Gathering Hope

from Creative Home
Add a hope chest to your home décor and personalize it with decorative painting.

Hope chests, once used by young women to store items representing their hopes for a future marriage and new life, date from the beginnings of human relationships. Even in tribal days, families and friends offered bridal gifts and carried them in baskets to a couple’s new home.

Many cultures have embraced the tradition of the hope chest, also called a bridal or dower chest, throughout history. For example, in Italy, the chests, called cassones, were usually elaborately carved and embellished with mythological or historical episodes. Similar chests in Java were called jodangs; these were carved from teak, and the tops often were decorated with a pair of lucky Indonesian dragons or roosters.

Hope chests were crafted with the products available in the locale at the time they were made, such as pine, oak, camphor, and teak, In the 18th century, European furniture makers began using American aromatic cedar to protect keepsakes and woolens. Some chests were plain, simply rough-hewn wooden boxes, while others were heavily decorated. Embellishments included paintings; brass or other metal ornamentation; leather fittings from deer, horses, or cows; and elaborate carvings.

A traditional hope chest was lovingly filled with items a young woman needed when she married. With assistance from her mother, sisters, and aunts, she would spend long hours embroidering pillow cases and tea towels, fashioning lace, and making quilts to safely store in the chest.

Hope chests can play an equally important role in the modern homes whether you’re single, planning to be married, or already wed.

Today’s chests provide great storage as their predecessors did, but the best news is that an unfinished version, such as the three-panel model featured here, can be custom-painted to showcase your individual taste and coordinate with your décor.

The opportunities for personalization are limitless. Begin by deciding where you might use your chest — then start brainstorming. Think about your favorite colors and things that express who you are. Do you like sports, nature, art? Your chest should tell a little about you and what is important in your life.

For example, a nature lover may paint a cardinal in the center panel of her chest. She could keep the chest close to her back door to hold her gardening gear and bird watching paraphernalia. An elegant monogrammed chest, featuring a soon-to-be bride’s future moniker would be the perfect place for storing bridal shower gifts. Later she could use it as a blanket chest in her new home. A playful folk art chest, filled with toys and games, is perfect for someone who loves colorful quilts as well as children’s and primitive art.

Many hope chests start in the same manner. They often come in kits, which are first assembled. Then rough spots are sanded smooth with fine-grit sandpaper. Next, a coat of sealer or primer is applied and allowed to dry. Once the blank canvas has been prepared, the real fun begins.

Traditional Chest
To give this nature-lover’s chest a soft aged finish, paints are blended with water and worked into the wood. Using many shades of the same color adds subtle variations and depth to the finished piece. As you paint, treat the chest as one big painting, moving back and forth and adding color as desired; if an area doesn’t blend or match you expectations, simply paint over it with additional coats of glaze.

Monogrammed Chest (above)
The secret to creating a sleek and minimalist chest is in the painting technique: Using a sprayer to apply several coats of paint eliminates brush marks and gives a smooth, hard finish to the chest. Choose neutral colors in several related hues to bring quiet order to the design. The monogramming is easy; simply print the letters from a computer, and enlarge them to fit the front panel. Transfer the letter with tracing paper, or cut them out and trace around the patterns. The letters are painted in a single color then shadowed in a darker hue. To finish the piece, paint decorative wood squares and glue them to the front of the chest.

Folk Art Chest
Bright hues and coloring book-style graphics help this chest fit joyfully into a family space. Create it using many layers of glaze (thinned coats of paint) and painting “wet into wet” (paint in one spot, then move a few inches and work back to the first spot before paint completely dries). For this technique to work well, keep the paint thin so it spreads and blends easily, and hold the brush toward the end and paint quickly. It’s all right for brushstrokes to show; the strokes add interest and texture. Avoid blending too much; the more thin layers that show, the more charming the completed chest will be. Pictures and lettering can be drawn freehand or traced from noncopywrited materials. Keep the designs simple for folk art appeal.

Bring a Hope Chest into Your Home

Though you might not have to pack all your belongings in a hope chest and journey halfway around the world to a new home, a special chest can still be a cherished and functional piece of furniture. Whether you own a vintage chest passed down through your family, purchased a prefinished chest, or buy an unfinished piece and decorate it to suit your taste, here are some ideas for incorporating the chest into your home.

  • Use it as a “life chest” to contain special mementos you are too sentimental to toss, such as keepsakes from your wedding, children’s artwork, or letters from faraway friends. If you are storing photos or papers, be sure the interior of the chest is acid-free and safe for long-term storage of these items.
  • For practical function, store blankets and linens in a chest at the foot of your bed or in a guest room so that you can graciously offer your visitors extra blankets, towels, and pillows. The chest can double as a luggage stand; it’s just the right size and height to hold an open suitcase.
  • In a living room, employ a chest to serve double duty as a coffee table and storage unit. Contain clutter such as coasters or magazines by stashing them out of sight in the trunk.
  • Add a cushion on top, and let the chest function as extra seating in a living or family room.
  • Install dividers, and use the chest in your home office to store supplies or files.
  • Hide stackable items such as videotapes or games in a chest in a family room or recreation room.
  • Stash out-of-season clothing, especially woolens, in a scented cedar chest.
If you want to make a chest and send it with your son or daughter, start a hope chest for your son’s, daughter’s, or grandchild’s future. Pack away treasures for a college dorm room or first apartment or carefully preserve family heirlooms they will appreciate when they are grown. Consider sharing your love and handiwork by teaching that special young man or woman to embroider, quilt, or craft other special pieces you can make together to put into the hope chest.

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