How to repurpose antiques

Updating your home needn't cost the earth. Here we explain how you can breathe new life into your existing antiques...

Annie Sloan’s new Pearlescent Glaze is used to stunning effect over a white paint on an antique chest of drawers and a vintage wardrobe.

Although the term was only coined in the 1990s, upcycling is an age-old enterprise, and examples can be found throughout history: from 16th-century coffers adorned with carvings that were added centuries later, to lamp bases made from antique ginger jars.

For interior designer Krystyna Martin-Dominguez, it’s about sustainability as well as aesthetic considerations. ‘I love the marks of age, the wear and tear, the evidence that a piece has had a life,’ she says. ‘By giving something a new purpose, you are extending and enriching that life.’ It’s also a fail-safe way to add character to a home. ‘Interiors need layers and texture,’ says Krystyna, and furniture that has been cleverly repurposed will provide a sense of personality and history. ‘It’s not all just new, new, new!’

An old dresser doubles as a kitchen unit in the home of Krystyna Martin-Dominguez.
An old dresser doubles as a kitchen unit in the home of interior designer Krystyna Martin-Dominguez. Image by Penny Wincer

Annie Sloan, the doyenne of upcycling, thinks it’s time to reframe our ideas about throwing things away. ‘Our responsibility to the planet is to be more thoughtful. Reusing something is so much better than disposing of it or even recycling.’ Before buying something new, she suggests we ask ourselves if we really need it, or do we already have something that could be adapted? ‘The benefits are tenfold,’ she says. ‘You’ll have something witty and unique, that hasn’t had a negative impact on the planet.’

Annie Sloan’s new Pearlescent Glaze is used to stunning effect over a white paint on an antique chest of drawers and a vintage wardrobe.
Annie Sloan’s new Pearlescent Glaze is used to stunning effect over a white paint on an antique chest of drawers and a vintage wardrobe.

Annie Sloan’s top tips for upclycling

A fresh coat of paint is a quick and effective way to give anything a new lease of life…

  • Decide what style you want and make sure it suits your home and your personality. Trying to do too much on one piece is an easy mistake to make. 
  • Paint something neutral on the outside and then add a flash of vibrant colour on the inside. It’ll make you smile every time you open a drawer or wardrobe.
  • Before performing any irreversible alterations, get the piece valued. If you think it might have a greater appeal to someone else, by all means sell or pass it on. 
  • Don’t drill holes in anything that doesn’t belong to you. But, if it does and you have a creative vision, go for it: make that piece earn its place in your home.

A portrait of Annie Sloan holding a roll of monochrome fabric

Theodora Burrell, specialist in Fine Furniture and Decorative
Arts at Lyon & Turnbull, agrees: ‘If you want to paint a Victorian chest of drawers that’s only going to make £100 at auction, or might be chucked out, then go for it.’ Although people have strong opinions about what’s OK and what’s not when it comes to upcycling, she feels it’s fine within reason. ‘If you can reverse what you’ve done, then great,’ she says. ‘Though personally, I would never over-paint a Georgian mahogany piece or a Regency rosewood item. The veneers are precious and beautiful, and you’ll strip away value if you do that.’ However, she regularly sells early 19th-century candlesticks that have been converted into lamp bases. ‘It’s a clever use of the items. Let’s face it, we use table lamps every day and we light candles much less often.’ Likewise, ceramic vases sometimes have holes drilled into their bases to house wires for the same purpose. It’s not uncommon to find desks and chests of drawers with later, replacement handles, or Georgian cabinets with Victorian marble tops. But be aware that with all antiques, any changes will have an impact on value. For this reason, Theodora advises us to exercise a little caution: ‘Get the piece valued before you start. If the market has really fallen away, it’s better to upcycle something than let it go to waste.’ Annie Sloan is of the same opinion: ‘So often we’re told it’s sacrilege to perform any adjustments on furniture, but I’m certain your great-grandparents would prefer you to love their old dresser rather than simply lumping it!

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