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Dressing table displays classic Art Deco lines

In his latest Furniture Detective column, Fred Taylor explains a bit about the history of Art Deco, while assessing a reader's inquiry about a vanity.

QCan you tell me when this piece was made and by whom...probable type of wood used, value, etc. The mirror has been removed but it is a round mirror measuring 41 3/4 inches wide-by-39 3/4 inches long. It is framed and has some floral carving around the base of the frame where it sits on the uppermost sides of the dressing table.

We are planning to paint the piece and replace the mirror unless it is of significant value. Then we will reconsider our options.

Thanks for your help.

—J.S., via e-mail

Dressing Table Sports Art Deco Design

A Your dressing table is an Art Deco vanity dating from the late 1930s to the late 1940s. However,

Art Deco vanity

This mahogany vanity, shown without the circular mirror, isfrom the 1940s. (Submitted photo)

you can verify the date of manufacture by looking on the rear of the mirror glass. All 20th century plate mirrors incorporated into furniture have a date on them by law. It will be in dark gray on the back side of the glass itself.

The term for the style of your vanity at the time it was made was “Art Moderne.” The term Art Deco was not coined until the 1960s. Your vanity appears to be made of crotch mahogany, a fairly unusual wood for the Art Moderne period. It is impossible to say who made it without some sort of tag or factory identification.

I would suggest that you discuss this piece with an Art Deco or modern furniture dealer. It could be of considerable interest to someone in that part of the trade. If you do not like the piece as it is you may be able to sell it for enough to buy what you want. Once it is painted and the mirror is replaced it will have no collector’s value whatsoever.

Currently the vanity does not appear to be in bad shape and you probably can sell it at auction for around $250-$300.

Thanks for the excellent pictures.

Discussing Stain Colored Wood

QI read several of your columns where stain colored wood was a problem. A method of coloration that I learned from a cabinetmaker many years ago always worked well for me. Adding replacement wood to old wood is sometimes noticeable in the finishing process even if both pieces are stained equally with penetrating stain. After the stain had dried thoroughly and I saw that my repair work revealed itself somewhat, I would then use a tube of Grumbacher Artist’s Oil Color. (Look on the back for the word “transparent” – do not use “opaque”!)

This top-selling book by Antique Trader columnist Fred Taylor teaches you how to solve the mysteries of antique furniture. Order your copy directly from the author at

This top-selling book by Antique Trader columnist Fred Taylor teaches you how to solve the mysteries of antique furniture. Order your copy directly from the author at

The colors I used most often were Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber and sometimes Geranium Lake for a slight touch of red. Other colors like Van Dyke Brown were used far less often.

In order to use these oil colors you must apply the color very sparingly to a clean rag and carefully hand rub a very thin film onto the lighter wood. Remember: A little dab will do you.

If there is ever a need, rather than apply a heavy coat of color, wait 24 hours for a drying period and then hand rub another thin film of oil color again. You can even apply just a hint of color to the adjacent surfaces for an overall blend of color before applying a varnish or urethane finish. Do not use lacquer.

If the color is not exactly right it can be wiped off with mineral spirits before it has dried completely and you can start over.

The color can also be toned down using very fine steel wool.
— J.K.

Tips for Furniture Restoration

A Thanks for sharing the tip. I have used Grumbacher oil colors, and other less-expensive brand names, for quick touch-ups for many years. In fact, in the QFX (Quick Fixes for Furniture) class my wife and I teach, we specifically recommend the use of artist’s oil colors.

But with the advent of gel stains, I have been able to circumvent the oil colors almost entirely in the finishing process, reserving it for touch-ups only. Once you can determine the true colors (burnt umber, burnt sienna, etc.) of the proprietary brand names, the gel stains are easier to work with and in the long run, less expensive. Also after the gels dry completely they can be top coated with lacquer if that is the desired finish. Granted you must “sneak up” on them and use very thin coats of any evaporative finish initially, but it can be done.

I think this is a case of the evolution of the medium in furniture restoration. We have seen tremendous changes in the chemistry of finishes in the last few decades along with corresponding changes in coloring techniques.

Gel Stains of Today

Gel stains as such were not available 20, 30 and 40 years ago when many of us learned our craft, so we learned other methods using what was available to us at the time. This is akin to the revolutionary introduction of aniline dye stains around the turn of the 20th century.

The old methods still work, but in addition, now there are other choices at our disposal. Thanks again for your interest and for sharing your technique.

Editor’s Note: If you don’t have ready access to a local art supply store, popular online art suppliers include: Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff,; Dick Blick Art Materials,; Jerry’s Artarama,; and Rex Art,