Design Insider: Upcycling with Happy Retro Furniture

Happy Retro Furniture is an upcycling specialist who focuses on giving mid-century and vintage furniture a unique, contemporary and colourful new look. We spoke to Jen Felton about her handpainted designs to find out where inspiration comes from and how she gets those lines so perfectly smooth.

Why vintage and mid century furniture? What drew you to this particular era of design?

I’ve always been drawn to the simplicity and clean lines found in design during the early-mid 20th century. At university, I studied early modernist architecture and my fondness for this era grew from there. There are a lot of similarities between the architecture and furniture of this time, with no fuss, beautiful curves and angles, elevation, and somewhat utilitarian approach to design. Having said that, surface patterns of the 1950s were also very inspiring and I’m certainly drawn to the playfulness of these designs and use of colour. I also love geometric and contemporary design and my overall aim is to add a contemporary twist to these older pieces.

How did you get into upcycling?

The very first piece of furniture I upcycled around six years ago, was a small, very sweet mirrored dressing table. I think I had picked it up in a charity shop and just wanted to experiment with some left over paints I had lying around. I actually remember using the edge of my kid’s picture book to get the straight lines! It worked out and after selling that first piece, it kind of grew from there. I obviously bought a ruler after that! I enjoyed the satisfaction of breathing new life into tired furniture that may have otherwise been discarded.

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What is your starting point for an upcycling project? Is it based on the item you find, a client commission or your own design inspiration?

All of those factors!

My starting point for any upcycling project is to assess the condition of the piece. This, to a certain extent, dictates the design process. Every piece gets stripped back, to give a blank canvas to work on. If some areas are not so great, they usually need to be painted and therefore the overall design evolves from this. If there is a beautiful grain on a piece, I’ll try and paint a design that shows this off. I’m basically working to try and show off the best aspects of each piece. 

If I’m working on furniture for a specific client, I really enjoy their input and ideas. I usually ask for pictures of the room it will be living in, so I can see colours and their style, which helps me create something that is completely bespoke for their home. 

If I’m working on a piece to sell, I’ve usually always got a few ideas floating around in my head and I’ll wait for the right piece to work with.  

Any tips for helping people find a great item to upcycle if they want to go mid-century?

I’d say to just always be on the look out. Mid-century furniture has gotten harder to find over the last few years and it is invariably getting more pricey as its popularity increases. However, you can still get lucky and charity shops and online selling platforms can be a great way of finding hidden gems, if looked at regularly. There are also some great dealers of mid-century furniture and local antique shops are always fun to visit.

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Your designs involve precise geometric shapes that always look flawless! What is your secret?

Thank you! There’s no real secret, apart from a lot of patience and good quality masking tape.

What colours speak to you? Do you have favourite colour palettes or tones? 

I have always found myself heavily drawn towards blues, turquoises and teals and there aren’t many pieces that escape a splash of one of these. Perhaps it’s from living on the coast, but I love these calm, yet vibrant shades. In recent years, I’ve also been drawn towards more pastel shades, which I find work quite well with contemporary pattern, so we’re talking ice-cream shades, pale pinks and mint greens, Again, maybe that’s linked to my love of the seaside and also has a retro vibe. 

Recently I’ve been getting a lot of requests for mustard and navy, as well as dark, inky blue/grey, which I love. I’m a bit fan of the Craig & Rose shade Lido Blue, which works so well with a variety of palettes.

What are the most important elements for people to consider when starting to plan an upcycling project?

Never underestimate how much prep work a piece needs before you get to the painting stage. Some pieces are more than 50 years old, so depending on how well they have been looked after, may need a lot of tlc. One benefit to working with vintage pieces is that they are made to last and are often in very good condition so just need surfaces sanded back, scrapes removed and the odd chip filled. This is still time consuming, but totally worth it to create a sound surface to work your magic on. I can’t imagine that much of the mass produced furniture manufactured today would still be going strong in half a century’s time!

The main aim is to plan your design and work with colours and patterns that you truly love.

What does your home interior look like? Is it full of colour, or do you escape from colour to a calm sanctuary at home?

The answer to that question really depends on how long my children have been home! I love minimal design and clean lines and would describe my interior style as ‘pretty clutter”. I do love colour, and like to keep most walls white (apart from a soft pink in my dining room), so most of it comes from furniture and accessories. I want my home to feel fresh and fun, but most importantly a comfortable environment for my family, where nothing is too precious.

What tips can you give people to help them introduce colour into their homes?

Don’t be afraid of picking up a paintbrush. Colour on the walls doesn’t have to be a mega commitment and you could change a feature wall in any room a couple of times a year, if you really wanted! Alternatively, you can start with one item you really love, whether it be a cushion or a vase and pick out your favourite colour from this and go from there. 

You can find out more about Happy Retro Furniture here. Shop our mid-century or art deco paint colours or order a free colourcard here

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