Having grown up in a house where every room was illuminated by a single naked bulb with a string to turn it on and off, a big old chandelier has always seemed to me the grandest of status symbols.
For that reason, high ceilings were at the top of my list of desirable features when buying a house. Just as Scarlett O’Hara swore that she would never eat dirt again, I knew I would never buy a house that could not accommodate grand chandeliers in every room. And also like Ms. O’Hara, I didn’t give up until I got what I wanted. High ceilings, that is. I got those. They were contained in a ramshackle little shack but the ceilings are almost 10 feet high. The chandelier itself has presented more of an challenge.
In the classic dilemma of the pretentious individual, I couldn’t afford anything I liked and didn’t like anything I could afford. So after almost a decade, I gave up on my dream of flickering crystals and bought a brass chandelier in a junk store. I figured I’d gussy it up with some Mardi Gras beads or something.
A few of my friends who are more burdened by good taste than I am suggested a chandelier in the living room was a bit gauche and the dining room would be a better home for it. I have two words for these tasteful folks and their well-meaning advice. “Buckingham Palace.”
Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms and from what I can tell, each and every one has at least one chandelier. Tasteful Friend replied as gently as possible that my little hovel was not a palace and it would be tacky to ignore that fact. And pretentious. I didn’t understand why she said that like it was a bad thing.
So I bought and painted a ginormous faux-plaster medallion for the installation and waited for my electrician to get out of prison. As his release date neared, it was not the best time for a friend with a new house to show me some pictures of the brass doorknobs in her new home and the patina she had given them. They were quite beautiful. A member of the Good Taste Squad who makes a living knowing these things confirmed that she prefers a dark patina. Here was my chance to show a little good taste. Charlie the Tuna couldn’t have made a bigger hash of it.
Working on the theory that anybody can do anything with the aid of a few YouTube videos, I learned that the first step to applying a patina is to clean the piece so I gave the chandelier a nice sponge bath with dish detergent. It got even shinier.
Since the chandelier had been totally neglected for years and still didn’t have a speck of rust on it, there had to be some kind of lacquer or varnish protecting it. So I swabbed it down with nail polish remover to remove the coating, just as the interweb suggested.
It got so shiny it glowed in the dark. At that point I was so blinded by the metallic sheen, I wavered in my resolve to let good taste triumph.
But only for a minute. A mixture of dark vinegar and salt was selected as the least toxic brew from the ones suggested by Google. I was told by one friend that my decision to use balsamic vinegar was the most pretentious part of this whole exercise in madness. In my defense, I mixed it with red wine vinegar because I was too cheap to waste too much of the good stuff. Somehow I doubt that these sorts of budgetary restrictions come into play at Buckingham Palace.
Results were almost immediate. The blinding golden glow of pristine brass was now a dull sheen. Now heat was required to facilitate and further the reaction. It took about a half hour to find a blow dryer since male pattern baldness had rendered it obsolete circa 2005. And by now the chandelier, which had been suspended by a plant hook on the front porch to cut down on collateral mess, had attracted a small swarm of hornets. Hornets apparently love salty balsamic vinegar. Who knew?
Hours of blow drying produced only more hornets and not the slightest bit of patina. It just looked good and nasty. Really nasty. Dried balsamic vinegar on brass is not a good look.
By now, I was too exasperated for environmental concerns and wrapped the whole thing up in paper towels soaked in ammonia, shoved it into the biggest lawn and leaf bag money can buy and ignored it for a week, only mildly wondering what the mail carrier thought about stepping over what appeared to be a body bag to get to my mailbox. Two industrial size bottles of nail polish remover and a half-empty bottle of ammonia no doubt added to the illusion of mayhem.
I doubt she peaked in the bag because the one time I tried it, the fumes rushing out cost me way more brain cells than I am prepared to lose. And I was holding my breath. Not realizing the need to hold her breath, she would surely have collapsed on the spot should curiosity have gotten the best of her.
The protective coat that the nail polish remover hadn’t touched was laid low by a week of ammonia fumes. Flakes of clear dried lacquer were peeling from every surface as the chandelier emerged from its black plastic cocoon. It looked like a big metal snake shedding its skin as the gentle breeze blew flakes of toxic lacquer across the yard and down the street.
As nail polish remover had proven completely useless and I had long since parted ways with environmental correctness, I shamelessly swabbed that bad boy down with lacquer thinner to get the last of the residue off. It was so strong it completely ate two foam brushes by the time I was done. The floating debris of melted lacquer flakes was finally vanquished and so was the golden brass color. The whole chandelier is now a brilliant silvery platinum. And just as shiny as ever. Perhaps more so.
Good taste, as always, remains elusive. I should have known that even the shabby variety of chic is harder than it looks.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.