See, I’m not afraid to paint anything!

About a year and a half ago (yikes, I didn’t realize it had been quite that long), I found this upholstered Eames shell chair for $20. A very good deal to be sure, but it was in need of reupholstery—and, well, it’s pretty much just been sitting in the basement literally gathering grime since then. The thing about these upholstered shell chairs is that once the underlying foam is shot, there’s really no way to salvage the fabric, even if it’s in good shape. Unfortunately, the foam used in the older shells has a tendency to break down and crumble, and ultimately detach itself from the fabric. It’s not a pretty sight, and reupholstery is not a simple DIY (by the way, if you’re looking to have one reupholstered, Retro Redo stocks all of the Girard-designed fabrics used for the originals, and their prices are reasonable).

Rather than let the thing sit in the basement any longer, I went ahead and painted the fabric. With black house paint. And you know what? It looks pretty darned good. Yes, you can still see the lumpy foam underneath, but you can’t see the embedded wax stains, the faded and worn arms, or the cigarette burn on the seat. Given that the entire project took all of an hour and cost pennies, I think it was well worth it!

It’s okay to paint things (or modify them in other ways) even if they’re “valuable” (and really, the true monetary value of any mass-produced mid-century furniture is debatable, but that’s another topic for another life)! The important thing is that the chair is no longer sitting in my basement, and it can now be appreciated for its form, function, and style. And I can sit in it. Which, you know, is what a chair is for!

And yes, I can still have it properly reupholstered someday if I want to. But I’m guessing I probably won’t.

p.s. That Missoni pillow on the chair? I bought that for 99 cents at Goodwill last summer.

p.p.s. EVERYTHING looks good in an all-white room. I should take a photo of some moldy salad in there just to prove it.

41 comments
  1. donnarinoMar 19, 20093:57 pm

    I only recently discovered there’s fabric paint out there for this very purpose. It comes in a spray can. Someone blogged about it here:
    http://littlegreennotebook.blogspot.com/2009/03/spray-painting-upholstered-furniture.html

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  2. TatyanaMar 19, 20093:58 pm

    I have been meaning to “fix” some chairs that were upholstered in black but now look gray since they faded in the sun. I thought about painting the fabric but wasn’t sure about the result… I would love to hear more on this.

    I can’t believe how many deals you find… 99 cents! Why can’t I find anything like that?! :)

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  3. ABMar 19, 20094:04 pm

    Awesome. And everything DOES look good in that room!

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  4. Anna at D16Mar 19, 20094:09 pm

    donnarino: I tried fabric paint on the chair a while back, but it worked a little TOO well for this application — it really took on the texture of the fabric, and didn’t do anything to hide the damaged parts of the fabric. I tried regular latex paint because I wanted the finish to be slightly plasticky and thick. It worked well for this project, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone wanting to retain the soft feeling of the original fabric.

    Tatyana: I literally just put the paint on with a brush. It’s exterior house paint! See my comment to donnarino above — I would not recommend this method unless you actually WANT a painted, plasticky look (which I did).

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  5. mguMar 19, 20094:12 pm

    An original eames? For how much? Oh god, the envy, the envy!

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  6. LonnieMar 19, 20094:29 pm

    It looks great! You (and we) might be the only ones to know that it’s been painted.

    It goes well in that room, and I love that pillow on it too.

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  7. evaMar 19, 20094:49 pm

    where in the world do you get all these deals???
    and you’re right about the white room.

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  8. AliciaMar 19, 20095:05 pm

    How long did it take the paint to dry? It doesn’t feel weird to sit on now, like you’re going to get paint all over yourself even though it’s dry? hehe. I’d worry about that, myself!

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  9. Anna at D16Mar 19, 20095:09 pm

    Alicia: I’m going to wait a few days to sit in it just in case the foam inside absorbed paint that might take a little longer to dry. It only took a couple of hours to feel dry to the touch, though!

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  10. AmandaMar 19, 20095:11 pm

    I’d like to see the moldy salad :-)

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  11. deeMar 19, 20095:18 pm

    You got yourself an amazing deal on that rocker, and even more amazing now that it’s usable! There is something about the Eames shell rocker that I adore. And lately I’m loving black with brown so your rocker hits all my sweet spots. I want one just like it! :)

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  12. hollandvMar 19, 20095:22 pm

    That’s it then. I shall layer on the face paint and enter only all white rooms. If I look half as good as your chair, I’ll be the babe of the ball.

