Discovering the joy of primitive decorating

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Home Improvement Tips, Old House Musings, House Styles, Old House History

Long before I owned my first old house, I was dreaming about it. Part of the fuel for that dream was a stack of magazines at least two feet tall. These were magazines I had carefully chosen from the racks at the bookstore, the ones that had only the best pictures of old house decorating. The pages I turned to most often were those that showcased the primitive style.

My love of primitive style began with a simple gift from my grandmother — a wooden dough bowl. “This bowl has been in our family for generations,” she said. “So take good care of it.” The wood had been worn to an impossibly smooth shine by the many loaves of bread that had been shaped in it. I kept the bowl on the middle shelf of my kitchen hutch, surrounded by original Martha White flour sacks and Hershey’s tins.

Over time, I began to seek out things that looked like that dough bowl: weathered, worn and well-used. Soon, almost as if by accident, my home was filled with primitive things.

Using primitive decorating in a remodel

When I did move into that first old house and started working on restoration and renovation, I did so with an eye toward how I would decorate it when all the work was done. But then I thought, why wait?

When the bathroom remodel was about to begin, I asked the contractor how difficult it might be to build in an alcove for my lovely old primitive cupboard. Not difficult at all, he said, and within weeks that cupboard was put to a new use of holding fluffy towels and rustic hand-made soaps.

In the kitchen, cabinet refacing took much more time than was originally planned, thanks to my desire to distress the cabinets. Though I never did quite make them look like the primitive style I was hoping to get, they did come close. Rather than opt for cabinets that rose to the ceiling, I chose to leave open space there to display the basics of primitive design, such as old wooden signs, rustic basket and hand-thrown pitchers. Though the countertops were laminate, the color matched that of the cabinets, which made the whole space look seamless. Adding an old farmhouse table and mismatched chairs completed the look.

Though my home was old enough to pull off the primitive theme without much work involved, you can make the look fit into a modern home by turning primitive decoration into works of art. A cluster of white pitchers, crocks and linens can be grouped on a rustic cupboard to create a pleasing look, and the cupboard can be used for storage. Rustic primitive pieces hung on dark walls can create an instant contrast not only in color, but between the old and the new.

Primitive decorating calls to mind a time when life was simple. Adding that look to your home, whether with a cupboard that has seen better days or an old dough bowl high on the shelf, can be done with a trip to the antique store and a little imagination.