Shabby chic items are often heavily painted with many layers showing through obviously worn areas retro furniture. The style is imitated in faux painting using glaze or by painting then rubbing and sanding away the top coat to show the wood or base coats. Fabrics tend to be cottons and linens, with linen being particularly popular, inspired by old French linens. Whites and worn or bleached out pastels are favorite colours. Fabric is often stained with tea to give it the look of old fabric. Bleached and faded are terms often applied to the style.The essence of shabby chic style is vintage and antique furniture painted white (or another soft pastel color) and distressed at the corners by sanding.
The style started in Great Britain and evokes the type of decoration found in large country houses where there are worn and faded retro furniture chintz sofas and curtains, old paintwork and unassuming ‘good’ taste. The end result of shabby chic is to achieve an elegant overall effect, as opposed to the sentimentally cute Pop-Victorian. Recycling old furniture and fabrics is an important aspect of the look and was especially popular with modern Bohemians and artisans that made up a sidelined counter-culture movement during the 1980s when expensive quality decor became very fashionable with the upper middle classes. The original shabby chic interiors were usually considered in themselves works of art.
The Middle Ages
In medieval times France was ruled by feudal lords and most ordinary people had pretty grim lives. The lived, ate and slept together in one large room, which was often cold and damp, and shared with their animals.What furniture there was had to be practical: large simple benches, stools and chests, made of heavy oak to discourage thieves. Cloth or tapestries insulated cold walls and there was always a hearth fire; light was provided by torches or primitive lamps. There may have been a recess or bower containing a bed and chest. Lords’ castles didn’t fare much better, just great hall trestle tables and rough benches. These contrasted with the seigneurial chair, which sometimes had a gilded canopy.
The chest (also called a bahut, coffre or huche) was very important, as it was used to contain valuables, whether linen, jewels, arms, grain or salt. Designed to be moved from place to place, they were used as a seat by day, bed by night (with cushions) and as tables. Early furniture followed the lines of architecture. Few pieces were carved, just those crafted to show off wealth or for special occasions, such as for a dowry. Carving reflected that of churches and cathedrals. Towards the end of the Middle Ages decoration featured more on chests and chairs. Architecture was going through the Gothic stage and furniture reflected this. Carving became heavier and more complex, featuring animals and grotesque heads. Beds were enclosed (lit clos), often with carved or latticed walls. The cupboard was introduced, also often decorated. Gothic architecture was at its best in the 13th and 14th centuries, turning to Flamboyant Gothic in the 15th century. The transition between Gothic and Renaissance occurred in this latter period.
Distressing in the decorative arts is the activity of making a piece of furniture or object appear aged and older, and there are many methods to produce an appearance of age and wear. Distressing is viewed as a refinishing technique although it is the opposite of finishing in a traditional sense. In distressing, the object’s finish is intentionally destroyed or manipulated to look less than perfect, such as with sandpaper or paint stripper. For example, the artisan often removes some but not all of the paint, leaving proof of several layers of paint speckled over wood grain underneath. This becomes the “finished” piece.
Antiquing is a more involved form retro furniture of distressing where the artisan intends to not only age a piece, but also create an antique appearance. In addition to distressing the finish, the artisan may reapply historical paint colors, antique-like faux finish and crackle varnishes. They might also apply period accent details, such as antique knobs on dresser drawers. Several methods involve glazes in which colors blend into crevices to give an antique appearance. The antiquing process is time-consuming and normally requires many steps to obtain the appearance of an aged and worn finish. In the mass-produced furniture market, it is common for ‘distressing’ to include faux woodworm holes. These can easily be distinguished from real woodworm holes (as might be present on a genuine antique) as faux woodworm holes will usually be all of identical diameter and vertical into the wood. Genuine woodworm holes, on the other hand, would be of varying diameter and usually not perfectly vertical.
French ornamental woodwork tended to be lighter and more delicate than the Italian style, with more floral forms. After various Greek and Roman antiquities were unearthed, interest was sparked in the classicism of the past. French craftsmen created furniture with deeply carved ornate designs. They copied the symmetrical appearance of classic architecture – buffets and cabinets resembled small buildings with columns, balustrades, windows and panels, reminiscent of Roman and Greek temples and colosseums. Furniture often featured ornamentation inspired by Michelangelo and Raphael, or depicted mythological or biblical themes.In general furniture was becoming lighter and new items were introduced. Tables took on finer lines and perhaps carving, cabinets and chests of drawers replaced chests and cupboards, and clocks, mirrors and screens became more commonplace. Renaissance palaces were really luxurious, with carved or gilded woodwork panels and ornate tapestries and paintings. The time and effort spent by medieval craftsmen on chests was now transferred to the cabinets of the Renaissance – these offered more scope for artistic work than beds, chairs or tables.Oak was mainly used, but woods such as walnut were also introduced. Although plentiful in France walnut is not easily carved, so panelling and marquetry featured.