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  13. kim de montrealMar 19, 20096:10 pm

    Way to go, it looks great. You and your deals have inspired me to look for deals everywhere I go. I recently found out that there are no deals to be found here in Montreal. The problem is that the regular garbage trucks will pick up literally anything on garbage day. People can throw out the entire contents of their house and it will be picked up. So it has caused a major lack of anything “old”. People don’t bother to pass on or sell their older furniture…grrrr not very green!
    Great post!

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  14. red.door.read.Mar 19, 20096:49 pm

    great job! it looks hot. how you scored that pillow for a dollar? – my hat is off to you!

    i’ve been playing around with paint this week too. check out my stencil spraypaint doormat – it might appeal to your DIY spirit?

    http://reddoorread.blogspot.com/2009/03/project-stencil-doormat.html

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  15. kim@dtiMar 19, 20096:53 pm

    Good to know it’s paintable. I may tire of the kelly green fabric of my upholstered Eames office chair one day and might give paint a try. At least it has no damage requiring covering up and the foam is in reasonable condition.

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  16. RegkinsMar 19, 20096:56 pm

    Do you think you are going to have a problem with the paint cracking and chipping if you sit in the chair regularly??

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  17. priscillaMar 19, 20097:25 pm

    Uh oh. Someone better tell your puppies to run if they see you coming with a paintbrush!

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  18. DiPMar 19, 20097:29 pm

    “…or the cigarette burn on the seat.”

    Fritz no doubt??? ;^)

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  19. DanMar 19, 20098:38 pm

    That room is so beautiful, I just want to live in it. And the chair looks great, too. Good thinking! I’m also unimaginably jealous that you have an eames rocker at all, not to mention for 20 bucks. I just want to say, though, I do feel like those pieces in particular have a certain value, despite that they were mass-produced, simply because the designs were so innovative for their times and that you cannot buy them new anymore (not the fiberglass ones, anyway, unless you go with knock-off. But seriously, polypropylene is sooo not the same). I totally understand your point when talking about, say, a Heywood-Wakefield credenza, but I do feel that an original Eames shell is a different story. And really, as the history of furniture production has moved from one-of-a-kind, handmade pieces to mass production, what WILL our pieces of value be in a hundred years? Call me crazy, but I think they’ll be thinks like that chair! Regardless, who cares if it’s worth anything if it makes you happy to look at and sit in.

    A question– over time (especially if you move your bedroom in there) do you envision the white wearing down to re-expose the wood in heavily trafficked areas, and if so do you think you’ll stand idly by and let that happen or break out the paint and maintain that perfect whiteness? Just curious!

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  20. jennifer in sfMar 19, 20098:48 pm

    Looks good to me. I’ll bet the Eameses would rather see the chair being used than sitting in a basement.

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  21. mayaMar 19, 20098:50 pm

    it looks great!!!!
    in my book you are THE chair expert! and i adore everything you do in your house! i wonder if you can answer a little question i have? i found a shell chair, in front of the chair is orang fiberglass, and the back is black , matt finish fiberglass, its seems odd to me that this combination existed, but what do i know…, and i wonder how i can tell if someone actually “did” something to it? its not painted or anything, but i am not in love with the orange black combo…. maybe i should paint it too? i can’t tell…..
    will i get some punishment for painting fiberglass????
    thanks :)

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  22. NinaMar 19, 20099:38 pm

    I think it looks awesome. And good for you for taking the risk to paint it. That could be an art piece, a single black Eames rocker in a otherwise bare white room!

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  23. ColleenMar 19, 20099:43 pm

    An Eames rocker for $20? ugh…am I the only one who will never find an Eames anything for $20, is it because I live in L.A.? It looks fantastic!

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  24. Anna at D16Mar 19, 200910:31 pm

    kim: If the foam is in good shape, don’t paint it! The slightest bit of moisture can make the fabric start to separate from the foam, or make the foam start to dissolve.

    Regkins: I doubt it, but it’s not a big deal if that happens!

    DiP: Fritz might be a challenge, but he’s no juvenile delinquent! (Yet.)

