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Grace Elletson Gives Vintage Furniture a Makeover

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Grace Elletson - BEAR CEARI
  • Bear Ceari
  • Grace Elletson

Grace Elletson remembers walking into her grandmother's house and noticing a new deep-blue chest in the hallway. She loved it immediately. "Where did that come from?" she asked. Her grandmother said that the chest had always been in the hallway but that Elletson's mother had recently painted over the dark-brown wood.

"I noticed it when it was painted because it just lit the whole hallway," Elletson said. "You use the modernity of paint to accentuate the vintage shape of it, which I love. So then I was like, 'I love painted furniture ... I want to paint furniture.'"

After moving to Vermont in 2019 for a reporter job at VTDigger.org, Elletson started doing just that. First, she found secondhand furniture she wanted for her apartment and gave it a fresh coat of paint. Before long, she was selling pieces online under the name Graceful Designs.

Today, Elletson works out of an old milking stall in a barn-turned-artist-collective in Shelburne, though you wouldn't know it from looking at her photos. Her feed displays sleek furniture with shiny hardware, staged smartly against a white wall and wood floor — really a makeshift wall and a patch of laminate flooring set up for exactly this purpose.

A recent piece by Grace Elletson - MARGARET GRAYSON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Margaret Grayson ©️ Seven Days
  • A recent piece by Grace Elletson

Elletson, 23, grew up in Cape Cod in Massachusetts and attended Ithaca College in New York. She said she inherited her interior design sensibilities and frugality from her mom.

"She was just so good at making spaces look beautiful when we had no money," Elletson said. "I bring that to refurbishing, because I take furniture that is on its last leg. People are throwing it out."

Transforming a large piece of furniture, such as a desk or a dresser, from junkyard-bound to Insta-ready requires some 20 hours of work. Elletson sands and primes every part of the wood, hand-paints, sprays a topcoat, and often replaces the hardware. Some pieces need more repairs, if a drawer is falling apart or a leg is wobbly.

Elletson, who said she's dedicated her life to journalism since she was 15, appreciates having something else to focus on when she's off the clock. Sanding the top of a dresser is a welcome distraction from covering Burlington politics.

"I love the therapy that this brings me on the weekends, where I can just keep my brain from thinking about things that are going to drive me nuts," Elletson said. "I think about fun stuff that's going to drive me nuts instead."

Painting furniture is not without controversy — as evidenced by the comments on Elletson's TikTok page. She sometimes posts her process and finished pieces on the video-sharing app, and one particular video was viewed more than 400,000 times. Though some commenters loved it, others decried her use of paint on a midcentury-modern piece.

"I have all these people commenting being like, 'How dare you paint this desk?'" Elletson recalled. "And I'm trying to explain to people, sometimes you just have to paint a piece of furniture because veneer's peeling, or there are chunks missing out of the wood. Also, people just don't have an affinity for brown furniture like they used to."

Still, she understands the purists to a certain extent. "That's why 90 percent of the furniture that I paint is furniture that is irreparable — the wood simply can't be restored," she said.

Grace Elletson at work in her studio in Shelburne - BEAR CEARI
  • Bear Ceari
  • Grace Elletson at work in her studio in Shelburne

Elletson tries to resist trends and pick muted tones or timeless colors, such as black and white. But sometimes she lets herself lean into her love of pink and other bright shades.

"I treat this as an art," she said. "You have to sometimes just do what your soul wants you to do with a certain color and a certain piece. And at the end of the day, you can always repaint it."

Elletson also shares tips on her social media pages. "I don't want to be the only one who's saving old furniture," she said. "I want old furniture everywhere to be saved."

When scouting for vintage pieces, she suggests not being afraid to check out the ugliest pieces, because sometimes they have the best bones. She pays attention to joinery, particularly on drawers; dovetail joints or — the holy grail — pin-and-cove joints are a sign of a quality vintage piece. She also sometimes snags tables with laminate tops, because with sanding and the right primer, laminate can be painted to match the wood.

For hardware, Elletson shops at D. Lawless Hardware, Amazon and Etsy. She likes to keep vintage hardware if she thinks it matches the overall look of the piece. Her primary rule is not to worry too much about other people's opinions.

"Give yourself a pink dresser. Who cares if some baby boomer is going to look at it and be like, 'How dare you paint that vintage dresser hot pink?' You're building a space to feel happy in," Elletson said. "You can break interior design rules if breaking those rules produces happiness in your home."

See Grace Elletson's work on Instagram and TikTok.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Color Coordinator | Grace Elletson gives vintage furniture a makeover"