Transforming vintage furniture for a modern interior

Inspired by the first shoots of Spring and the budding blossom on the trees, I’ve been getting creative with my paint brush this month.

Inside my latest upcycle project, a vintage glass display cabinet, I have gone a bit ‘experimental’ and hand painted a cherry blossom branch. The cabinet had already undergone a few transformations (my ideas often change as I’m working on a piece) but that is all part of the fun of the journey!

The cabinet was given to me by a lovely young man who came into the vintage shop I was working in. He was moving house and had no room for it. It had belonged to his granny and used to display all her treasures. He wanted it to go to a new home and thought that someone in a vintage shop might be interested – and there I was!

I have always wanted to upcycle a glass cabinet, they are such nostalgic pieces of furniture, tucked away in the corner of a room filled with dusty trinkets and keepsakes and things that weren’t to be touched. I wanted to breathe new life into it and see if it could be transformed into a functional piece of furniture for a modern interior.

The fabulous thing about upcycling with chalk paint is that you don’t need to do any prep work, no sanding or priming (which is great when you have got lots of delicate glass panels) just a quick clean and it’s straight onto the good bit! I started out by painting it orange but wasn’t convinced, so repainted it in burgundy. The beauty of repainting with another colour was that I could then distress it with some sandpaper to reveal some of the other colour beneath. This can be a bit daunting when you’ve just achieved a beautiful paint job but this creative process can really highlight and define features mouldings or carved areas. Concentrate on the areas that would receive natural wear and tear, start lightly and build up until you get the look you want and if you take too much off then simply add a bit more paint and try again.

A couple of months later I was scrolling through my colour inspiration board on Pinterest (if you haven’t discovered Pinterest yet I highly recommend it – it’s like a virtual scrapbook where you can save pictures from the internet onto your own boards. It’s an amazing source of inspiration and a very enjoyable way to while away time if you find you have a spare minute or two!). Whilst searching I came across a beautiful image of Vincent van Gogh’s Almond Blossom.

I began to think how I could incorporate artwork like this into my upcycled pieces and create something a bit more unique. I have seen some stunning pieces of furniture upcycled with image transfers of paintings and illustrations but I wanted to have a go at doing something freehand.

The glass cabinet had been listed on my Etsy online shop but had still not sold so I thought that this would be the perfect piece to have a go on. The cabinet was backed with the original gold material, which was still in good condition so I just painted over it (chalk paint can also be used on fabric). I got my kids to help me do a test run on a piece of board, experimenting with the branches and shapes for the flowers and then dived in. It was really liberating blending the colours and doing something different and I felt very pleased with myself for having the courage to get adventurous.

Experimenting with the kids!

Last summer I was lucky enough to get tickets to Dismaland, the Banksy exhibition in Weston Super Mare. At the exhibition some porcelain figures caught my eye that had been distorted by artist Jessica Harrison. As a child, her mother had kept a collection of figurines locked away, never to be touched, and this had inspired her to corrupt and distort these kitsch symbols of suburban tranquility by giving them full sleeve tattoos and disembowling them!

The idea of playing with the items on display in a glass cabinet in the modern home, stuck with me and although I didn’t go quite as far as violating porcelain figures I got the inspiration to be a bit more inventive with what could be put inside.

Loving all things vintage, I have a collection of pretty mismatched teacups and saucers (which actually get used – I even got them all out for a Mad Hatters tea party for my daughters 8th birthday party. The girls loved pouring juice out of a teapot and drinking out of pretty cups!). I made space to display some tea cups but also placed a very ‘bling’ pair of shiny turquoise high heels and a couple of kitsch china birds that had been given to my husband by his Gran.


Hopefully I have inspired you to rethink some of the furniture in your home and how it could be upcycled or to maybe look at buying something preloved rather than something new. There are lots of well made pieces of second hand furniture to be found and if you haven’t got the time (or courage!) to have a go at upcycling something yourself there are lots of very talented people selling upcycled furniture at very reasonable prices out there too.

First published in Antiques Plus, West Country Life magazine 16.04.16

So what exactly is upcycling?


Hello and welcome to my blog all about upcycling

Tucked away in the little village of Shirehampton on the outskirts of Bristol, I set about doing my bit to help reduce waste and fill the world with colour. In 2012 I set up Harper & Harper, a business with my husband creating upcycled pieces of furniture and home accessories.

So what exactly is upcycling? Upcycling, is the process of transforming useless or unwanted products into something of better quality and beauty. It is about adding value to a product rather than just recycling it where it is broken down to its raw materials. Upcycling furniture is a great way to reuse materials, It reduces waste so is great for the environment, reducing our carbon footprint and saving money!

I’m not an expert in furniture restoration but I have always been a creative person. I worked as a freelance website and graphic designer for 14 years and after taking time out to raise my family I decided that I wanted to do something more creative and hands on than sitting in front of my computer. After trying a furniture painting course I felt that I had found my ‘thing’ and I was hooked!

My husband Russell is a Modelmaker and has extensive knowledge of materials. His expertise means that we can re-furbish broken pieces of furniture and also create a professional finish by spray painting furniture, which is more suited to some of the retro pieces than the hand painted distressed look. He also has the tools to create customised stencils, which we can tailor to individual pieces of furniture.

I have always loved hunting for a bargain at antique and vintage fairs, auctions and charity shops and seeing the potential in transforming old un-loved pieces of furniture into something beautiful really excites me! I like to challenge myself with pieces that were destined for scrap and with a bit of tlc turn them into something unique, a beautiful piece of furniture can be enhanced with a coat of paint but a broken table or old dining chair can be totally transformed which is really rewarding.

I love that each piece of furniture is different, everything is a one off and individual design with it’s own history. I like to place each item that we find in our home and view it for a while until inspiration grabs me. So far every upcycle that we have done has looked completely different and has inspired its own colour scheme and finish (unfortunately this means that i have had to invest in a rainbow of paint colours and some tailor made shelving to store them all!). Each piece usually ends up totally different to what I had in mind when I started, which is all part of the fun and creative process. I love working with bold colours and take inspiration from the Mediterranean, natural forms and old doors.

I’m currently upcycling all my pieces in our house. Luckily we have a garage which has become our storage facility and means that we don’t have to keep everything inside. We are hoping to convert this into a workshop, which will be fantastic, but in the meantime my workspace is the kitchen (which luckily is very large!) or outdoors if it’s a sunny day.

I think that upcycling and sustainability is something that as a society we need to embrace. We have become too focused on the cheap, quick makeover, buying things to fit our style and then throwing them out when we want a change. There is so much waste. Our belongings are not valued like they used to be. When we bought our first home I remember my Granddad telling me how they had to save to buy the handles for their doors, buying one handle a month from each wage packet. When you value items you try that bit harder to fix them when they break or re-use them in some other way and the more up-cycling I do the more thrifty I am becoming.

I try to keep everything as you never know when it might come in handy, I like to reuse things in a different way to give them a new purpose. One of my favourite things to upcycle are picture frames and mirrors – it’s amazing the difference that a splash of colour on a wooden frame can make to really bring out a picture. Also if you have an old frame where the glass has broken you can easily turn it into a very useful chalkboard with a few coats of chalk paint.

I am really looking forward to sharing some of my past and future projects with you and would love to hear about any upcycling projects that you have done. If you would like to share them with me or would like some tips or advice then please get in touch. You can email me or follow me on facebook (search for harperandharper)

This article was first published in Antiques Plus, West Country Life magazine 20.02.16