled throughout the room that the demilune picked up once it was painted. All together they created this beautiful color harmony in the space. That’s not to say that you can’t put a dark piece of furniture against a dark wall like Em did below (by putting that dark bar cabinet against a dark wood wall).

photo by geneieve garruppo | from: a 120 year old barn makeover

Not gonna lie, that piece gives me SHIVERS. The hardware, the lines, the STATELINESS, be still my heart. But just know that a dark piece against a light wall is going to draw more attention and may add a graphic element, while putting a dark piece in a dark room is likely going to give the space an overall moody feel (which I love, and is actually what I did in my own TV room).

WHAT OTHER ELEMENTS DOES THE PIECE ALREADY HAVE?

photo by tessa neustadt | from: emily’s master bedroom

Before you pick a color, think about the other elements the piece already has. Does it have hardware? Brass, silver, black, or gold? Is it upholstered? Does it have a mirror element, and if so is it a new mirror or a vintage mirror with a tint to it? All of these things are elements you should take into consideration when choosing your dark paint color. Even though it may be harder to tell with dark colors, they’ll still lean warmer or cooler and have discernible undertones. For example: If I was painting a piece dark green, and it had silver hardware, I might choose a dark green that is on the cooler/blue side rather than something more yellow so it vibes better with the cooler silver tones of the hardware.

A FEW TIPS ON PAINTING VINTAGE PIECES

Alright, so you’ve got your piece, your paint, and your afternoon free. UGH, WHY CAN’T YOU JUST PAINT ALREADY?! Because preparation is key to a smooth and successful paint job. BORING, I know. But crucial. Ok, here’s the bad news – you’re going to need to sand your piece. Whether it’s raw or already painted, you’re going to want to create a smooth, even surface that your new coat of paint can stick to. I spent about two hours sanding that little table below before I painted it. Oh, and use a tack cloth to wipe down your piece after sanding to make sure there’s no sanding grit left! My dad introduced me to tack cloths during our reno and I can never go back to life without them.

Next, make sure you choose a paint finish that will be conducive to its use. I went with a semi-gloss finish (in Caviar) for this little table because I knew it was going to endure a lot of traffic, and a semi-gloss surface is much easier to clean than something matte. Also, I liked the stately, sea captain’s office vibe it gave the table.

design by velinda hellen & sara ligorria-tramp | from: 6 easy hacks from sara’s house

On the other hand, Em tends to prefer matte paint for a more modern finish to her pieces. Like with her dresser below (painted Caldwell Green).

photo by tessa neustadt | from: emily’s master bedroom

Lastly, use a combination of super fine rollers and brushes to get your perfect finish. The brush is perfect for getting inside all the little nooks and crannies of a piece, while a super fine roller is going to help you cover those larger, flat areas much faster without visible brush strokes.

A FEW OF OUR FAVORITE DARK COLORS

design by julie rose | from: julie’s bedroom makeover

Now that you’re ready to go full Picasso on a piece (like Julie did with her bed frame above with Limousine Leather), I’ll leave you with one last thing – 6 of our favorite dark, moody colors to upgrade your furniture with. These are the colors we’ve used ourselves, and that we still can’t get enough of.

1. Hague Blue by Farrow & Ball | 2. Caviar by Sherwin Williams | 3. Limousine Leather by Behr | 4. Rookwood Shutter Green by Sherwin Williams | 5. Newbury Port by Portola Paints | 6. satin Black by Behr

Alright folks, the shows over. SO, I’m curious. What are your thoughts on painting pieces, and have you ever taken a little paint trip to the dark side? Let me know in the comments.

Fin Mark

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Erica

That’s a whole lot of “Em.” But yes, I’m definitely down with dark painted furniture.

Rebecca

I was having the same exact thought! Em had and Em had and Em did and I was dying for a pronoun break. 100% love a dark statement piece

Niki

7 instances. 8 if you count the one time she is referred to as Emily. “Dying for a pronoun break” – are you perhaps a little prone to hyperbole?

