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Discover Mid-America —April 2006

Shabby Chic and Primitives —
decorating styles to create with

by Terri Baumgardner

Step inside the home of one Kansas City antique lover, and her antechamber wall is dotted with old iron hooks painted white and tipped with crystal knobs.

That's where guests hang their coats before coffee is served atop a handmade pine table. Hand-crafted by a great-uncle in the late 1800s, the primitive table is draped in a grandmother's table linen of faded lilacs and pink peonies.

The room is warm and cozy. A pine bench from a century's old Arkansas church serves as sitting table for a white leather loveseat. The corner sitting area is softened by vintage fabric pillows of pastel roses and highlighted by a crystal chandelier.


Mishell Nelson and her Shih Tzu, Joey, stand next to primitives at Decorator's Showcase in Shawnee, Ks. (photo by Ron Johnson)

Like a lot antique lovers, this homeowner created an eclectic blend of period pieces for her own signature style. In this case, the antiques are defined by primitive and cottage styles.

"You can mix and match them," said Doreen Knop after hearing a description of the Kansas City antique lover’s home. Knop is owner of Heart of Country in Walnut, IA. "Most of your Shabby Chic, at one time, was a primitive, only it's been painted," added Knop.

As mail order magazines such as Sundance, Pottery Barn and Anthropology reach the mainstream market, antique stores are luring a new segment of customers. Homeowners and shoppers are drawn to antique stores in search of the funky styles.

"Any time you see it in a magazine, it helps," Knop said. "If it's the antique pieces, not the new."

Indeed, reproduction furniture and accessories may reflect the styles of primitive and Shabby Chic. But, in the long term, they lose their value.

"Because antiques go up in value," Knop said. "Where if you take a reproduction out of a store, a lot of times you can't sell it for what you paid for it. Whereas if you take an antique, in a few years, you should get more than what you paid for."

Either way, the styles strike a chord in the hearts of decorators and homeowners.

"Yes, and that's the fun of an antique," said Mishell Nelson, owner of Decorator's Showcase Antique Mall in Shawnee, KS. "It's things they haven't thought of for years. It brings back memories of grandparents, both Shabby Chic and primitives do that."

Yet, primitive and cottage style antiques are uniquely different.

Cottage Style Antiques
Reminiscent of early 20th century beach houses dotting the eastern coast, the cottage style antiques are defined by white furnishings, floral patterned fabrics and pastel colors.

The look came into retail vogue with the emergence of English designer Rachel Ashwell in the 1980s. The California-based designer coined the term “Shabby Chic,” and it is her trademark signature. Ashwell launched the style with vintage antiques and flea-market items, but today has an entire line of reproduction items sold in retail stores.


Antiques and Uniques tastefully displays its shabby chic items. White dominates shabby chic though other colors are emerging. (photo by Matt Pierce)

"It's a style that has been around for years," said Jacqui Pierce, owner of Antiques and Uniques in Derby, KS. "But in the late ‘80s, Ashwell started appearing on Home and Garden TV; she's the lady who coined the phrase Shabby Chic. The style has been around for years, known as the garden or cottage style."

Although some antique shop owners believe Ashwell's Shabby Chic books boosted business in their stores, her reproduction line of items sold in retail stores is not good for the antique business.

"Yes, it could hurt us because it's cheaper," Knop said. "The new is not as expensive as the antiques."

Ashwell's Shabby Chic look was originally defined by slipcovers for furniture made of cotton fabric with floral designs. Noted for its English Victorian flair, Ashwell's Shabby Chic style is highlighted with whitewashed furniture.

"It's mostly a pale palette," Pierce said. "Fabrics of blousy roses, subtle colors. A very timeworn faded look that mixes with formal and informal, expensive and inexpensive. In Shabby Chic, you find beauty in imperfection."

That's because antique furniture characterized as Shabby Chic is noted for its peeling white paint. However, a different trend is emerging.

"You see people painting Shabby Chic black," said Sue McGraw, who owns Missouri River Antique Company in Lexington, MO. "Black is a good color, or pastels with a more finished look."

What, Shabby Chic in black?

Indeed, Sandee Millett of Millet and Co in Greenwood, MO echoes the trend.

