Road to Damascus (or Upcycling the Outdoor Furniture #2)

Having been given our landlord’s blessing to do whatever I liked with the left behind outdoor furniture, I turned my attention to our patio furniture, clearly in need of some TLC:

While surfing the net for inspiration for this outdoor furniture upcycle. I came across these funky black and white damask cushions at BedBathStore. Finding them made me so happy: damask is a long-time favorite of mine. And they were perfect for revamping the truly tragic patio set.

I have always seriously loved damask fabric. While I love it for its visual and tactile qualities, my fascination with it has a lot to do with my abiding obsession with people’s clothing in historical portraits. There is something breathtaking about this portrait of Eleanor of Toledo by Agnolo Bronzino (c. 1550), for example:

Agnolo Bronzino ‘Eleanor of Toledo’ c. 1550 (Wallace Collection, London)

It is partly to do with the memento mori quality of portraits, how Bronzino sensitively captured the spirit and calm beauty of this woman. She seems so alive in the portrait, but at the same time it is poignantly haunted by the knowledge that she is long dead.  A small, but seductively beautiful, reminderette of our own mortality (hence memento mori). But – for me at least – it is also to do with the exquisite damask fabric of her dress.

Looking at her I vicariously experience the tactile qualities of that luxurious heavy fabric, as well as the weighty double pearl necklace, her softly silken chemise that protrudes through the oh-so-fashionable slashes in her sleeves, and the beaded snood she wears over her hair. She looks so vital and present in the portrait, serene and self assured. A woman secure in the knowledge of her status and her beauty, but what she thought, heard, felt, and experienced are part of an alien past that is far removed from how I live my life.

So it is partly love of the visual luxury of that expensive and weighty fabric, partly my passion for art history, but also the reverie it evokes for how she might have lived, breathed and moved through her life. While wearing THAT dress. Ultimately, it’s actually quite simple. I. Want. Her. Frock.

Looking at damask fabric, for me, immediately references images such as this. It symbolises the past as an exotic, unreachable, location I can never really know, but love to explore imaginatively via art works. As you do.

Antique Red Silk Damask C. 19th Century

The pattern in damask fabric is created by the weave itself, rather than being a surface embellishment. The interplay of warp and weft in a satin on sateen weave creates subtle highlights, the pattern revealed through high and low sheen, a quality called iridescence. While I am a big fan of surface decoration (less might be more, but more is better), there is something fascinating and mysterious about the way that the floral patterns of damask emerge from the subtleties of the fabric, how it is integrated into its structure, and plays off the folds of the fabric in the light.

It is thought that damask fabric was introduced to Europe and England by the Crusaders. Although widely credited as a Persian invention, the Chinese knew how to make it ages ago. Its European debut, however, came via the Crusaders, long before European contact with China (Although, China existed in the European imagination as ‘the Orient’ for centuries before they actually met. Hints, myths and wild rumours of its existence drifted along the Silk Road trade routes, and lodged in the European psyche … but that is another story).

For the Crusaders, the stuff from Damascus was the most highly prized, hence the use of the term damask to describe it.

So you can imagine my excitement when I found damask printed outdoor cushions …

Outdoor chair cushions from BedBathStore

Not quite the same as the beautiful fabric itself, but clearly referencing it through design and layout, in graphic black and white. While I can never actually be Eleanor of Toledo, I can have outdoor cushions printed in damask as the Next Best Thing. And, of course, the perfect thing for stage 2 of my outdoor furniture update.

So, a reminder of the task ahead of me:


Ripped cushions, rusty grungy chairs and table. Definitely the worse for having sat out on the patio for a few years. NB: it was surface rust only, which I knew was an easy fix. Any damage (blistering and flaking) to the metal itself, and it gets put in the Too Hard basket. I wont even mention the state of the umbrella, that was a chuck out. Even I (with my permanently affixed ‘Pfft. I can do that’ blinkers) blanched at that … suffice to say: ewww! Then carry-at-arms-length-with-head-as-far-away-as-possible-and-chuck-firmly-in-the-rubbish-pile. Then wash hands. Several. TImes.

Rust patches and definitely the worse for wear …

What colour to paint this? Colour is an instinctive thing for me. I usually let whatever I am about to paint tell me what colour it wants to be. Weird, I know: not everyone has furniture, walls, rooms, etc talk to them in that way. Just as well, really. And not something that comes out of the logical left-brain, it definitely happens in the gut brain. Somehow the yellow I painted the other chairs didn’t feel right, and I left the hardware store with 4 tins of navy spray paint, and some trusty rust-fixing primer clutched firmly in my hands. I set eagerly to work …

Spraying in progress

NB: You will always need twice as much spray paint as you think you will. And if you dont use it all up, you will always find another project to use it on … Most likely, however, you will make at least one more trip to the hardware store for more.

Dont forget to spray the undersides, and take your time to build the paint in layers, so it doesn’t run:

Make sure to spray underneath

Check your work from every angle, and spray again. Then check. Then spray. Check. Spray. Check. Spray … the last thing you want is to sit down on your newly finished outdoor setting with your friends and see a patch you missed. Trust me, it will ruin your evening. And you wont be able to be bothered redoing it for ages, because that job will have been filed in the ‘finished’ part of your brain list. So it will annoy you for years and years before you finally stomp off, get the spray paint, and finish the job. So better to spray and check and spray like crazy BEFORE this happens. Then wait impatiently for your cushions to arrive …

And finally the cushions arrive

I love ordering off the internet, it is like Christmas when your things arrive!

I was pondering what to do with the somewhat uncomfortable metal backrests, when I stumbled on outdoor cushions on sale in Costco. And a nice bright yellow umbrella to replace the icky one.

With umbrella … and ready for those long summer evenings

I am sure if Eleanor of Toledo were around today, she would have wanted damask-style outdoor cushions on her patio furniture. Best of all, though, they match the cat …

Treadwell approves …

Now I really have to do something about that table …


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