In a large yet cozy house in North Arlington, Christen Bensten has a lot going on.
Between carpools and ballet classes for three children under the age of 5, Bensten is painting old furniture, selling it online and blogging about it all as fast as she can. “I always wanted to be a writer,” she says. She never dreamed she would be writing about furniture rescue through a blog called Blue Egg Brown Nest.
It all started because the Benstens needed a large nest. Two years ago, after tearing down a one-story brick ranch, they built a cedar-shingle house with an open floor plan and six bedrooms. Finally there was room for Christen and husband Brent, children Greta, 5, Fiona, 3, and Reid, 1, plus three cats and a 100-pound chocolate Labrador. But Christen says she had no budget for furniture after the costly demolition, design and construction.
She experimented with painting techniques that could take a beat-up chest or table with good bones and turn it into something plucked from Provence. She first used milk paint, a modern version of the ancient formula of milk and pigment that produces a finish that mellows with time. She eventually settled on a line of British chalk paints by Annie Sloan. The durable chalk paint requires no pre-sanding and has a creamy finish. (It has no relation to chalkboard paint.) “It’s a fresh yet antique look,” Christen says. “It reminded me of Anthropologie, stuff that you could dig out of an attic.”
Using several coats of chalk paint, special waxes and a light sanding at the end, she gave new life to discarded vanities and end tables. She sees the resulting patina, and her general decorating style, as part French farmhouse, part American vintage.
“I was amazed how I could change the look of a grungy old piece into something practical and beautiful,” says Christen, 34. “I get so much satisfaction out of it. When I start rubbing the paint off my pieces, all of a sudden they age in front of me. It’s like you took something ugly and dipped it in paint, and now it has an elegant, European look.”
Now, for 15 hours a week, Bensten is a DIY furniture maven. She has added schlepping, salvaging and dumpster-diving to her already jammed schedule. One minute she’s negotiating with two guys in a van who trawl estate sales and flea markets for inexpensive chipped tables, ratty sconces and beat-up mirrors. The next, she’s on her way home from a play date, scavenging a headboard and squeezing it in between the four car seats in her SUV.
Each of her pieces is unique. “You can’t get that look at Crate and Barrel or Pottery Barn,” Christen says. She prices to sell, she says, which means a dresser costs about $350, a chair goes for $65. While she builds her business, she has assembled a stylish look for her own house in a mostly neutral palette: White slipcovered sofas, sisal rugs, wooden trays and burlap pillows.
Christen and Brent were both raised in Fairfax County and met while attending what is now the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. Christen’s father and grandfather were jewelry designers. After college, Christen worked as a reporter and did marketing at an architecture firm. She and Brent, 34, were married 10 years ago and lived in several Arlington houses. When they found themselves expecting child number three, it was time to seek more space.
“Brent’s father is a builder, so he is familiar with the entire construction process and was a huge part of our home’s creation,” says Christen. The couple worked closely with architect Steve Workman of Workman Design in Purcellville to design something family- friendly. “We told him we wanted a warm cottage, L-shaped, with a high pitched roof, big white kitchen and pockets of cozy spaces,” says Christen. The main floor has a foyer, living room, dining room, mudroom, study, kitchen and family room. Upstairs are five bedrooms; the lower level has a kids’ playroom, guest room and exercise room.
Construction started in January 2010. They moved into Brent’s parents’ basement in McLean. Christen, pregnant with Reid, combed Craigslist for furniture for the future house. She bought eight homely dining chairs for $100. They had a tacky dark brown finish but nice French curves. A new business was about to be hatched.
Now she paints during nap time and after the kids have gone to bed. In the evening, she searches for accessories online. In her house, vintage clipboards hold kids’ artwork, pool locker mesh baskets organize papers, and stacks of old books tied up with twine make stylish accents. There are nests, pillows stenciled with woodpeckers and glass cloches with sparrow finials. The UPS delivery truck is always dropping something off.
“Every day I come home and something is changed,” says Brent, the vice president of operations for Carpathia, a Web-hosting provider based in Dulles. “I actually don’t always notice the first day. But I love what she has done.” (Except he teases her about how many pillows she has piled on their bed.)
Her kids have gotten used to the price tags hanging from their furniture. And they think it’s normal that things come and go. “I sold my china cabinet in the dining room recently,” Christen says.
They all waved bye-bye as it went off to its new home in Massachusetts.
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Christen Bensten joins our weekly online Q&A about design and household advice.