A dark green secretary desk with gold handles and spaces full of papers, cluttered with objects from college life including a laptop, jar of water, basket of oranges, books and a bouquet of red and yellow roses. above the desk is a calendar with art by Gustav Klimt, and a bulletin board with postcards from friends.


I spent this past summer gradually collecting pieces of furniture for my first apartment in Philadelphia. After living in a dorm for a year, I was eager to move into a space that was uniquely my own. (It's a rite of passage for people around my age) Part of my room planning process was figuring out how to style the things I already had alongside the pieces that I picked up from thrift stores or inherited from relatives. To take part in the quarantine tradition of starting new hobbies, I decided to refinish the pieces that I found within my budget to create personalized items that I could love. Refinishing is always a great way to give new life to old things instead of creating more waste. What better place to start than the place I'd spend the most time during my college career? 

A secretary desk with orangey brown chipped finish and silver handles                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             I wanted to find a desk that would be big enough for elbow room while working on my laptop, but small and light enough to lug up the narrow stairs to my space on the third floor of the old house I'm renting. After browsing facebook marketplace for about a week, my prayers were answered by the Habitat for Humanity ReStore less than 5 minutes from my house. They posted a small secretary desk with a writing surface that pulls out to be the perfect size for tight spaces like my own. I picked it up for only 40 dollars, and found a set of handles in the hardware section that were only 50 cents each, fitting the style I was going for better than the silver ones that came attached.

vintage style pull handles in a dark gold color with black shading
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       For the redesign of the desk I knew that I wanted it to be something that felt soothing to look at to counteract the stress of working at it. I also had to consider the fact that the wood under the finish was low quality, so I wouldn't be able to stain it. I knew that I was going to have a lot of dark wood elements in my room, as well as plenty of pink, red and brass. So I decided on a nice olivey mossy color that would look nice with brass handles and the other pieces. 

a brass-gold spray paint pictured to the right, a mossy green spray paint pictured to the left
In the humid NC summer, I wanted to avoid long drying times or having to use primer. So I ended up using Krylon COLORmaxx Spray Paint and Primer in Satin Italian Olive for the wood, and Rust-Oleum Universal Metallic Spray Paint and Primer in Gilded Brass for the handles. It's definitely not ideal to use spray paint on large pieces, or on metal pieces for that matter. But for my budget and time constraints, this was the best choice. Also note-- the outdoor pictures really don't do the color justice, it's a beautiful soft deep warm green in real life like the swatch below.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    I started by removing the desk's handles, patching the holes where they were screwed in with wood filler, and wiping down the whole surface to remove any dust or dirt. Then I brought it outside and used an orbital sander to remove the first layer of finish. I started with a coarse grain and moved down to a finer one to smooth everything over. After that, I wiped it down again to get rid of the dust.

a comparison image of the handles before and after being spray painted with the brass color
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            At this point, I went ahead and spray painted the handles from the aged gold color to a brighter brass, which I think made a big difference in the final look. 

The secretary desk painted with the green color, brass painted handles attached
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Then, I began spray painting the wood, I believe I used around 4 cans of spray paint to get a nice even solid color and a more durable finish. I painted it with the writing surface out and let it dry that way, but I didn't bother painting the inside of the drawers fully or the inside of the storage spaces, because I planned to line them before using it. Finally, I put a clear coat over everything and let it dry fully. After drying, I redrilled the holes in the correct spacing for the new handles, and attached them using the old handle's screws. 

Another reason that I picked the specific green color was that it reminded me of landscapes from one of my favorite artists, Gustav Klimt. Every year, I get a Klimt calendar to hang in my room as functional room decor, and I'm always sad to take it down and waste the nice prints. I had the idea while painting that a great way to repurpose the pages would be to use them to line the spaces and drawers on my desk. Not only would they match the color perfectly and compliment the soothing appearance of the piece, they would also match this years' Klimt calendar that I planned to hang above it. 

The painted desk with new handles, with the spaces for papers being lined with pages from a Gustav Klimt art calendar
                                                                                                                                                                                                                           I measured the bottom of the drawers and the bottom of each open space to make sure that my dimensions would work for the pages, and then drew and cut out pieces from the calendars to fit into each section. I played around with the placement a little bit to figure out which colors looked best together, and then just used mod podge to glue them onto the painted wood. I did a layer underneath, and then a nice thick layer overtop to finish everything out. 

And that's really it! When I got to school I styled it with my books, out-the-door essentials and some festive halloween items, and I've been using it ever since. I really love the way that it turned out, it feels so uniquely me and is super functional for the size and layout of my space. I really think that its size and design helps me feel less stressed when working, and it fits right in with the rest of my decor. I hope that it gives you some inspiration to create the furniture of your dreams. If I can do it this lazily, you can too.

before and after images of the desk, the same images pictured above next to each other. text in green and orange states "before and after"

Thanks for reading!

-Celina Carra

an image of the top half of the desk with decorations for halloween including a beistle paper stand up haunted house centerpiece, a pipe cleaner pumpkin and bat clips on the bulletin board above

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