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Three tips for restoring Art Deco furniture

Looking back in time from a 21st century vantage point, there’s perhaps no era that better evokes a sense of nostalgia than the 1920s. Thousands of immigrants – many of them women – were drawn to Australia by the promise of job opportunities, decent wages and a better life, and luxury goods were becoming more commonplace in the Machine Age.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that a growing number of collectors are turning their eye towards Art Deco artefacts and furniture; the streamlined and sophisticated elegance of these artefacts captures the optimism that persisted for a brief period between the first and second World Wars, before many Australians experienced severe economic hardship and unemployment following the Great Depression. If you’re new to collecting Art Deco furniture, here are three short tips to get you started.

1. Value

Before you start, find out as much as you can about the item’s collectible value. This will help you establish how much time and money you’re willing to put into the project or, conversely, whether your skill set will do justice to a valuable piece of furniture. If the restoration job is beyond your skill set, it may be worth seeking expert help. To begin, run a quick search through antiques websites and online auction houses to get a sense of what your item may be worth. If its value is significant, consider seeking the advice of a professional appraiser to get a more specific value estimate.

2. Cleaning methods

When it comes to restoring a piece of furniture – which first means cleaning it – start with gentle cleaning tools. It may be tempting to think that because an item is so old, it requires specialised chemicals to clean it, but chemical cleaners can quickly destroy an item in one swipe.

Light scratches on pieces of glass can often be rubbed gently away with just a spot of toothpaste, while metal handles, frames or decorative pieces can be cleaned very effectively with a small amount of white vinegar or soap. Some collectors also use a dab of something mild like baby oil to restore a bit of polish and protection to metal surfaces.

3. Veneer surfaces

If you’re working with furniture with a veneer surface, small blisters and bubbles can be easily flattened out by heating the surface until the glue beneath the veneer melts; apply a layer of wax paper over the surface, followed by a sheet of cardboard and a cloth. This will protect the surface as you iron over it carefully, checking under the cardboard every few minutes to ensure that it isn’t being overheated.

Image: St James Theatre, 20 Bourke Street, Melbourne by C. J. Frazer. Courtesy of State Library Victoria.

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