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The Alchemist: Ruthie Sommers

by Grace Bonney

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It’s a talented woman who can successfully mix her husband’s glossy red 1970s Loni Anderson wastebasket (a childhood possession) with pedigreed antiques. This total lack of snobbery is what sets L.A.-based decorator Ruthie Sommers apart from the pack. With her proper Southern background, she could easily be just another tape-measure-wielding designer in killer clothes who haunts all the “best” shops. But no, Ruthie has an open and curious mind.

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>Others would have passed over this wilted sofa. Ruthie appreciated the Asian style legs and decided to rescue it.

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She highlighted the frame by painting it white. Simple, unpretentious pink upholstery with crisp white trim makes the piece timeless. Below is Ruthie’s supremely chic bedroom, where refined English style is infused with a youthful West Coast vibe.

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Again, two of the most stylish pieces in the room – the sofa and chest — are made-over vintage items. Below are before pics.

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>What a difference a little chocolate-brown piping can make. A few years ago I ordered a very small item through Ruthie’s boutique, Chapman Radcliff; she got on the phone herself to tell me about the importance of piping. So now I always associate trim with Ruthie Sommers.

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The before and after images below should encourage everyone to never discount an ugly chair — even a seriously ugly chair.

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Basically Ruthie looks at the bones of a piece, ignoring tacky finishes and upholstery. It’s true that sometimes her end result is so stunning because she has access to high-end fabrics, but often she uses plain cottons and linens — practical types of fabrics we can find at an array of price points.

A side table is stripped of its painted finish and given a new
sophisticated life, below.

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Tattered chairs revitalized.

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A matronly chair becomes whimsical for a child’s room.

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More dramatic changes: A glamorous and slightly ethereal new silver finish for a pair of tables, and a banquette becomes luxe.

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One winter a friend of mine took an upholstery course at the local community college. She acquired the skills to recover her own chairs and benches, and was thrilled with her accomplishments. I hope Ruthie’s re-invented furniture will inspire you to take a second look at a thrift store piece or a grandmother’s sofa. (Skilled craftsmen can do wonders with hard to cover pieces like curvy wing chairs.) For more inspiration from Ruthie Sommers, be sure to look for her book in 2008: The L.A. House.

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