Sarah Van Valkenburgh

I was literally JUST searching your website for an article on repainting furniture last night, and then POOF! Quarantining has turned me into a Facebook Marketplace stalker, and I’ve found some BEAUTIFUL shapes on some awful wood pieces. A quick look at pinterest furniture-painting seemed to be full of kitschy, bright, distressed teals, that looked very “DIY” and not what I was envisioning at all. THANK YOU FOR READING MY MIND!!!!!!!

DO IT, especially if they aren’t over budget! It is amazing how removing the orange shiny wood factor can transform a piece. I am now living vicariously through you!!

Amanda

I had never been on Facebook Marketplace before seeing your comment, and now I’m obsessed… my boyfriend would like you to know that he hates you. I, however, am thrilled! About to go get me some furniture to paint!

hahahahahaha, this comment made my day! 🙂

sara

If you don’t want to sand and you do want a matte finish, Annie Sloan chalk paint and clear matte sealing wax is amazing! I’ve done many pieces of furniture, kitchen cabinets, and built in wardrobe system. ONE hitch is she doesn’t have a true black, but the dark grey is a really moody grey with strong blue undertones and quite stunning.

Josh

Yes, I agree that the right pieces can be totally transformed with just a little paint. My biggest issue is when people paint and then distress to give it an older look versus a nice fresh coat of paint. The distressed look competes with the piece itself versus allowing it to truly speak on its own. It doesn’t enhance. It’s so frustrating going through a flea market with all of these beautiful vintage pieces that would have been much nicer in wood than a chalk paint with rubbed edges… Okay, off my soapbox. Love what you have used as examples.

Lindsey

We painted some endtables with a nice marble top and 80’s fake carved wood (plastic) fronts and they look so good! We covered the plastic fronts with solid wood and drilled for updated handles. They’re a light gray but now I’m thinking they’d be fantastic in a darker color!

Aloha Leslie

Yes, paint can definitely change the tone, look, and “identity” a piece of furniture. However, when I saw that stunning piece of marbled wood transformed into “looks like everybody else,” I cried (not quite literally, but almost). But I’m 72 and came from a generation where wood was prized. Today, not so much. Your site always inspires me, however, to CREATE more and more. Thanks so much!

I love that the header image is a piece from IKEA! It’s super convincing as an heirloom piece in the photograph. I used to design and implement IKEA roomsettings in my former life, and I can say that in person it holds up to thousands of people poking and prodding at it. So long story short I would totally recommend it.

I’m actually in the process of determining if I should repaint an old walnut-colored tea cart that I scored from Goodwill. It’s such an old school shape (especially the wheels) but I know that painting it is the only way it will work with my modern aesthetic. This post has me thinking about it again. Very timely post. Thanks, Ladies.

Alix Davis

Yep, I bought two single bed heads, joined them together to make a king bedhead and painted them matte black. Looks fabulous!

Meredith

My bedroom furniture belonged to my mom’s aunt and is from the 1920s. It was the worst color of mahogany when my sister got it so she painted it white (Yikes! But it was the 90s!). Then when I went to college I painted it black. I’ve often debated about stripping it to see if the wood is as terrible as I remember, but I don’t really have the space to do that right now. Anyway, I love it as is. It will have to fall apart before I ever get rid of it.

Beckie K-C

Do you guys ever use chalk paint? I used it to paint over disgusting leatherette seats on solid teak wood stools – no sanding required and done in an afternoon. They have held up well after 6 months.

Ginger Brock

I love the darker

Hana

I painted my bed and dresser that I bought years ago from Lexington Furniture in Benjamin Moore’s Onyx. It looks so much better than the distressed white it came in. I’m moving the bed to a smaller room soon and I’m wondering if I should paint it a light grey as it is a tall bed and the dresser is fairly large as well. The room will be painted white as it gets a lot of natural light. I might end up selling it if this doesn’t work but it is a really nicely made set.

Jessica

Maybe go with a dark paint for the walls too? The entire internet says small rooms with lots of light look great with dark and moody colors, though I can’t personally verify this 🙂

Hana

Good idea! Thanks!

YES! Thank you for this! I have plans to paint a few pieces (all in different rooms) black and everyone thought I was crazy. It’s definitely going to bring those old dingy pieces back to life!

Suzanne

I’ve been considering painting some big box store pieces I have that I don’t love, but are in good shape. I’m thinking a dark color could elevate them and make me like them more. Thanks for the inspiration and tips!

