Transforming the dark past into the bright and stylish present is all in a day's work for Suzanne
How does a woman who loves, revitalises and sells vintage furniture decorate her home? Lynne Dixon visits Suzanne Schmitt at her period property, the Old Surgery in Matlock, and the town's Vintage Rooms, a mecca for lovers of the unusual.
REMEMBER when, as a child, you used to visit your grandma? She no doubt seemed extremely old and, chances are, her house was crammed full of dull, dark, depressing brown furniture. Or so it seemed to you.
We're not talking Chippendale chairs here; in fact, we're not talking antiques at all. It was probably 1930s, 40s and 50s stuff that grandma furnished her house with – items long consigned to the great junk shop in the sky.
Which is rather a pity, as this is exactly the kind of furniture that is now classed as vintage – and becoming very much in demand.
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Except, of course, that it is no longer dull, dark and brown because, more than likely, someone has given it a new lease of life by painting and "distressing" it in vintage shades of soft white, grey or bone that are subtle and easy to live with.
Suzanne Schmitt and her three colleagues at the Vintage Rooms in Dale Road, Matlock, are exactly the kind of visionary, artistic people who are transforming these seemingly boring old pieces of furniture into fashionable must-haves.
Suzanne said: "These pieces are made of good solid wood with proper dovetail joints, often with nice carved detail. This is well-made furniture that has stood the test of time.
"But people want lighter interiors these days so my colleagues and I transform these old things into something lighter and prettier. And the good thing about painting furniture is that, in a few years' time, you can do it again and end up with another different look."
It is not, of course, merely a case of slapping on a coat of white gloss paint. It is essential to choose the right type of paint in the right kind of subtle, aged colour.
Suzanne said: "You paint the item then rub it back with wire wool or sandpaper to reveal a layer of what was underneath. Afterwards, you wax it to create a faint sheen. There are a number of steps to the process. It's quite labour-intensive but the end result is worth it. You have a lovely soft, aged look, battered around the corners, a little bit distressed."
Suzanne's passion for vintage is also about reusing, recycling and repurposing. "It's a green thing that can save people money, which is good in a recession."
Needless to say, there are numerous vintage pieces dotted around Suzanne's Victorian stone-built home in Matlock, cleverly mixed in with genuine antiques inherited from her mother, who came from the nearby village of Riber, and her grandma.
Suzanne and her French-born wine merchant husband Jean-Claude Schmitt – both in their 60s – have lived at the Old Surgery for 25 years. They have brought up three children there and it is a true family home, packed with family nostalgia and eclectic furnishings.
The three-storey, five-bedroomed detached house, with its elegant mezzanine floor and original roof light, was built in 1895. It retains many period features, one of the most stunning being the imposing front door with its glorious art nouveau stained glass flowers and birds.
As Suzanne welcomes me over the threshold, I am immediately bowled over by the original Minton floor tiles in the spacious hall.
Suzanne has vintage hand-painted furniture in most rooms of the house, including the kitchen where her French mother-in-law's kitchen chairs – dating from 1948 – stand resplendent round the table in their latest guise. "I've painted them in Farrow & Ball's pigeon grey, which is the same colour as my front door."
Its blue-grey hue attracted the admiration of a passing motorist who knocked on her front door one day, asking what colour it was. "He said he had driven past our door lots of times and loved the colour."
It is Suzanne's favourite shade and has given her mother-in-law's simple wooden chairs a new lease of life. And, despite modernising the kitchen 10 years ago, she has retained the original Victorian floor-to-ceiling wooden cupboards, painting them in Farrow & Ball's Parma grey, which tones well with the floor's modern slate grey floor tiles.
The huge dining room has a grand feel to it, with a dining table that seats more than 10 and cane-back dining chairs from the 1940s which started life in dark oak.
"That's the thing with dark furniture; if it isn't antique and terribly expensive, you can change the look of it completely by painting it. A lot of people are afraid to do this themselves but will happily buy furniture from the Vintage Rooms."
While Suzanne's passion for vintage captivates her rather more than it captivates her husband, it is ironic that the current craze for hand-painted furniture takes its inspiration from France.
"The French have a history of painted furniture, far more than we have. The Victorians liked dark, heavy wooden furniture, but it tends to close a room in and make it seem smaller."
Suzanne and Jean-Claude met while working on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1970s and were married in Strasbourg's town hall in 1976, after which Jean-Claude decided he needed to perfect his English. "So we moved to England, set up home here in Matlock and stayed."
Twenty-five years ago, they started their own wine business, the French Wine Shop, in Snitterton Street, Matlock, which is still flourishing.
Suzanne said: "We're going through our second recession but the business is continuing to do well. We have a website as well as a shop and Jean-Claude has built up a good relationship with his customers over the past 25 years."
Back at the house, there is a large double cellar that is perfect for storing wine – one of the reasons Jean-Claude liked the house.
There is also an old private walled garden at the back, where the couple's three children, Genevieve, Gregory and Ellie used to play. Now the couple's four grandchildren enjoy the garden when they come to stay.
"Our children still have their own bedrooms here as well as Ellie's old rocking horse, which the grandchildren love to play on now."
Suzanne concedes the house is getting a bit big for them and they may consider downsizing at some point.
It would be a wrench as so many happy memories and nostalgia, are invested in their much-loved home. But Suzanne is sure of one thing. "We would never want to move from this area."
The Vintage Rooms itself started as a pop-up shop at the Wirksworth Festival three years ago.
Suzanne and four of her friends decided to combine all the vintage items they had collected over the years and see how many they could sell.
"In the event we practically sold out – which gave us the idea of opening our own permanent shop in Wirksworth," Suzanne said.
They rented premises in St John's Road and the business took off well but then came the bad news – their lease was not going to be renewed.
"So we had to search for alternative premises and, last November, we moved the Vintage Rooms to Dale Road in Matlock."
Suzanne runs the shop – actually a row of three inter-connected shops – with co-owners Michelle Elgarice, Louise Gray and Daniella Lichters and they're delighted at the way things are going.
"We sell vintage pieces from the 1930s through to the 1950s and retro items from the 1960s and 70s," said Suzanne. "Most are genuinely vintage, while some are vintage in spirit."
The large premises are bursting with an amazingly eclectic collection of furniture, decorative items, home wares, household linens, kitchen wares and even vintage "gardenalia", which can be found in the entrancing little Potting Shed within the store.
I light on things like old French apple crates, galvanised buckets, faded deck chairs (which apparently go like hot cakes come the spring), old sacks and well-worn stone garden ornaments. There's a little Paris Kitchen, too, where I spot the kind of items that graced my grandma's kitchen when I was small.
Things like a green and cream 1950s sink unit and a cream Creda electric cooker that is in beautiful condition, despite being around 60 years old.
Michelle Elgarice explained the philosophy behind it all. "To us, vintage means pre-loved. It's not all about perfection, something can be well worn but still loved. It's a whole new way of looking at things."
Suzanne added: "There are no set rules any more. It's no longer about saving things for 'best', it's about using and enjoying them every day. The things we sell have a lot of memories stored in them. Coming into a shop like this evokes memories from the past. Nostalgia can be comforting in a recession."
The Vintage Rooms is open from 10am to 5pm Monday to Saturday and 11am to 5pm on Sunday.