The trick to enhancing plain furniture, tableware, and objet d'art? Just use pretty papers and glue.

By Alexandra Churchill
July 17, 2020
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Kirsten Francis

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 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 19th 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 20th-century creation, derived from the French decouper, meaning "to cut." As in the past, modern decoupage is used on a variety of objects, but is most popular on furniture. Yet today's decoupage tends to be a bit more whimsical. You can choose nearly any paper to work with, including pages from damaged old books, wallpaper, maps, and scraps of colorful paper. 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.

Tools and Materials

Thin paper is best for decoupage because it will create minimal texture on the surface of the furniture. Wallpaper and inexpensive prints—such as those from damaged books—provide ready-­made designs. Cut out the images carefully with scissors or a craft knife. Origami paper ($12.65, dickblick.com) and other paper can also be used. Construction paper is not a good choice because it tends to fade.

Water-based sealant glue ($7.49, michaels.com) acts as both an adhesive and a sealant: It can be applied to affix the paper designs to the furniture, or as a topcoat to seal the design. The sealant can also be applied to the top of the paper design to strengthen it before applying to the furniture. Keep a box of baby wipes handy while working with the sealant to keep hands clean. For smooth application, use a brayer—this handled roller ($24, homedepot.com) is designed to press trapped bubbles from under the paper. It will help keep your decoupaged images flat against the surface and prevent creases from forming.

How to Apply Decoupage

Start from scratch with an unfinished piece. You can also revamp a piece you already have, or a flea-­market find. If the furniture is painted, sand it and paint it another color if you like. Because intricate curves make the paper application difficult, it's best to use furniture with simple lines.

Traditional decoupage motifs are small in scale, but incorporating larger, bolder patterns gives this craft a modern sensibility. Pictured here, large leaves from one wallpaper form the basic pattern; flowers from another fill in the spaces. To unify the design, larger leaves were interspersed with slender fronds. 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.

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 our instructions: Brush the entire back of a print with glue sealant. (To strengthen the prints, brush each one with glue sealant and let it dry according to manufacturer's instructions.) Quickly apply it to the surface, then smooth with brayer to remove air bubbles.

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