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Design Threads: Treasure Box

When it comes to styling a room and sourcing trinkets, antiques and objects of intrigue that will bring a room to life, I like to choose pieces that have their own story to tell. One such accessory, large or small, is the treasure chest. We think every room should have one – whether you’re using a larger piece as a coffee table, or you have a jewellery box placed on your nightstand.

We love painted and highly decorative boxes and chests, which conjure images of long lost treasure, of history, and nostalgia. Painted chests were once used to hold dowry gifts; they are the gatekeepers to life’s booty – from collected trinkets to saved letters and photographs.

One of our favourite treasure boxes is this gorgeous piece we used at Bergdorf Goodman last year, painted by Melissa White. Here, we displayed this bright green treasure chest as a little coffee table. Decorated with prancing unicorns, it worked perfectly as an accent in this colourful corner of the shop. This week we have caught up with Melissa to hear some of her tips for creating these works of art at home!

Find your box

Melissa: “I found this pine chest in an antique shop in Hastings. It was a well made box but didn’t have any particular patina, ageing or lettering that needed to be preserved, so it was perfect for painting.

With antique shops still currently closed, we also recommend finding antique and unique pieces on Etsy or Ebay. Otherwise any beautiful old box you might have at home will do”.

Finding your Inspiration

When designing your treasure box, it’s always fun to take creative composition and inspiration from other sources. As Melissa explains below, architectural elements, motifs from illustrations or even a wallpaper are all fantastic starting points.

Melissa: “The Unicorn box for Bergdorf Goodman features some elements Kit and I were working on for the Andrew Martin Collection. The panelling pattern around the sides is from an Elizabethan wall painting at Harvard House in Stratford-upon-Avon. My colleague and I reproduced the design around the room to match the very damaged and faded original as seen in the below photo”.

We Love how Melissa has made the inside of this chest just as important as the outside, filled with extra details to discover.

Using the Right Paints

One thing that always catches our eye is the techniques Melissa uses. Her boxes and chests have a chalky and aged feel to them – and the key to this is using the right materials.

Melissa: “Sometimes an old box has been used to store oil paint and other liquids that can bleed through any paint you put on top. I would recommend using some kind of stain block like Zinsser 1-2-3 to prevent this. That said, I rather like how the history of a box can permeate…literally and metaphorically.

I always try to use chalk paints on furniture as they distress well since they don’t contain plasticisers (binders). My favourites are Colourman Paints and Annie Sloan. These paints are best when waxed to allow layers of paint to come though, giving a patina of depth and age.

I applied an all-over base coat of dark green. This appears through the second coat of lighter green when the paintwork is rubbed back. I paint using thick, random brushstrokes to build up texture, going back over the paint as it starts to dry to create even more texture”.

The Devil is in the Detail

What draws us to these beautiful artworks is the intricate designs, details, motifs and patterns that appear all over the box.

Melissa: “After finishing the basecoat I paint on the design. Patterns and borders are mostly painted freehand to maintain a spontaneous feel. More detailed elements like the unicorns need to be balanced and centred so I use a projector to guide my hand.

The pretend panelling around the sides, whilst intentionally wibbly-wobbly, was marked out beforehand to make sure it fit the sections. Having painted the main elements of the design, I stand back and assess the balance and any gaps. I can’t resist a spotty border so added this inside the lid.

“The finishing touch is an accent colour to excite the eye. In this case, red stripes on the mouldings to add some framing.

The unicorns are a motif we’ve used several times before. Early versions were inspired by an early 19th century watercolour Kit and I found in a book about American Folk Art. Each time they evolve a little like Chinese whispers. The shield with the maze derives from a Tudor woodblock print”.

The Perfect Finish

Melissa: “After a light rub down to break up the paintwork, I finish the piece with a generous coat of wax (clear, toluene free furniture wax). This sinks into the paint and reveals the layers of colour exposed by the sandpaper. When buffed, the finished piece has a soft, mellow sheen that enhances all those brushstrokes and textures built up during the process”.

We would love to see the different ways you paint your treasure boxes, we think it’s such a personal touch to any space. Tag any of your creations using #DesignThreads.

We had a go at creating our own little treasure box – we hope this inspires you to do the same!

Here are some of Melissa’s other beautiful creations, we love this intricate jewellery box.

Melissa generously pledged this wonderful hand painted box to the ‘Charleston Inspires’ auction, to raise funds to support the Charleston Trust in East Sussex. The auction featured 165 artworks from an array of artists who have been inspired by Charleston and the Bloomsbury group.

Weekly Book Recommendation from Much Ado Books

A Theatre for Dreamers, Polly Samson

Hydra, Greece. 1960. Before the 60’s were the 60’s, the island provides sanctuary of sorts of authors, artists, dreamers and drop-outs – including Leonard Cohen.

In this compelling novel, a young woman flees London life with her boyfriend, and discovers a world that is at once compelling and delightful; fraught and perhaps even dangerous.

Polly’s account summons all the pleasures of the remote island and a way of life that paved the way for the hippies of the following decade. It is a funny, charming, compelling portrait of people living on the edge in a paradise of sorts.

We have loved seeing all your creative pursuits. This week, one of our favourites is this wonderful line drawing of our installation of baskets above The Whitby Bar in New York by @little_flat_in_islington. Why not have a go at colouring it in; we’d love to see your colourful interpretations.

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