Carly Robertson brought home a brand-new IKEA table and then set about making it look as though she did anything but. She sanded it, repainted it, sanded it some more and applied glaze in order, as she later wrote in a blog, "to take them from new to vintage farmhouse."
The blog post, on the popular site IKEA Hackers, is just one example of what has become an online cottage industry that offers tips and hands-on instruction on how to distress furniture – taking pieces that are new and beating them up a little bit to give them an antique, vintage look.
Distressed furniture has become such a popular design trend that many well-known brands, such as Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware and Anthropologie, are hawking their own distressed wares, including tables, chairs, curtains, rugs, wood finials, even candle holders.
Items that are bashed, bleached, chipped or otherwise roughed up have the aura of a story or history, which can make them feel more personal, or at least more interesting than just another mass-produced item.
"It's sort of part of that hipster vibe," says Shelby Walsh, vice-president of operations and community at TrendHunter.com. "With the younger generation, they're looking for something a little bit more rough-feeling and more individualistic."
As with so much of hipster culture, the popularity of distressed furniture is often an example of status-seeking, says Andrew Potter, author of The Authenticity Hoax. The more interesting your furniture is, the more interesting you become relative to the big-box-store shopping hordes. "In the age of mass production, anything that smacks of uniqueness has a certain cachet," Potter says.
Although it can't be completely reduced to that – projects such as Robertson's are emblematic of a DIY culture that is much richer than mere status-seeking – the question, Potter says, is why. "That's clearly because we're at a point where things that are just sort of old have cachet because they weren't mass-produced," he says. "You've got this whole layer on top of a mash-up culture, and underlying it, I think, there remains a moral if not political imperative that the world of technology and mass production is somehow alienating. So there's value to be had in something new, authentic, rustic."
However, some people say distressing furniture fails to create the sort of results that only time can produce.
"I have a problem with distressed furniture," says Alda Pereira, who runs Alda Pereira Design, a Vancouver-based firm. "I don't like anything that doesn't go through the right process, because you never get what you want from the wood in the end."
That hasn't stopped DIY distressers from sharing tips online, whether it's faking age with wood stain, throwing a chain at tables to dent their surfaces or even dragging the sharp edge of a crowbar across furniture to make deep grooves in it.
It is an easy way to mimic the look of expensive antiques.
"I obviously can't afford to buy a 150-year-old piece, so I buy IKEA and make it look like it's a hundred years old," Robertson says.
A Winnipeg mother of twin girls who writes a lifestyle blog called the simple things, she says distressed furniture connects her to her past. "It really reminds me of my grandma's place," she says. Her entire house has been designed with that look in mind. "I even got the claw-foot tub," she says.
While Robertson has a genuine connection to a rural past, she is the first to admit that the popularity of distressing furniture often seems symptomatic of what has become the ultimate hipster haven of authenticity: farm nostalgia. What, after all, is a better spiritual corrective to the alienation of these mass-produced times than the pastoral life?
"In the blogging world, I've seen a real surge in popularity of blogs of people from the farm," Robertson says. "Not everybody can sell everything and move to the farm, so you live vicariously through these blogs as well as incorporate some of their ideas into your own home. Make it kind of feel like you live in the farm in the middle of the city."
With so many brand-name furniture stores now offering distressed items, Pereira wonders if the trend has reached its tipping point. "As soon as the mass market finds something, everyone knows that it's time to move on," she says.
Robertson is still enamoured of the vintage farmhouse look, although she and her husband are flirting with the idea of going in a completely different direction – mid-century modern – the next time they redecorate. "I'm not over it, but it's so overdone now," she says.