I’ve a love/hate relationship with distressed surfaces.
They’re not honest.
I cut my early design teeth on the writings of John Ruskin, Wm. Morris and Charles Eastlake. All three of these great designers believed that handcrafted items must be honest and forthright. Cheap woods could not be hidden by veneers. The beauty of wood joinery should stand on it’s design and execution. Stone and brick structures should be solid stone or brick.
Distressing just is not honest.
I like the look and feel of old and worn things. I remember the worn painted floors in a childhood home. The thin layers of color were a timeline of the home’s history. I love the way handrail in my old home feels. It is worn silky smooth from 100 yrs. of hands sliding along its length. I once sat in a 250 yr. old Quaker Meeting house in Pennsylvania wondering what part my ancestors played in each worn spot, carved initial, scratch and ding in the pew I was sitting.
I once developed and manufactured a line of vernacular Hepplewhite furniture. To do this honestly I had to put myself in the home and woodshop of the people who might have built and used this furniture. The furniture was sold through a small shop with a loyal following. The shop owner wanted the pieces distressed. I hesitated, but wanted to sell what I was building.
I made a study of how my pieces would have been used and dedicated my distressing efforts to being as honest the piece and it’s use as possible. I hung cabinets on the wall and observed how the backs slid on the wall and how a wrought iron hook slid into the hanging hole. I opened drawers and thought about how the opened and how my hands made contact with the pulls.
I became a keen observer of old objects around me. I’ve a large poplar chest of drawers with a side cabinet. It’s faux grained over a mint green. Each drawer front was once decorated with a series of orange dots. These layers of color and their stories delight me.
I’ve developed some rules and ideas that keep my distressing from being completely dishonest. I also believe that what I’ve learned to do and the ways that I interpret my work has become part of the art and mystery of what I do.
(BTW – I will share my distressing techniques if you take a carving class.)
I sign and date my work. In no way do I try to pass off my work as something earlier or more valuable than it is.
Apply wear and finish to the piece that is reasonable. Apply wear where it would occur and leave gunk where it would really accumulate.
Use your objects and think about and observe how people will/would interact with them. I’ve a small chickadee carving that I’ve carried in my pocket for months to observe regular wear. Let kids play with them and watch. Drop one on the floor and see how it lands and what breaks and wears.
Develop a scenario. This could be for each piece or a series. Be specific.
For 50 Little Birds I’m carving using tools, materials and techniques of the Great Depression. I grew up messing about in my grandfathers’ workshops (I even remember a great grandfather’s). I know their tools and techniques. Most importantly I know their materials. I remember cabinets full of cigar boxes filled with brads, wire, screws, corks and odd bits of hardware. One grandfather had a tube of Pick-Up-Sticks that he used to clean up glue joints. (I’ve seen the same package on many antique store shelves.) Everything that goes into my birds comes from what I remeber in those shops.
One of my grandmothers had a table and wall shelf at the head of the stairs. On these shelves were a few treasured cast iron Pennsylvania Dutch cast iron figures. This is the kind of place that my birds might have spent their first 10 or 20 years. Once or twice a year the would be handled by children and later, grandchildren. As they get older and have been dropped (or chewed) a few times they become playthings and are played with often. Perhaps they’ve even made a trip to the sandbox or treehouse. Before they’re worn out they end up in a cigar box in the basement or a dresser drawer only to be discovered.
Perhaps a bit overthought, but this is how I keep my work consistent and my distressing a little less dishonest. They are what they are.