    Dan: Oh geez, you don’t want to get me going on the chair thing!! But since you did…here I go. :) I most DEFINITELY agree that there is an enormous value in the design of this chair, both in terms of its impact on manufacturing processes and in its longevity as a popular piece of furniture! I have a whole lot of Eames chairs (and other Eames-designed stuff) all over my house, and I consider myself a lightweight collector and an avid admirer of their work and champion of their goals and ideals. That said, we don’t really know what these piece are truly worth monetarily (aside from the more unique and very old examples), and as a result, I see price tags applied to some very common examples that are FAR beyond where they should be. I mean, if a school liquidates an storeroom containing several dozen upholstered, stacking-base Eames side chairs made in the ’70s, are they worth $200+ apiece? I’m not so sure about that. [And for what it's worth, I strongly dislike the current Vitra polypropylene production... but not as much as I hate the knockoffs (including Modernica's) and what they represent!!! Me, I stick with vintage.] And no, I couldn’t care less how much anything I own is worth!! I care about design and designers and beauty and art and function and durability, whether I’m buying something from DWR or IKEA.

    As for the floor (this is most likely going to be an office), I don’t think excessive wear will be too much of an issue since we don’t wear shoes in the house, but if it does wear over time, I’m totally OK with that. This is an old house with a lot of “character” (cough), and it’ll just blend right in with all the other quirks. :)

    Maya: I have never seen a 2-tone shell before, and I don’t see any indication of them in the Eames Catalogue raisonné. My guess (and it’s just a guess) is that you have a chair which was upholstered originally, and the orange is what was underneath. I have seen chairs with a black matte finish, and it seems to come from having been dyed after manufacture. Again, these are just guesses! I personally wouldn’t try to paint the fiberglass. (Have you considered sending it to be upholstered???)

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  25. Bettina HughesMar 19, 200910:57 pm

    really like your blog

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  26. mayaMar 20, 200912:41 am

    wow!
    it seems like i have this one! who knew!
    http://www.eamesoffice.com/vintage/worksheet_detail.php?id=7
    what will i do without “ask Anna”
    many many thanks!
    i wish i had the $$ to reupholster it! i feel bad that i am not into the orange black combo… i am sure someone out in the world is in to it, so i wont paint the fiberglass (my bad for even thinking about it!!)
    maybe i can trade with someone one day! :)

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  27. DanMar 20, 20091:35 am

    Oh gosh, I TOTALLY agree with the crazy price tag issue. No, I don’t think at this point in time, with the supply still what it is, people should be charging what they do for the shells (and getting away with it!). I guess I was more talking about the value of the design, and how for me, Eames mass-produced items have more value than (this is just an example!) a mass-produced heywood-wakefield bedroom set. With Eames, there was something so revolutionary and new and fresh and versatile, so I get nervous when I feel like people put it on the same level as some of the other mass-produced things from the era that, while cool, ain’t no first-application-of-a-new-manufacturing/design-process. Not that you were putting it on the same level, I know. Eames designs are great because I think they will always be valid to design and the innovative thinking that keeps us moving forward– not to mention that (to me at least) they look perpetually modern, without the hint of antiquity that seems to mark so many other “classic” designs from the era. Although I do wish other great designers, like Saarinen, Jacobson, Platner, Nelson, etc. weren’t always forced to rest in Charles and Ray’s mammoth shadows… but that’s another conversation and I’m rambling when I shouldn’t be.

    Okay, okay, it sounds like we’re on the same page here Anna. I feel so much better. I’ll go back to my seafoam green shell now I also got for a steal (not $20, but we can’t all be as awesome as you), and think about the eiffel base I’d someday like to find to replace the stacking h-base that’s missing feet.

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  28. BrandiMar 20, 20098:24 am

    I want to go to the Goodwill’s you visit. Ours NEVER have anything even close to that.

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  29. kristinrose24Mar 20, 20098:30 am

    First time visitor to your site, but I’m sure to become a regular. Question for all of you experts: I have fake leather chairs, which I assume are vinyl. I tried making slipcover for them, but that’s a lot of work for 4 chairs. I can’t buy clipcovers because they’re an odd shape. I need to do something because my cat (as much as I love her, it drives me crazy) loves to chase her tail while sitting on these chairs. She’s put lots of scratches in them. I tried that leather and vinyl repair kit, but you have to mix the color to match the chair, and it doesn’t come out right. My sister suggested painting them, but I worry that the paint will crack when you sit on them. Do they make a spray paint or something that would work for that? Any thoughts or suggestions? Thanks!

