Feb 22, 2011

Teaching an old hutch some new tricks

Say "china hutch" to any woman under the age of 40 or 50, and you'll likely get a suppressed yawn. Or a look of disdain. Yes, of course there are women of my generation and younger who proudly display their wedding china in a china hutch, and it probably matches their formal dining table and chairs.

But some brides don't place a lot of stock in traditional wedding china, and therefore don't need to worry about picking out a big new formal hutch to put those dishes in. I was one of those brides.

Somewhere along the way, we stopped renting apartments and our homes started coming with a formal dining room. These rooms seem to cry out for a few pieces of furniture besides just the table and chairs. But my budget and tastes didn't run to buying a massive formal hutch. What's a non-traditional girl to do when faced with a decidedly traditional room to furnish? Sometimes, serendipity just strikes.

A nicely proportioned Edwardian period display case was sitting on the side of an Oklahoma road one day about a decade ago. My head instinctively jerked around as I zipped past, so I slammed on the brakes, turned around, looked it over...and bought it. Then I rushed home, grabbed our trusty big red truck and went back to pick up my find and haul it home.

Here's the thing with vintage and antique pieces, especially those you might find sitting on the side of the road: they aren't always in pristine condition and they don't necessarily hold the oversize platters that are now sold as "dinner plates." This can be both good and bad. It means you can buy vintage china and it will fit nicely in a piece of the same era. And being in less-than-perfect condition means you can do things like drill holes in the interior, something you wouldn't do with a brand-new piece. And that's just what I did--six holes to be precise.

I pre-drilled and mounted three brackets in the upper back piece of the cabinet. Why? To provide a way of suspending my teacups. A thin dark cafe rod (under $3) rests on the brackets and holds decorative "S" hooks. Depending on the number of cups I want to display, I can slide them around and adjust the spacing, turn them to face the front, or to either side. It's a great way to show off the cups and it's more flexible than installing hooks along the back. It's also a lot safer than stacking the cups in topsy-turvy fashion on a shelf.

An alternative to cup hooks
wire "s" hooks
Inexpensive cafe rod mounted inside

wood dowel attached to suction cups
The second challenge was the lack of plate rails or grooves in the glass shelves. This one required a little more creativity, but I came up with a way to accomplish this without compromising the cabinet's interior with any other holes or cuts. Two thin wood dowels (36 inches long, under $1 each mounted on clear suction cups let me create adjustable plate rails on the two glass shelves. To further protect the gold edge on the plates, I cut a 1-inch strip of clear rubbery drawer liner and placed it on the glass just behind the rail. It gives the plate edge a cushioned and non-skid surface to rest on, and it's hardly noticeable.  (Acrylic rods are also available but more expensive - roughly $6 each plus shipping, unless you can find them locally in a craft/hobby store.  I couldn't.)

The third challenge was to make my pieces visible, and the best way to do that was to lighten the color on the back wall of the cabinet. When I bought this piece, it had some very dated wallpaper pasted on the back wall. The paper was in poor condition, so the first thing I did was spend an evening gently removing it. I've loved the glow of the mahogany interior, but it is dark and pieces tend to recede instead of stand out against it. I discovered that applying printed wallpaper or fabric on the back of these cabinets is a pretty standard practice, for that very reason.

I really didn't want to commit to wallpaper (neither to buying an entire roll, nor the idea of having to strip it off later) so I found a fabric I really like ($12/yard). It's meant to look like Shakespeare's handwriting and contains the names of flowers he mentioned in his sonnets and plays. Instead of just tacking it to the back wall with adhesive (I considered it), I purchased a foam 36" x 48" science fair display board (under $10) and cut it to precisely fit the back of the cabinet. Then I simply wrapped the fabric around the cardboard. After making sure it was as straight, I stretched it taut and glued it down. Now I can slide this piece in and out, replacing the fabric as often as I want to. (Fortunately, the glass shelves weren't quite as deep as the space, so the 1/4-inch or so of the fabric-covered foam board actually helps fill a void and provides a little cushioning for the dishes.)

And there you have it: three easy and cheap ideas to retrofit a china hutch so it works the way you want it to.  It took this hutch from this:

the hutch before I began

to that:
the hutch after some work

Well, the violet dishes helped, too.  But that's another story that started here and continued over here.

Happy decorating!