Decoupage is artistic sleight of hand. What appears to be a painted design is actually paper, glued in place. What looks like lacquer is just a few coats of clear varnish. And what begins as an unremarkable piece of furniture becomes a bold, modern design statement, when adorned with leaves and vines. You might embellish an armoire with oversize tropical foliage or cover a plain dresser with Victorian botanical prints. Suddenly, that forgettable piece becomes the focus of the room.
Early forms of decoupage were seen in 12th-century Asia, but the craft as we know it owes much to the exquisite Oriental lacquerwork so widely admired in seventeenth-century Europe. Imports were in high demand, so artisans, particularly in Venice, mimicked them by cutting out prints and engravings, gluing them to furniture, then covering them with varnish. The technique was called lacca povera, or "poor man's lacquer."
A similar process, using flowers and other sentimental motifs, was popularized in England, and by the nineteenth century, decorative images were made available for this purpose. The Victorians used them on furniture as well as lamps and screens. The word decoupage is a twentieth-century creation, derived from the French decouper, meaning "to cut."
Traditionally, decoupage motifs are small in scale; we gave the craft a modern sensibility by focusing on larger, bolder patterns. For our projects, we started with inexpensive, unfinished furniture. You can use a piece you already own or a flea-market find. Either way, look for simple lines; intricate curves make the paper application difficult. Sand the pieces, paint a solid color, then turn to wallpaper and inexpensive botanical prints, such as those from damaged books, for motifs. These beautiful papers provide you with ready-made designs. Cut out the images, and apply them using the instructions that follow.
As you work, emphasize scale, mingling oversize shapes with smaller ones. Celebrate color and movement. Soon, the pattern itself will draw your eye, and the furniture will fade dutifully into the background. It won't disappear, but it will seem to. Almost like magic.
Choose a dresser (either unfinished or finished) with no curves or moldings on the drawers so the prints can be smoothly applied. Remove hardware, then sand, paint with latex wall paint, and let it cure for a week; lightly sand the surface again before proceeding. If you're using already-painted furniture, just sand the surface with fine-grit paper. Botanical prints like the ones we used can be found in old broken books or can be purchased inexpensively at flea markets, online auction sites, and sometimes even tag sales.
Tools and Materials
Water-based glue sealant (such as Mod Podge glue)
Decorative knobs and hardware
1. Prep the paper
Tape kraft paper to a flat work surface. Secure the prints to the sheet of kraft paper using masking tape. To strengthen the prints, brush each one with glue sealant. Let the sealant dry according to manufacturer's instructions.
2. Cut prints to size
Using a pencil and ruler, create a kraft-paper template of a drawer (top). This will allow you to determine how many prints you'll need and what each print's dimensions should be. Cut off one section of the drawer template to use as a guide for sizing the prints. Cut just outside the pencil line, adding about 1/16 inch extra on one side, so prints will overlap slightly. Lay template on top of a print, and mark the corners, as shown. Cut prints to size using a utility knife and ruler.
3. Plan the design
Put double-sided tape on the back of each print. Lay out your design on the dresser, stepping back occasionally to see how it looks. For balance, we alternated airier grass prints with images of denser foliage. When you finish your design, remove drawers from the dresser before applying glue.
4. Glue on the motifs
Brush the entire back of a print with glue sealant. Quickly apply it to the end of a drawer, then smooth with brayer to remove air bubbles. Repeat at other end, then at center, overlapping if necessary. Let glue sealant dry overnight. The next day, varnish drawers.
5. and 6. Replace hardware
Once the varnish is completely dry, you can replace the original drawer pulls or, if you are adding new ones, measure out their placement with a pencil and square ruler. (Our dresser originally had one knob per drawer, but we gave it two per drawer for a more elegant appearance.) Drill new holes (right through the paper), then attach the knobs and hardware.