writing desk

One of the traditional skills I’ve been studying is quite compatible with a predilection for fixing up old furniture. The fine art of haggling. I once read that if the seller doesn’t bargain, they always feel they should’ve asked for more, and if the buyer doesn’t bargain, they always feel they should’ve paid less; when they both negotiate, everyone goes away feeling quite satisfied with themselves. At any rate, between antique shops, online auctions and vintage markets, I’m in training. Just recently I bargained my way into a great deal on a neglected old painted secretary desk. The writing desk came home with us, to be refinished like several pieces I’ve worked on at the old cottage.


The yellowed paint was sanded a little and lightly coated with Old White chalk paint, and I removed old paint from the ornate handles with a dull scouring pad; they came up beautifully, though I admired some of the texture and left it. The good old fashioned leather inlay needed a gentle scrubbing and oiling to restore, it’s a beautiful surface to write upon with just a sheet of paper, though I’m usually working in a sketchbook or writing book. My fountain pen will be a natural match for the piece, when it returns from Germany where it is kindly being repaired, as I had the ill fortune to drop the lovely thing and crack it. Now the desk needs a coat of wax to protect its surface, but I’ve been too impatient to use it!

I adore this bit of furniture, I am thrilled to find it is such a well considered design. All of the drawers lock with a charming key, along with the desk that opens and shuts so elegantly. I love that I can lock up my work for the night, put it away, finished. I’m so pleased to have a devoted place for writing, with drawers and cubbies to keep all manner of papers and objects that didn’t have a good home before. My laptop fits it well, and having a dedicated place to work on it means that I don’t feel I am always working, and that work is everywhere. The top of the desk is just right for a collection of inspiring objects to gaze at, though I can see a bookshelf would also fit beautifully, and the leather inlay has clearly been used just as much for cups of tea as for writing. Ideal companions. If I could persuade my tall child to share, I think her typewriter would look debonair on it. My first experiment in painting fabric, an upholstered chair, had one more coat of a linen shade and is the perfect fellow to the desk, pretty, comfortable and ergonomic no less. When not in use the bureau looks dashing in the corner, which I consider an achievement for a workspace. Secretaire. Well made.

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antique wheelbarrow

A two hundred year old French wheelbarrow makes a beautiful seat, just the thing to move around the garden to catch a rest in the sunshine on early spring days.

antique wheelbarrow - after

The antique barrow aged to a lovely yet bare grey; so I gave it a protective coat of French Linen chalk paint;

antique wheelbarrow - before

(Here it is, before.) And sanded it back in places to reveal hints of the vivid turquoise shade, lingering paintwork from a hardworking life on a continental farm.

antique wheelbarrow © elisa rathje 2012

The rusted metal that encircles the wheel is terribly charming, and the pale linen shade of the antique wheelbarrow is gorgeous out on the lawn.

This homemade project was created for the spring issue of the interior design quarterly from Sally Bourne Interiors, London.

dining chairs

An antique table and half a dozen chairs have been taking every spare moment I can find.


We’d seen some old European painted ones we loved but decided to do the work of refinishing these ourselves instead of paying the shop to take care of it. Much more fun. It was a pleasure to work with such beautiful pieces, with their ornaments and elegant curves. Amazingly we were able to find antiques that didn’t cost more than new, good quality wood furniture. I love their age and history, and I love to mix these very old pieces with modern ones.


This kind of distressed painting, using layers of chalk paint, reminds me of painting on wood or canvas, or working with textures in sculpture and lithography. I’d like to experiment with this in ceramics. I love the colours that come up as the layers are sanded through. I’ve sanded them very smoothly; the wax went on easily and I buffed the finish to a gentle gleam. Now the wood feels quite wonderful.


(This image is optically misbehaving for me like the ornate ceilings I photographed in Paris. The darker shades should come forward.)

Delightful! To sit round a table (a gorgeous little round one that we just received for the living room) and share a meal that my sweetheart made for us. It’s a relief to have it in place after three months without, with the chalk painted dining chairs around it. I don’t think a house is quite a home for me without a table and chairs, the center of our family life, and we’re so happy with these. The table I’m painting? I’ll show it very soon, when our dining room is no longer a dusty workshop.

demi lune table

I admit to coveting a demi lune table for quite some time. There’s something about how elegantly they fit into a space, and how easily people move around them, that I adore. Half moon. I’m delighted not only to have found a wonderful Edwardian one, but to have a little entry hall to put it in. A good entrance is a huge blessing, especially in the muddy countryside with children. Somehow having enough space to arrive and depart changes the way our days go. It’s hard enough to get out the door sometimes!


So this little table is another work in progress, as it awaits a coat of chalk paint. I took an inspiring workshop on painting furniture last year and I’m eager to get started. (Don’t curse me if you love the dark wood as it is!) I’m going to try a French grey undercoat with an antique white over it, unless we love the grey and stop right there. Then a bit of beeswax. I’ve heard whisperings that other furniture may arrive soon, it’s very exciting. We’ve been patiently awaiting a dining table & chairs, I’m feeling a bit off-kilter without them. Tremendous anticipation.


Have a lovely weekend! See you next week with the first of the River Cottage tried & trues.