To Paint or Not to Paint: The Furniture Flipping Fight

To Paint or Not to Paint: The Furniture Flipping Fight

On the internet, wood purists are clashing with DIYers who modify original pieces in an attempt to turn #trashtocash.

Welcome to The Trend Times, a column that explores design fads in the age of doomscrolling.

There’s nothing the internet loves more than a transformation, especially when it comes to interiors. With increasing intensity, every social media platform is awash with brave souls who rescue abandoned furniture from the side of the road or a dusty thrift store and transform it into something to covet—or sell for a $500 dollar profit. With their furniture flipping hustles, there’s a woman successfully chipping away at $80,0000 in student loans; a couple who started during the pandemic and have found it so lucrative they are about to quit their full-time jobs; another who makes an extra $1,000 a month. And while some people focus on restoring furniture, many of these rehabbers turn to paint to turn "trash to cash."

Amid supply chain mayhem (as most everyone’s aware, these days, it can take six months to get a couch you ordered online) and a wonky economic outlook, gussying up an old piece of furniture and selling it for a large profit has never been more appealing. According to a June New York Times article, it’s also never been easier: Facebook marketplace furniture listings have gone up by 40 percent in 2022 compared to the year prior, and the #furnitureflip hashtag on Instagram has grown by 29 percent. 

"Painting furniture is not difficult to do, can be done in an afternoon or a weekend, and, with the exception of the cost of the paint and a few other materials, [someone] can literally transform their home while having fun and feeling proud of what they were able to achieve," emails Serena Appiah, the blogger, YouTuber, and podcaster behind the website Thrift Diving who has extensively explored the practice. "I also believe that painting furniture has become a therapeutic outlet for people to flex their creative muscle! (Not to mention it's better for the environment to reuse, reduce, and recycle)." 

The appeal isn’t just that it’s easy; as interest in sustainability grows, turning #trashtocash is framed as an ethically pure creative act. By painting furniture, you are "saving" what could end up in a landfill and giving it another life—all while exercising your unique aesthetic. What could be controversial about that? 

Well, not everyone thinks painting furniture is a net positive. There are some who believe the exact opposite—that modifying a vintage or antique ruins it—and they are passionate about their cause. Mememakers poke fun at DIY influencers, and accounts like Why Did You Paint That? are dedicated to shaming user-submitted photos of furniture that has been "destroyed" (painted). 

"If people want to ‘upcycle’ ’90s oak dressers, then be my guest. It only really bothers me when people don’t do their research and end up painting or horribly modifying a significant piece of midcentury production furniture," opines antiques dealer/shitposter Herman Wakefield, who says he’s received hate mail for his outspoken views on the subject, in an email. "A George Nelson Basic Cabinet from a few years ago that was bleached white comes to mind. The piece would have been worth much more if it was restored correctly, or even just left alone." Wakefield says that even though they are defensive, he believes painters "deep down they know they’re doing something bad."

It makes sense that an antique dealer would hold this perspective. "Ruining" furniture is more than an aesthetic judgment; it has to do with resale value, which plummets the second an original piece is doctored. From an artistic perspective, Wakefield believes the original designer of the piece had creative intent, and to mess with that vision is unethical. He doesn’t see adding something like teal and gold stripes onto a midcentury modern classic as legitimate creative expression.

"I really don’t think most of these people are really ‘designing’ anything or even truly expressing themselves. They’re just mimicking trends that the insidious Instagram algorithm shows them. It’s a weird feedback loop that exists completely outside the world of interior design. Worst of all, the end result isn’t even interesting," he says. "It’s been said that the only thing worse than bad style, is no style at all. And that’s what furniture painters and bad house flippers suffer from: No substance, no point of view, no style at all."

Even Appiah, who endorses painting furniture when it’s a "dime a dozen at a thrift store"— "Paint it whatever wild color that your heart desires! Pieces like that are meant for you to have fun with!"—admits that not all pieces should be painted. "Objectively, yes, it’s possible to ruin a piece of furniture if it’s more than 100 years old and it’s an antique. You also can ruin a piece of furniture if it’s vintage (less than 100 years old) and is known to be valuable for whatever reason (e.g. designer, resale value, etc.)," she admits. "I think that if you’ve got a quality piece of furniture that is known to be valuable because it's an antique or it’s vintage with a high resale value, then you shouldn’t paint it, even if you’re only planning to keep it for yourself." A quick Google and/or Ebay search of the maker should be able to give you a clear idea of what category a piece falls into.

But if it’s only going to be in your home, and you have no intention of ever reselling it, why should "destroying" it matter if it aligns with your taste? Well, here’s where the Wood Heads get activated. "There are definitely ‘wood lovers’ who think that wood of any type should never be painted; they will tell you that any time a piece of wood is painted, you’ve ‘ruined’ it. I feel this type of opinion is definitely subjective because it’s just their personal opinion," Appiah says.

 Wakefield disagrees that this is subjective, especially when it comes to antique or vintage pieces that were made with higher quality material than we have access to now: "We are never going to have access to things like old growth teak or Brazilian Rosewood ever again on a large scale. The trees are gone forever. And painting wood pieces like this with chalk paint is an insult to the beautiful materials," he says. "So why ruin the limited inventory that we still have?"

Sustainability is typically framed as an antidote to consumerism. But at what point do our viral trends like painting furniture—even when they are technically "environmentally friendly" and don’t produce new waste—fly in the face of preserving that which we hold dear? To those on either side, the issue seems simple; like pretty much everything else online, the reality is less so. Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to sum that up in a TikTok. 

Top Illustration by Malachy Egan.

Related Reading:

Flipping the Switch on Fast Furniture

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