Distressed Decor : Country Funk Puts Spotlight on Chipped-Paint, Lived-In Look


Barbra Streisand knows the value of that colorfully painted pine chest that resides in your grandparents' house. So do Bruce Dern and Priscilla Presley. They are just a few of the famous collectors of the latest design craze: funky American country.

"My house used to be country French," says Becky Clarke, whose Emerald Bay cottage vibrates with the primary colors of this country look. "Yet I'd always collected the old American tablecloths, quilts and birdhouses. I used them in a house we had in Oregon, which I hated to leave.

"Finally I decided to get rid of all the fancy stuff I had here since I spent too much time worrying about it. And my husband, Shorty, and I now have a new grandchild, so I wanted her to play in the house without my worrying about her breaking or scratching something. The more this furniture is used, the better it looks."

It's that years-old, passed-around, chipped-paint look that the true country funk decorator especially likes.

"The house is really your nest," says Judy Heidemann, owner with husband Bill of the Wild Goose Chase and Sweet William in South Coast Village, stores specializing in Americana. "It's great to have fun with it and enjoy it."

Certainly, no one could visit the Clarke house and miss the upbeat, cheerful atmosphere. From the front garden teeming with geraniums in various shades of red to the gracious master bedroom with its burgundy pie safe holding linens, this is a house to relax in and enjoy.

"There's no one color here," Clarke says. "There's every color."

The canary yellow morning room is the first room on the left as you enter the house, and the fun starts there. On the wall is a shelf holding old watering cans painted in various floral motifs, while an orange jelly cupboard with a headboard front, its paint naturally peeling to create an interesting patina, is full of 1940s tablecloths and other linens.

"Tablecloths from the '40s are hot collectibles now," says Heidemann, who is visiting Clarke. "Especially those with the state maps on them."

Hanging on the door of the cupboard is a cotton Indian trade blanket, and a blanket used as a tablecloth is on the small table.

"Trade blankets were made for the Indians after they sold their real blankets to the tourists. The blankets are at the 'collectibility' price now that quilts were 10 years ago," Heidemann says.

Some original quilts now sell for thousands of dollars.

From the morning room, it's a few steps to the dining room with its rustic wooden table and the living room with its multitude of bright colors.

Although the room is obviously country in feeling, it is also surprisingly contemporary because there are not lots of little gewgaws, and no ceramic geese with scarves are in sight.

The lines are simple and clean, the room comfortable and practical. The cushions on the sofa and chairs look as if they've been sat on often, as indeed they have.

"That's where my husband watches television at night," Clarke says with a laugh. "We use our living room to live in. It's not just a showplace."

That sounds like an anathema in this day of "designer" living room and "livable" family room.

"The sofas are all slipcovered," Clarke says. "I can wash them or send them to the dry cleaners when they get dirty. I don't worry about wrinkles. That's part of the charm."

In this room, Clarke, who is an interior designer, used '40s dish towels--vintage red and green--shirred on curtain rods as colorful fabric doors for the shelves along one wall where the TV is.

"Remember when those dish towels were on everyone's kitchen table with the salt and pepper shakers and a bowl of fruit?" Heidemann asks. "Today they can be used a lot of other ways, too."

One of the most delightful rooms in the Clarke house is the cowboy room.

"The whole room started because of this set of dishes our daughter gave us," Clarke says. "She paid $100 for it, yet we recently had them appraised at $6,000."

Hand-painted and with a cowboy motif, the sturdy dishes, called barbecue ware, were originally used in restaurants.

With the Western regalia on the walls, the oversize, canvas-covered furniture and the ocean view, this room is a favorite for the family to relax in.

In another eating area adjoining the living room is a table that Heidemann found on one of her many buying trips.

"My father stripped it for me and said that he didn't think I'd like it because of its red paint. I was so thrilled because red paint gets absorbed into the wood and you can never get it out," she says.

Today that circa 1900 table is in the Clarke house surrounded by chairs in four different colors and styles: Windsor, wicker, press back and simple kitchen.

It's this "furniture in paint" (original old paint, sometimes multilayered) like the table and chairs that is the hallmark of this American country funk look.

In the master bedroom there is a pine cottage-Victorian dresser that's grain-painted as well as a pie safe with a tin front stripped down to the original burgundy paint and featuring heart-shaped designs. Originally meant for storing pies, today the safe is used for linen storage.

A guest bedroom has an antique Victorian pine bedroom suite, painted by hand in a furniture factory.

"Each set is different," Heidemann says. "This one has a tortoise-shell and floral design with snapdragons, forget-me-nots and yellow roses, but I've seen others that were khaki with pink, mauve, blue, all with hand-painted flowers; in fact, they painted whatever they felt like. These are especially hard to find because so many have been stripped done to the original wood. That reduces the value by 50%."

Value is something that is quickly appreciating in the field of Americana, where finding the genuine article is getting harder and more expensive every year.

To find the good pieces, you can explore stores that specialize in it--antique stores and thrift shops--or visit the Spring CountryFest '92 at South Coast Plaza Village today and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"There will be around 40 dealers at the CountryFest," Heidemann says. "It will run the gamut from 'high country' style to the '30s country look, the farmhouse look and Shaker furniture. Everything will be real, not reproductions. "

Admission for Spring CountryFest '92 is $5 (youngsters under age 16 get in free). Country Living magazine's style editor, Mary Emmerling, will speak today at 2 p.m. on "Decorating with Antiques," and the magazine's editor-at-large, Nina Williams, will speak Sunday at 2 p.m. on "How to Show Off Your Antique Quilt."

Seminars are included in the price of admission, and parking is free. South Coast Plaza Village is at Sunflower Avenue and Plaza Drive in Santa Ana. For more information, call (714) 435-2050.

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