Audrey

This is UNREAL timing, especially after the chalk paint post not too long ago. I have an IKEA MALM six-drawer dresser in my bedroom… the size and price point were both exactly right when I bought it but it is just such an eyesore. I was actually considering emailing your Design Agony email to get some advice on what color to paint it to better match my room (and still might since it’s AGONY with a very dark, no-natural-light bedroom painted ivory that our landlord won’t let us touch!) but this is setting me down a good path. Really inspired by the Hague Blue piece. Thank you for reading my mind with this story today!!!!!!

20 years ago I found an old but super solid table in the basement of the brownstone I was living in. It had that kind of yucky refinished wood color top and green legs thing going on so I painted the whole thing glossy black and it looked amazing! And now I know why haha. I’m still using it now, but I refinished it again, sanding and oiling just the top, the legs are still black. And it’s still great but with more of a farmhouse for the kitchen kind of vibe. Anyway, yay for dark furniture and the nerve to do it! 🙂

Sarah

Where is that very last photo with the dark blue desk from? I love that art on the wall above it

The desk was from Ave Home but is sadly no longer available. And the artwork is by The Fourth Artist, Patrice Dworkin (https://www.patricedworkin.com/) & Jackie Leishman (http://www.jackieleishman.com/) xx

Sarah

Where is the very last photo from, with the blue painted desk? I love that art on the wall above it

Ally

I recently went matte black on a pair of twin poster beds for a guest bedroom and they look like a new factory finish. No one can believe they’re a yard sale find! The secret: spray paint! Though you might be somewhat limited on color options, done correctly you can’t top the outcome for a painted finish. Hints: multiple light coats, early in the morning on a wind-free day. I prefer Krylon because it dries so quickly you can move on to the next coat before anything lands on wet paint. I’ve also used navy blue gloss on a project with great success. Another plus: no brushes to buy and maintain!

Amanda

I have painted a number of “throw-away” pieces of furniture with milk paint and the results are stunning. You mix the color yourself from powder then go over the finished piece with either black or clear wax. Dark green and black are my go-to’s, but I would love to try a dark blue. Only light sanding required to prep. It’s also completely free of fumes, so you don’t need to move the furniture into a ventilated space. My husband was attached to an awful, chipped dresser that I painted never even emptying the drawers. Now it looks like a million bucks, and the waxed finish wears very well.

Mel

Agreed 100% tho it took me a few years of refinishing furniture to learn this lesson
1) a super vintage side table (that is wobbly and good god no one touch especially you miss 3 year old in the house) that I painted a ‘french blue’ and it looked….dorky. I immediately went to a deep dark blue and now she’s a sophisticated beauty. That you still can’t touch
2) a dear friend refinished some bedside tables for us for our bedroom in orangey-wood to match our trim that she didn’t know I was going to be painting that year. I waited a year until she didn’t frequent our house quite so much and painted them white and added black knobs. They were….fine. Then we moved into a new house with a much larger bedroom and I embraced the dark side and went almost black with brass aged knobs and now they are stunners.

I’m now a believer in the dark side…so much so that I just finished staining our fence near our patio near black this week and it’s perfect.

Jessica

Omg I’m planning to go lots-of-black on my patio because it makes greenery pop so beautifully! What color/brand of stain did you use?

Zach Mitchell

Benjamin Moore Deep Space is another amazing color option.

Jenn Maier

I’m loving wise owl enamel paint! I have painter my. Atheism vanity and front door Jet Black SMs I’m in love.

Selecting the right color for painting is essential to make the furniture look cooler. Adding plants to the quotation is basic. Good job here Emily.

Jessica

No no no. The real question is “what DON’T we need a vintage milking stool for?!”

Carrie

Thank you for the great tips and inspo!
(Side note: I wasn’t expecting to see nude art in one of the photos. I would appreciate keeping all the photos family-friendly. 🙂

Kas

I don’t want to be disrespectful of your beliefs on nudity, but is the under-18 crowd really scrolling through a decorating blog?? The ones old enough to be “looking” for nudity will certainly know better places to find it, and the younger kids won’t even notice it…I didn’t and had to scroll up to look for it, and I’m 40.

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