Militarily Pimped Furniture at Help for Heroes

What happens when you mix 6 roughty-toughty military types, with Little Greene Paints and some old wooden furniture? I found out when we hosted a week-long workshop at Tedworth House, the Help for Heroes Recovery Centre in rural Wiltshire.

We, Company of Makers (CoM), were in residence for 5 days, so yes, we did get to stay at the big, beautiful house… AND they had a petting zoo with a meerkat and armadillo, but I digress.

When we start these things, it’s always a little awkward as everyone gets to know each other and let me tell you, Forces guys are a tough audience. The first thing we learned (and we did so rapidly), is that they like a soft target when it comes to banter (in civilian-speak, taking the mickey). Luckily, we fitted the bill and they took advantage of this, mercilessly.

We decided that the aim of this mission was to give a different perspective on furniture, colour and design than that perhaps experienced in military living quarters and of course, to make some shiny, pretty things. The brief was for each person to rescue a dowdy, stained, piece of wooden furniture and give it a new lease of life – All within five days, armed with Little Greene paints and sandpaper.

We’d gone for some ‘mid-century modern’ chairs and coffee tables from the 1960s in the ‘Ercol’ stylee and a few slightly older chairs from the 1940’s.

Just so you know, when CoM run furniture customisation workshops, we do so outdoors in a Narnia-like garden in the grounds of the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar. In order to recreate the tranquility of the Haslar garden, we moved all the furniture and materials up to the Tedworth House woods on the trailer of a ride-on mower. Trying to get into the military vibe of ‘living in the field’ (we were assured in strong terms it is not called ‘camping’), we lit a fire and had a ‘wet’ (that’s Navy for a cuppa).

Despite my best efforts (my appreciation of the comedy genius of Private Benjamin wasn’t reciprocated), the furniture customisation talk all seemed a bit too ‘touchy-feely’, but against their better judgement, they got to work.

After much sanding….and sanding….and sanding – We decided some inspiration was in order and bandying about the phrase ‘be prepared’ (I’m still unsure if this is from the SAS or the Boy Scouts), we pulled out the iPads, pre-loaded with digital mood boards. The words ‘mood boards’ did not dowse the touchy-feely flames. We, that is, I, chatted about the cool designs on the mood boards and had another wet. Slowly but surely, the guys started to comment about some of the upcycled furniture on the mood boards and began to ask how particular effects had been achieved – Phew!

Next morning, we reconvened outside on the terrace where the natural light would lend itself perfectly to the job in hand – demonstrating the beauty of colour. Sensing the scepticism, I took a deep breath and presented everyone with a Little Greene paint chart. We began gently by discussing the different finishes and how they might be used, and got into a debate about the meaning of ‘intelligent’ paint (yes, more banter), our finish of choice being intelligent eggshell. Then we went full-on into ‘paint colour bingo’ and talked about how colours work with each other. I felt I was proudly ‘adapting and overcoming’ (that’s another military thing), when even the most cynical non-touchy-feelyist started putting their own colour palette together.

That’s when we said ‘let’s do this’ (actually, only in my head), this is the point when everyone really threw themselves into it and developed their designs, finding ways to bring their ideas to life such as making stencils and templates from scratch, varnishing the representation of a ship’s deck, trying to recreate ‘caulking’ with hemp string and PVA, decoupage, using graffiti art spray cans and, of course, lots and lots of painting with such delicious paint that one guy threatened to eat some.

Much experimenting with colour, paint techniques, many wets and much more banter later, we were totally amazed at what the guys had created. One of the tables became an homage to the Royal Navy because it had come from the Royal Navy napoleonic Haslar Hospital. The thing is, it was an ex-army guy that did it and much banter about his inner ‘sailor’ prevailed.

A similar table ended up painted with a graphic design something akin to a gingham table cloth, just awaiting the triangular sandwiches and scones. The third table had a design spray-painted onto it by a Veteran releasing his inner vandal.

One of the chairs was to become a gift for a little boy who’s really into the ‘Gruffalo’, another chair was meticulously painted by someone who’s never done any ‘arty’ painting before, with what can only be described as a design incorporating a Victorian gentleman’s essentials. That leaves one final chair, painted by someone who had tried some ‘shabby-chic’ at home to no avail. After a week with us, the world of crazy colour was fully embraced resulting in one of the trippiest paint jobs since the 1970s.

My words can’t do justice to the guys’ creativity, which was all their own work. Of course, they’d deny all involvement in this.

If you want to find out more about Company of Makers or how to get involved, get in touch via www.companyofmakers.org.uk.