It can be easy to drive past something rickety and old without a second thought, whether it’s an old chest of drawers along the side of the road or an old home in need of repair. But for Kristen Litka of Shackteau Interiors, there’s always the possibility of a new life for these old things. All it takes is a little time and a perspective that extends beyond what initially meets the eye.
“A lot of people don’t have foresight,” she says. “You know, when we bought [our] house it was like, the people were gonna tear it down. You know, it was for sale for a while, and a lot of people were just like, ‘No way, ‘I can’t see it.’ You know?”
But that was seven years ago, and now the four story Victorian Manchester-by-the-Sea house she and her family live in and continue to renovate is a sight to behold as it’s restored to its former glory.
“I think it’s the same with furniture,” she explains. “People come in and they’re like, ‘Oh my God! This looks awesome! I just threw out a piece like this!’ I hear that all the time. ‘I just put it on the curb! If I had known it could look like this, I would’ve kept it!’”
Kristen’s ability to take a shabby old piece of furniture and make it into a more whimsical, and ultimately modern and fitting piece in a 21st century home is the foundation of her entire business. The first room of her studio showcases her ability to take an antique or vintage piece of furniture, be it a bureau, a desk, or a side table, and transform it into a piece that would stand out in any room as a unique and charming addition to any collection.
It’s something she’s come by naturally. Her husband is a contractor whose work mainly centers around renovating older homes, and she has worked alongside him for over twenty years, so in some ways, she was preparing herself for this kind of job for a while now.
“I was kind of on the job sites a lot, so I had a lot of experience using tools. And the painting I guess just came naturally. It was like, ‘Oh, um, I am kind of good at it.’” She laughs and adds, “Then I was like, ‘Oh man, I shouldn’t have let on that I was good at it,’ because then he had me painting everything.”
She also refinished and repurposed furniture for her family. “It was something I kind of always did. I would just find things on the side of the road, or, you know, do it for myself, just find things, and then paint them and put them in the living room, or a coffee table. Especially when the kids were younger, because I didn’t want to spend money on nice furniture.”
One thing led to another, and soon enough, Kristen was doing more than fix and paint furniture for her family and friends; she began selling furniture on craigslist. Now, fifteen years later, she runs her own business out of the expanded shed in her side yard with a covered storage tent behind it, stacked from top to bottom with pieces waiting to be restored.
Initially, she would store pieces in her living room and then take them out onto her front porch to paint, but she needed some separation between her family space and her business. Using leftover materials from construction jobs, her husband built her studio beside their house, which made it easy for her to showcase and sell her goods without having to rent a separate space or hold regular business hours.
While it’s been convenient to have her business only steps away from her front door, Kristen finds that the convenience comes with its own burdens, often self-imposed. “The other side is that I do tend to work all the time. You know what I mean? Like yesterday, it was Sunday morning, and the kids, they’re older now, they tend to sleep, and my husband’s up, and I just come out and I have to organize this space because it’s driving me nuts. If it’s Sunday morning, I just have to get it done. So that’s still work even though I’m just cleaning up.” She adds, “And then the same thing: I’ll come out here at nine o’clock at night, and just throw another coat of poly on top of a piece or something, so [my husband] always jokes, ‘Are you poly-ing something out there?’ Because it’s constant.”
Shackteau Interiors sells furniture, custom paint, and paintbrushes made specially for the detailed work of painting furniture. Kristen mainly uses milk paint when she refinishes a piece.
“I’ve always loved milk paint and I’ve always loved the finish that it gives,” she says, “But I had a problem: nobody really carries it around here anymore.
“It kind of has like a milky, streaky kind of thing,” she explains. “I like it because it’s like a surprise. You put it on like an old piece of furniture, and it’s either gonna do like this,” she points to one of her pieces, “Which isn’t really distressed, it’s just kind of stuck on there. You can see some of the wood grain, and it’s not flat. It’s like a real nice finish.”
Shackteau Interiors sells its own milk paint, and Kristen is currently putting together her own custom colors. “Right now I’m actually in the process of repackaging everything. It’s gonna be a little more streamlined, and I’ll have my own colors. Those are the colors that come already mixed. So now I’ll take those colors and mix my own colors.”
Another important aspect of Kristen’s business, though, is the social side, both in media and in the more traditional sense. She has an active (and very fun) Instagram account, complete with off-the-cuff, behind-the-scenes stories about her day-to-day life.
“I honestly don’t put a lot of thought into them,” she says. “On Instagram, there’s a lot of, like, everything’s perfect. It’s supposed to be the picture perfect square, everybody’s life’s perfect. That’s kind of not my thing. I try to make my pictures nice, and my pieces, but if I’m on my stories, it’s kind of like, my life. This is what I’m doing. I say dumb things, I look stupid. You know, I don’t really care at this point in my life. But people will always message me. I’ll say something and I’ll just be like, ‘You know, whatever.’ And I’ll get so many messages, like, ‘Oh my God! Like, I do the same thing!’ I never really ever get any negative messages.”
It’s also how she connects with other makers. “I get most of my support on Instagram, talking to other people who do the same thing as me,” she says. “And it’s probably more of just bitching to each other about things that happen. It’s like, ‘Oh, okay, it’s not just me.’ You know, so it’s not like I’m the only one. And my family’s always supporting what I do. But for day-to-day things I can just message, you know, someone like me who might be in Virginia, or wherever, across the world that has the same thing going on, and that’s probably the most helpful because they’re in it.”
Kristen also teaches furniture painting classes at the Manchester Community Center. She supplies tools, small pieces of furniture (students can also bring their own piece of they prefer), and paint, and spends about three or four hours with seven students, showing them how to turn their piece into something customized and fresh and new.
“It’s probably my favorite,” she says. “People get so uptight about what they’re doing, like, ‘I don’t wanna make a mistake, I don’t wanna do it wrong!’ and I’m like, ‘Well, you know, my whole business is built on mistakes! How do you think we learn?’ Like, everything’s trial and error, you know? So I say to them, ‘Just paint, and if you make a mistake, we’ll fix it.’ So most people are really uptight kind of when they come in, and then they get into it, and they enjoy it. And then plus, like, they can bring wine and food, so it’s fun.”
Location Photography by: Rusty Kinnunen, and Instagram photos from: @shackteau_interiors