"Shabby Chic is coming in other colors, and black is in now," Millet said. "It's very popular, still, it has that well-worn touch look."

In Iowa, Knop is selling Shabby Chic furniture pieces painted in blends of cream and mint green. "Oh, (customers) like them," she said.

As echoed by a lot of antique shop owners, Knop said customers tire of the basic Shabby Chic white.

"Shabby Chic, a year or so ago, was in but it's kind of going out," Knop said. "We don't sell as much (white) as we used to, but you still see it in magazines."

McGraw agrees with such sentiment.

"Everything is trendy," McGraw said. "We've done Shabby Chic (white) for the last few years, now, for summer and spring, they prefer black, pink and pastels."

In essence, Cottage or Shabby Chic furniture is a style rather than an era of defined antiques. Essentially, it's antique furniture that has been painted, and weathered or distressed along the edges.

The Cottage or Shabby Chic style of furniture is also defined by accessories, including architectural pieces such as old posts, fences, mirrors and crystal chandeliers.

"Shabby Chic could be from all eras," Nelson said. "To me, it's pieces that are well loved, and painted. Pieces that are distressed intentionally."

The Cottage style look also employs French antiques.

"Another popular thing is old French iron furniture," Pierce said. "It's light in look, with curly details. Like garden furniture or old iron beds."

While the style of antiques is typically defined by vintage fabrics of floral patterns, Millett said, a trend is emerging of pastel or faded fabrics patterned with polka dots, strips and checks.

"To me, Shabby Chic is light and airy, a feminine look," McGraw said.

Often times, Shabby Chic whispers romance, especially with its palette of spring bloom colors.

"Shabby Chic, it's white, pink, light blue and a green that was so popular in the ‘40s, mint green," Millett said.

In fact, those colors define the lines of antique pottery often associated with the Cottage style.

"Like McCoy and Shawnee, two potters that originated in Ohio, their line is the Shabby Chic look," Millett said.

Ironstone pottery also compliments the Cottage style of antiques.
"It's usually white, it can have patterns of flowers or vines on it," Pierce said. "It's usually from England."


Kim Dye, owner of Pretty in Pink, likes to use shabby chic style with different antique pieces. (photo by Ron Johnson)

Whatever the color, Shabby Chic is also defined for its eclectic or funky appeal. Whether you decorate an entire home in the style or just accent pieces to highlight a room, Shabby Chic is all about using imagination.

"It's a way of finding new uses for old things," Pierce said. "A crystal chandelier can be turned upside down, and used as candle holders. A woman's statue bust can sit atop a vanity, and you can drape necklaces on it. You can take drawers out of a dresser, and put baskets in place of drawers."

Kim Dye, who owns Pretty in Pink in Parkville, MO, employs the Shabby Chic style with an antique vanity.

"A vanity dresser painted white or green, and ‘chippy,’ a lot of people think ‘I could put that in my bedroom,’" Dye said. "But I may take a vanity and put it in my kitchen, use it as a buffet."

Primitives, a Defined Function
Whereas Shabby Chic or Cottage style antiques utilize the imagination, primitive pieces are designed and utilized for a specific function. Such as a chair, a table or a bench.

But the connection to Shabby Chic antiques may lie in the weathered finishes.

"Primitives and Shabby Chic, they're worn," Nelson said. "You can see they've been handled and used."

Perhaps another connection between the antique styles is that some folks paint primitive furniture in Shabby Chic shades of white. But that sends shivers down the spine of antique purists.

"Some pieces that are more vintage, they are painted white," Millett said. "But all of my friends, we never want a primitive piece re-painted. We clutch our hearts when someone is going to paint them white."


Primitives have a prominent place in Mishell Nelson's shop, Decorator's Showcase. (photo by Ron Johnson)

By its very definition primitive is something that is rustic, rough, simple and crude. So it is that in the early to mid-1800s, Americans crafted furniture of basic items for a simple and necessary use. Typically, primitive crafters are not thought of as artisans, but regular folks who handmade their furniture.

"I can look at the way a piece is constructed and date it," Millett said. "I have friends who can tell what state it originated in. I have one piece that is pre-Civil War; the drawers are held together by pegs. You can see when they cut the drawer, you can see saw marks on it."

Even though primitives are defined by an era, the style does impart its own flavor.

