Sometimes, all it takes is a fresh coat of paint to turn a piece of generic furniture into the centerpiece of a home. A boring side table can sparkle with a glossy new coat and animal outlines, suitable for a child’s room.
Or a generic chest-of-drawers can become unique with a Union Jack painted on it, or perhaps it can play at being antique with distressed paint.
Valarie Heng, 33, has experimented with all these and more, to turn furniture into unusual pieces with paint, stencils, wallpaper and accessories. It was just a hobby when she started out painting furniture for her children’s room several years ago.
The turning point came when she found an abandoned chair in the park, and carted it home to be repainted and reupholstered. It was snapped up immediately when she put it on social media. That was in 2012.
“That was my first sale. I realise then that people actually wanted to buy these things that I make over,” she said.
Heng began to realise that people are interested in unique pieces, provided that they not hugely expensive. She began to source for old furniture, and gave them a brushing up with bright colours, stains or antique distressing.
She sold these on her website Bonnie Blue Interiors as well as via facebook groups. Soon, people began bringing their own furniture to her to be repainted, or generic Ikea furniture to be given a unique look.
Her unusual hobby began to turn into a business.
It surprised her, somewhat, as Heng had never thought of herself as ‘creative’. She works in accounting and finance which is all about rules and regulations.
“And I can’t draw,” she said, with a laugh. “But I always felt like a fish out of water in a corporate environment.”
Of late, she has also begun dabbling in interior design for clients who are refurbishing their homes.
Heng is totally self-taught, by necessity. There isn’t anyone teaching furniture painting in Malaysia. She learnt as much as she could from the Internet and YouTube videos but in the end, there’s nothing like making mistakes for herself.
“I just jumped into it, and made many mistakes along the way. But I kept trying to find out: how can I do it better?” she said.
She also fell into the business by chance after people contacted her via social media. Interior design not an easy field to enter. Malaysians aren’t accustomed to paying for ideas. Even when it came to furniture, cost is often the more important factor.
“To me, good interior design is like creating a work of art that people can walk into, and enjoy,” she said. “There are ways to do it without spending a lot of money, as a lot of the work can be DIY.”
Thus, she said it takes a while to grow this business. As such, Heng relies on several related products to keep going. She has several balls in the air at the same time: interior design, furniture painting, and selling refurbished furniture.
She will also be starting furniture painting classes, and eventually hopes to put some material online to help people design their own spaces.
Heng has now moved to a warehouse space in Ara Damansara after having worked from home for a few years. It’s a spacious space to store furniture, both refurbished and those awaiting inspiration, and also to display her wares.
“This is such a niche market, and I have to move slowly,” she said. “To turn passion into a business, we have to take it slowly.”