Weather Forecast


Not too shabby: Distressed furniture offers an alternative to pristine urban look

A meandering scratch mysteriously appeared on the new end table in Donna Seltveit's living room on Monday.

Her two children, ages 9 and 11, who often play board games such as Clue at the table, adamantly denied involvement, which placed the burden of suspicion on the family's sprightly cavalier King Charles spaniel.

But Seltveit was not too upset when she spotted the scratch. "There we go," she exclaims. "That's a nice little addition."

The scratch blends in among the many dents and chinks in the wooden piece, which the Seltveits acquired in August after enlisting Delrae Schefter, an Ethan Allen interior designer, to give their North Fargo two-story home a makeover.

The table is not a hand-me-down, and neither are the dining table and chairs, which feature a spattering of tiny imperfections and rubbed edges, darker wood peeking out from underneath the light-brown finish.

The pieces are examples of increasingly popular distressed furniture, or new pieces whose finishing touches include dents, rasping, cracked finishes, worm holes and other former furniture-owner nightmares.

The major reason the Seltveits signed on to the look was their wish to ward off losing sleep over such nightmares. "We like everyone to be comfortable in here, us and the kids," says Seltveit, human resources manager at American Crystal Sugar. "We didn't want furniture that's stark and frightening to use."

In recent years, living rooms across the country have embraced similar revolts against the ultra contemporary, sleek look that has largely ruled the imaginations of furniture manufacturers and aficionados. According to furniture retailers, more and more local residents like Seltveit are passing on gleaming, flawless pieces for the more humble distressed counterparts.

One February afternoon, Slumberland manager Russ Volk tries repeatedly to close the half-open door of a wooden armoire at his Dilworth showroom. Each time, it stubbornly swings open.

"It doesn't shut, and it won't shut," says Volk triumphantly, "because it's warped and cracked already."

A part of Slumberland's Rustic Retreat collection, the pine piece also features rusty-looking hinges and knobs, an assortment of cracks and dents and a slab of wood darker than the rest of the cabinet, as if the piece has been hastily patched up.

Jean Wisemann, sales manager at Ethan Allen Home Interiors, says distressed pieces have been known to cause minor misunderstandings. The occasional shopper might pick a piece without close scrutiny and overlook the intentional blemishes. "Then, they'll have it at home, and they'll go, 'What's that?' " she says.

But with some explaining from retailers, these customers quickly cultivate an appreciation for their disarmingly flawed furniture. One Slumberland shopper exchanged a wooden table with a prominent knot for a more pristine item, only to come back and claim her old piece, which - she'd come to realize - was full of character.

Indeed, most get the appeal of distressed furniture from the start. There are the families with children, pets or both who, like the Seltveits, want to cut down on those tense days before the first scratch as well as on the regular dusting that glossy pieces require. Ethan Allen interior designer Jan Bailly sums it up: "High sheen. High maintenance. High stress."

But even people without risk factors at home like the look's cozy, lived-in feel. The randomness of the distressing makes each piece unique, and the imperfections give it a sense of honesty - a bit ironic given that manufacturers meticulously introduce the defects - that polished furniture doesn't have. "After all, when have you seen a perfectly smooth tree?" the Rustic Retreat brochure quips.

Impeccably flawed

So successful has the revolution against urban contemporary sleekness been that some of the look's proponents are attempting to tame the rebellion by co-opting it.

One of the hottest new trends is the evolution toward urban distressed, says Volk.

His store features a number of pieces that fall into this category, including a wooden cabinet that has all the urban look staples: the clean lines, the shiny, geometrical doorknobs, the pitch-black finish. The product tag introduces the piece with the fancy word "vitrine." ("I don't know what that means," Volk says with mock bafflement and a smile.) However, it also has a galaxy of worm holes on one of its shelves and rubbing on the edges.

Blending contemporary and faux hand-me-down by mixing and matching pieces is another way the two styles can peacefully co-exist, says Kris Carlson, decorator and co-owner of Aesthetic Interiors in Fargo.

All-out distressed should work well for a lake cabin, but for a city home your best bet might be to use such furniture as accent pieces.

"We shoot for that eclectic look," Carlson says. "You can put a shabby chic piece in a totally contemporary room," such as a distressed end table next to a sleek leather chair.

Home owners also shouldn't feel compelled to go all the way in terms of how distressed their pieces are. The cabinet with a perpetually gaping door is the most extreme case of distressing at Slumberland, and those looking for more discreet casual can limit themselves to, say, a smattering of worm holes.

In Seltveit's living room, discreetly distressed wooden pieces co-exist with a stylish leather couch and cushy armchairs in laidback checkered designs. The Seltveits wanted a casual retreat from the hectic pace of their professional lives. "This look is warmer than stark glossy finish," she says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

Perfect flaws

Impeccable furniture is so last year. Here are some common distressing methods manufacturers have perfected:

- Worm holes: Manufacturers usually create these faux insect bites by heating up a nail and hammering it into the wood to make tiny darkened holes.

- Rasping: The edges of the furniture are scraped with a coarse file.

- Crackle finish: Manufacturers coat furniture with a special finish that cracks while drying. The finish can be applied either directly to the wood revealing the natural color through the cracks or to an already painted piece.

- Burnishing: The furniture is set on fire to leave darker burn marks in the wood before it's finished or painted.

- Fly specking: Furniture makers sprinkle dots of darker paint throughout the finish so it looks as if a fly landed in paint and then ambled across the piece.

Based on information by