"I think of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s rurally style," McGraw said. "Although people decorate like that in the city, it's a rural feel."

Primitive antiques typically are defined as benches, dressers, potting tables, picnic tables and other furniture crafted of natural wood that is rough. The furniture is often held together with handcrafted pegs or square nails, a signature of an original primitive antique.

"I think of things you used in the kitchen or on the arm," McGraw said. "Old wood boxes, iron kettles you made soap in, farm tools."

In fact, primitives are even used in art. Crafters and artists are using farm tools to decorate gardens or crafting “farm art” with farm machinery pieces.

Although primitives are defined by natural and rough wood, the antique is in direct contrast to Shabby Chic's pastel palette.

"Primitive, I think of old pine painted red, mustard and all those great earth colors," Millett said.

Primitive accessories are characterized by Redware pottery.

"Pottery made of red clay, with a glaze over it," Millet said. "And the pattern is in the glaze, it's folk art. It's more abstract patterns associated with primitives."

Other primitive accessories include teddy bears or old dolls made of muslin.

While Shabby Chic is a style that may fade in time, primitives are a staple for antique shop owners.

"More than half of our business is primitive pieces," McGraw said. "People want a bench, table or old ladder they can hang quilts on. It's the biggest part of our business."

Maybe that's because primitives are timeless in style, serve a basic function even in modern-style houses.

"I tell my customers to surround themselves with things you love," Millett said. "Don't flip through magazines for a style, create a style with what you're comfortable with. Our son, for instance, has this wonderful Cape Cod style home, and he's mixing primitive pine with a new leather sofa."

Terri Baumgardner is a Blue Springs, MO-based writer. She can be contacted at publisher@discoverypub.com.


ShabbyChic and
Primitives antique shops

These antique shops contributed to the story, and
specialize in Shabby Chic and primitive antiques:

Millet & Co
Greenwood, MO
816-537-7129

Greenwood Mercantile
Greenwood, MO
816-537-7033

Antiques and Uniques
Derby, KS
316-788-3378

Missouri River Antique Company
Lexington, MO
660-259-3097

Pretty in Pink
Parkville, MO
816-505-0500

Decorator's Showcase Antique Mall
Shawnee, KS
913-268-7979

Heart of Country
Walnut, IA
712-784-3825


Other Midwestern shops that
offer shabby chic and/or primitives:

Gene’s Collectibles
Vinita, OK
918-256-5313

Vinita Antique Mall
Vinita, OK
918-256-5754

Main Street Antiques
Stillwater, OK
405-762-0789

Kay’s Vintage Antiques & Collectibles
Dewey, OK
918-534-9937

The Divine Grape
Hartford, KS
620-392-5796

Brickhouse Antiques
Topeka, KS
785-266-6000

Greer House Antiques
Topeka, KS
785-232-2263

B&J Antiques
Topeka, KS
785-273-3409

Farrands – The Secret Place
Topeka, KS
785-271-6886

Beverly’s Antiques
Atchison, KS
913-367-4224

Flashback Antiques
Leavenworth, KS
913-449-1842

Stevie’s Antiques
Leavenworth, KS
913-651-5273

Willow Creek
Olathe, KS
913-768-8338

Antiques on the Prairie
Baldwin, KS
785-594-7555

Cote d’ Azur
Overland Park, KS
913-383-3287

Rock Port Recollections
Rockport, MO
660-744-2151

Brown’s Emporium
Kansas City, MO
816-356-0040

Hwy 13 North
Warrensburg, MO
660-747-9664

Bates City Antique Company
Bates City, MO
816-690-8505

Ma & Pa’s Riverview Antique Mall
Napoleon, MO
816-934-2698

Simply Butternut
Lexington, MO
660-232-4406

Country Boutique
Liberty, MO
816-415-9192

Clearfield Farm Antiques
Smithville, MO
816-810-0317

Gas Buggy Antiques
Jamesport, MO
660-684-6887

Ozark Treasures
Springfield, MO
417-882-2400

Snoop Sisters Antiques
Prairie Grove, AR
479-846-5508

Tontitown Flea Market & Antique Mall
Tontitown, AR
479-361-9902


> Discover Mid-America Archive — Past cover stories

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