Old furniture shines in DIY art workshops

DIY artist Bernadette Kemper gives old furniture makeovers through colorful painting finishes and offers DIY art workshops throughout the Chicagoland. 


For some people, a battered wooden dresser in an alley is rubbish waiting to be collected. But for a growing number of DIY enthusiasts, these castoffs are blank canvases waiting to be transformed into functional art through the patient application of a little paint and elbow grease.

How-to information on turning trash into treasure abounds online with the help of social media and local sites like Verlocal and Dabble. But DIY workshops are also popular, such as those offered by Bernadette Kemper in her hometown of Geneva, Illinois, a West Chicago suburb that boasts a bevy of antique stores and boutiques.

Kemper—a DIY artist whose choice of media includes sewing, knitting and painting—recycles antique furniture into one-of-a kind pieces she resells at her consignment site, Avenue 122. Located within What’s Your Consignment, 12 E. State St. in Geneva, her shop has become a DIY haven for aficionados of painted furniture who enliven traditional pieces by painting them in colors and patterns.

Kemper started “upcycling” four years ago and wanted to share her painting craft through classes because she loved creating something personal out of cheap, used furniture, she said. 

“I started doing it a lot, finding that I could make it faster than I could sell it,” Kemper said. 

Kemper uses van Gogh Fossil Paints, a professional furniture paint collection created by Kathy van Gogh—a descendant of world-famous 19th century painter Vincent van Gogh. Kemper said she was trained by Kathy van Gogh on how to professionally use the water-soluble paints.

“People want to be shown something permanent,” Kemper said. “They are not just going to be slapping any kind of paint on. They want to be proud of their work.”

She said her workshops attract all kinds of people—from college students to lawyers—who want to express themselves through a piece of furniture that speaks to their personality.

“It is a community effort but also a personal thing,” Kemper said about the class environment. “There are ample ways to put your stamp on your home.”

Upcycling furniture is especially attractive to college students seeking a creative outlet on limited funds at a time when “you are starting out on your own,” she said.

Ryan McEvoy, owner of What’s Your Consignment, said the partnership with Kemper has been mutually beneficial.

McEvoy said upcycled vintage pieces have become more popular than antiques because they offer greater creative license than a pricey antique that needs considerable refurbishing and restoration to its original state.

He said her approachable teaching methods draw students in.

“She has a way of breaking things down in a simple manner that everybody can understand,” McEvoy said.

Over the years, Kemper has created a fan base who keep returning to her classes. Kemper’s daughter, Caitlyn Wacker, who has watched the upcycling business blossom and has attended her mother’s workshops, said the DIY culture has a strong presence in downtown Chicago, but it is still in its infancy in neighboring towns like Geneva and other suburbs.

“[She] is able to take some of that culture and bring it home locally, where people have more access to it,” Wacker said of her mother.

Kemper said she has begun offering specific painting classes based on demand, and her next class is scheduled for April 16, but she may add earlier dates on request. In addition to teaching classes, she also takes painting requests and sells her decorated pieces at four consignment stores in the Chicagoland area, including Threads Etc. Resale at 2327 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park.

“[She] is a tremendous benefit to us,” McEvoy said. “She is just scratching the surface of what she can do.”

For an updated list of workshops, visit avenue122.com.