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  30. katieMar 20, 20099:17 am

    wow, the chair looks great! i also can’t wait to see what you end up doing with this room…

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  31. Anna at D16Mar 20, 20099:20 am

    Maya: Yay! You figured it out! I’m pleased to see that my guess was correct. :) Those are exactly the chairs I was thinking of that have the applied finish. I’ve only seen one in person once, and the cover was attached very differently from the later upholstered versions (the later ones are essentially glued on and then sewn in to the fiberglass along the edge, so they cannot be removed). Anyway, don’t paint that chair! Save up a little money at a time, and then get it reupholstered. :) Retro Redo (link in my post) stocks high-grade Girard-designed vinyl, and it will look fantastic. Your chair was probably originally black, but you could do another color if you prefer. In the mean time, throw a sheepskin over it and enjoy it. :)

    kristinrose24: Are you talking about Eames shell chairs (which are never leather, always fabric or vinyl), or some other kind of chair? Either way, I wouldn’t paint the vinyl. I don’t think you’ll be happy with the result. I’m a firm believer in the sheepskin solution in situations like this! (Or you could pay to have them reupholstered, and then put a sheepskin on them anyway to protect them from the kitty.)

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  32. Carrie @ CarrieCanMar 20, 200910:00 am

    Wow, you’re very brave! But it turned out very nice… is it safe to sit in there if you have white pants on?

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  33. KyleMar 20, 200911:03 am

    Everything does look good in that white room. How did you clean the pillow from Goodwill? I am always afraid to buy the cool ones I see there, because I don’t know how to launder them, and most of them need it.

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  34. lsaspaceyMar 20, 200911:25 am

    I’m usually a purist when it comes to not painting some mid-century pieces (yes, I’m a Heywood Wakefield fan.) But this is a totally different case. This piece can still, as you said, at any time be brought back to it’s original beauty easily without the need for harsh and unhealthy paint removers that would weaken the wood. This was a great fixup, most importantly, because you liked the design before you did it AND after, so it’s a win-win situation. The HW just needed to go to someone who would love it and it did.

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  35. AdamMar 20, 200911:29 am

    It looks beautiful, and I admire you for just going ahead and trying it!

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  36. Anna at D16Mar 20, 200912:22 pm

    Carrie: I can’t imagine why house paint would rub off (surely you’ve sat in a painted chair before?), but considering there is a EXTREMELY low chance of me ever wearing white pants, I’m not terribly concerned. ;)

    Kyle: The pillow was brand new, so no cleaning required. It sill had the tags, and was in a big pile of other brand new pillows – looked like overstock from a fancy department store. Goodwill actually gets a lot of brand new stuff in from stores. For what it’s worth, though, most pillows can just be tossed in the washing machine. Personally, I would completely replace the insert and clean the cover!

    lsaspacey: Actually, I haven’t been able to find a taker for the Heywood Wakefield piece. Both of the people who were first in line changed their minds, so now I have to contact a couple of other folks who expressed some interest. There is very little demand for HW right now, so I may wind up having to sell it to a dealer at a very low price just to get it out of my house. Oh well!

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  37. peggyMar 20, 20094:01 pm

    You are correct that everything looks great in an all white room. I love your solution to this dilema! Better than have it sitting in the basement! I am not a purist at all, which drives some people crazy. I don’t really like the look of wood, so I’ll paint it white in a heart beat. Same goes for bricks. And you’re right about value, it’s debatable. Selling something for what it’s potentially worth is a tricky, so I wouldn’t hesitate to paint the Heyman Wakefield white. (I know I mad a lot of people made saying that.) Or did you already sell it?

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  38. my little apartmentMar 21, 200912:18 am

    augh, I just sold a whole set of these chairs! well, with the plain ole’ H base, but still…I’d never seen ‘em upholstered like that before!

    http://mylittleapartment.blogspot.com/2009/03/because-we-all-need-more-chairs.html

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  39. FranziskaMar 21, 20099:38 am

    very cool!

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  40. Jeffrey KMar 22, 20092:31 pm

    the white room is amazing! what amazes me more however is your incredible way of finding amazing deals! that eames chair for 20 bucks!??? the missoni pillow for 99 CENTS!?!?!? and that componibili storage unit for 29$?!!? ahh sooo jealous, but so glad you blog about it!

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  41. S SurlaNov 14, 200910:17 pm

    You suggest not painting vinyl chairs. Do you also caution against painting Naugahyde? I have an Eames chair upholstered in the later style you mention, glued in and sewn around the edges. It is stained and has a small rip, and is an impossible shade of forest green. Your blog post made me consider going beyond what I “should” do, and think about doing what would work. Now I just need to figure out if painting Naugahyde would be brilliant or a disaster.

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