Pale antiques are in, inspired by Swedish Gustavian furniture

September 26, 2012

Light and airy. Open and bright. Those are words we see constantly in decorating magazines and hear on those “House Hunters” shows on cable TV. The idea of blowing fresh air through traditional rooms has appeal for many, and in the past few decades, it has given rise to a succession of looks, most of them dialing back the color in our living rooms: tan sisal carpeting, faded tea-stained floral linen, the grayish Belgian beiges of Restoration Hardware’s new look, maybe shabby-chic or cottage-style off-white slipcovers. Antiques? Sure. Mahogany or golden oak? Not so much.

Back in 1993, when Washington antiques dealer Marston Luce began showcasing old columns, corbels and other architectural fragments in his shop, then in Dupont Circle, he was celebrating their white paint, all alligatored and crusty, and demonstrating how texture could make “neutral” come alive. Meanwhile, interior designer Frank Babb Randolph was leavening Washington’s somewhat dark, traditional look with light floors, distressed-iron accents and shelves of volumes in white book jackets.

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.

Now, stumble into the Old Lucketts Store or On a Whim or Beekeeper’s Cottage, all in Lucketts, an unincorporated hamlet just north of Leesburg. There are creamy ivory and pale gray tables and chests of drawers to be had, but you’ll have to look for them under piles of costume jewelry or a mash-up of burlap throw pillows stamped “Paris.” Here, the idea isn’t just to ooh and ahh and admire furniture as art, it’s to root out that undiscovered find, the $229 dresser that escaped others’ eyes.

The inherent value of the pieces along the pale spectrum varies enormously, as well. A small Swedish cupboard with only the slightest traces of its original salmon-colored paint at Marston Luce will set you back $3,850, but the piece is 18th-century. An early-19th-century cream-colored Swedish cupboard at Côté Jardin Antiques, also in Georgetown, has an $8,500 price tag. Contrast those with a slate-blue painted nightstand, by Stylish Patina (the nom de refinishing of Kelly Millspaugh Thompson) and displayed at the Stifel & Capra vintage store in Falls Church; no date or provenance given, it will go to a new home for $149.

The appeal of the Swedish lines and color palette is simple, says Basil Kavalsky, co-owner with Nopporn Khaewpong of CôtéJardin. “It’s easy to live with — you don’t get tired of it.” Lisa Vella Iantosca of the Baileywyck Shoppes in Middleburg offers another observation: The pale colors of Swedish furniture “get the young crowd involved in antiques.” The fact that, historically, Gustavian is a plainer version of 18th-century French furniture — all those Louies but with less-ornate curves — increases the appeal. “It goes with everything,” Iantosca says.

Loi Thai, whose Tone on Tone made a big splash when it opened eight years ago, agrees. “These are classic pieces in a lighter finish. The ‘bones’ are there.” The beauty of the paler look, Thai adds, is that “it can be very cottagey or very sophisticated.”

Linda Conry, one of the four founders of 10-year-old Four Shabby Chicks in Leesburg, has a bottom line that speaks to the appeal of painted furniture, Swedish or not. She had a light walnut table, “a beautiful piece,” that just wouldn’t sell. “What do you do? You jack the price up, paint it and boom — sold!” Even so, the vintage furniture the Chicks find (mostly at out-of-state auctions so that she and other local dealers “are not all fighting over the same dresser”) is relatively modest in price: $150 to $1,200, the latter for a nice late-18th-century piece, she says.

Those are the kinds of scores young couples seem to be looking for as they go from shop to shop in Frederick or Leesburg or Middleburg. And while it’s often young moms who are buying, it’s also young moms who are selling. Women with young children and/or full-time jobs are filling evenings and weekends refinishing tables, chairs and chests. When it comes to selling the stuff, the women are just as clever as the shop owners, placing a few pieces at area antiques malls and retail stores.

And not all vintage retailers maintain stores. Horse barns, dairy barns, all sorts of barns, are being used for monthly or quarterly sales in the Maryland and Virginia countryside. Announcements prompt frenzied weekend forays by roving packs of home-furnishing buffs to these giant tag sales. “The women [shoppers] get together and make a party of it,” says Denise Nolan, co-owner of Repurposed & Refined, which holds a monthly sale at the company warehouse in Hagerstown, Md., and, like other refinishers, also maintains spaces in two antiques malls.

Should shoppers be inspired to do pale themselves, Nolan and Stylish Patina’s Thompson also sell the chalk paint and milk paint that give the furniture its soft glow. Baileywyck’s Iantosca is enthusiastic about a new Swedish milk paint that can also be used on walls, in “old vegetable colors.”

The paint jobs raise interesting issues, though. Real Swedish antiques and painted vintage furniture can look quite new. A Mora clock at Klaradal appears to be a reproduction, until owner Kopperman opens the case, revealing the dark innards that give away the clock’s 200 years.

“We can’t guarantee that pieces have original paint,” Côté Jardin’s Kavalsky says. “A piece may have been repainted in the 19th century. But we don’t worry about that. If it has the look, the bones, the piece works.”

Nancy McKeon is a former Post editor and frequent contributor to the Magazine. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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