Skip to the late 1990s, and designer Darryl Carter was upholstering everything in creamy-white linen and letting the wood frames of his antique furniture make bold slashes across the white rooms — furniture as sculpture.
The bright, bouncy oranges and reds of mid-century modern and the understandable reverence for French-polished mahogany have not shaken the “pale people,” who have kept their engines in neutral for decades now, but are gradually embracing the softest suggestions of color, including hints of sage and robin’s-egg blue.
“We’ve evolved from the old shabby-chic look — you know, everything painted white — and have moved to a more sophisticated palette,” says Barry Adams, who owns Tuscany Designs in Frederick with Chad McDaniel. For 18 years, the pair have taken furniture crafted from the 1920s to the 1960s and given it what Adams calls “an Italian old-world look with taupes and grays.”
The pale look is not necessarily Italian, though. On the high end of the current spectrum are Swedish Gustavian painted pieces, the curves of the 18th-century Swedish style deriving from King Gustav III, who had been dazzled by the court at Versailles. Many of the Gustavian examples on the market today, painted in soft grays, blues and greens, are from the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the modestly sized cupboards and dressers imported from Sweden by Sue Kopperman of Klaradal, in Olney. Major pieces go for thousands of dollars, though not the stratospheric amounts commanded by real signed French antiques and important American pieces.
On the lower end of the dollar scale, there are the vintage dressers, tables and chairs of the past 50, 75 years, such as those from Tuscany Designs, once brown — in fact, once your grandmother’s! — now painted and embraced by the “vintage chic” crowd.
The settings in which these two classes of treasure are traded couldn’t be more different from each other. At Tone on Tone in Bethesda, the owners, Loi Thai and Thomas Troeschel, have arranged their wares in a neutral setting — pale walls, pale floor — with creamy-colored consoles and tables and chests and chairs dotting the floor. “Soothing” and “relaxing” are two words customers have used to describe their aesthetic. Marston Luce Antiques, which moved to Georgetown in 2001, is more intimate in size, but the furniture, exhibited like art, breathes easily in the bright shop. Simple upholstered pieces live in happy juxtaposition with the distressed wood cabinets, iron sconces and earthy ceramics that dot the shop floor.