The mirrors in Mary Jane Gallagher’s garage crossed an ocean before winding up in her McLean home.
Fitted in wooden frames carved with leaves and flowers, the mirrors originated in Ireland in the early 1900s and passed down through the same family for generations until one woman, Gallagher’s client, decided that some touch-ups were needed.
Since their silver is starting to wear down, the actual mirrors will be replaced with new ones, but Gallagher’s main concern when she stepped into her garage on a temperate June Friday morning was the frames.
The wood has begun to separate between the decorated molding and the rest of the frame, so as her pet golden retriever looks on from a distance, Gallagher takes a brush to apply a new coat of white paint onto one of the frames with the goal of filling in emerging cracks while also making the paint look uniform and pretty.
“When I think back, my journalism degree was probably ill-fated,” Gallagher joked earlier during an interview at her kitchen table. “I probably should’ve done interior design, but I just love sparking up a house.”
Gallagher discovered a love of interior decorating seven years ago when she and a friend launched Elegant and Refined, a small, local furniture painting business that specializes in custom, hand-painted wood furnishings.
After building a career in journalism and public relations that included running her own PR firm and serving as CEO of a nonprofit, Gallagher decided she was ready to retire, but especially with her children out of the house, she still wanted an activity to keep her hands and mind active.
Gallagher’s friend, Falls Church resident Laura Kaiser, faced a similar situation at the time and suggested that they undertake a project together.
When they first established Elegant and Refined in 2012, Gallagher and Kaiser, who has an artistic background, started visiting yard sales and auctions to buy wooden furniture that they would then paint and sell.
It was only after friends recommended that they choose colors and designs according to specific customers’ preferences about a year into the venture that the business genuinely found its footing.
The first custom work that Gallagher and Kaiser did was for a neighbor whose Crate and Barrel coffee table had gotten scratched up by her pet dog. The neighbor also wanted to add some color to what was an all-gray sitting room.
After helping restore the table, Gallagher and Kaiser painted it chili-pepper red and outfitted it with new handles to complement the new color, and when they checked in on the same client about three months ago, the neighbor told them that the table still looked like new, according to Gallagher.
“For us, that was really rewarding,” Gallagher said.
Now, Gallagher and Kaiser have a color deck and sample moldings that Elegant and Refined clients can reference when deciding what color they would like.
Typically, they visit the client’s house so they can get a sense of the room that a particular piece will occupy. They then transport the furniture to their workshop, which was initially in Kaiser’s basement before briefly relocating to a workhouse in Dulles owned by the husband of a friend.
Gallagher says the Dulles workhouse offered plenty of space, and there were often other people around willing to help them move furniture, but the distance from both her and Kaiser’s house meant a long commute for them and higher delivery costs for their clients.
Though they searched elsewhere in the area for a permanent location, the two business partners ultimately settled in Gallagher’s garage on June 4. After she and her husband cleared out the space, the garage can now accommodate up to five projects at one time.
When it comes to the actual painting, Elegant and Refined opts for a methodical approach.
After sanding down any bumps or other imperfections, Kaiser and Gallagher wash the furniture with trisodium phosphate, a powder that helps paint stick to wood, and they apply a primer or undercoat before putting on the paint.
The process generally takes about two weeks to complete, primarily due to the amount of time needed for a coat of paint to dry, but Gallagher believes the wait is worthwhile for clients.
“We made a couple of value-based decisions, one of which was we're going to do it as perfect as we can, because we want to give people quality,” Gallagher said. “The second value was we wanted to give them an opportunity to use it for another lifetime.”
Clients mostly find Elegant and Refined through word-of-mouth or referrals. For instance, an upholstery business recently recommended Gallagher and Kaiser to a customer looking to put new fabric on a chair.
Despite her public relations background, Gallagher tends to be hesitant about promoting her own business.
While she is not opposed to growing, Gallagher says she wants to keep Elegant and Refined relatively small so she and Kaiser can maintain the personalized customer service and attention to detail that distinguishes them from other furniture improvement businesses.
“What we do is so hand-oriented, you know?” Gallagher said. “…We’re not going to get rich, but we’re fulfilled, and we know that we’re providing a need, because we’re busy all the time, and we’ve never done any advertising.”