In her compact house near New York City, Perla Liriano dreamed of having a rolltop desk. But it wasn’t until she moved to more spacious digs in North Carolina that she could make that dream come true — and another one besides.
She found a desk, painted it in her Raleigh townhouse’s one-car garage, “and it came out really nice,” Liriano said. “And that’s how everything started.”
“Everything” is Pretty by Perla, the name under which Liriano, 37, restores furniture and offers “organization with style” to clients, most of whom find her on Instagram. There, followers can see Liriano’s latest flea market finds and the transformations they undergo. A dark, dated dresser becomes bright and chic with a two-toned paint job. A nicked-up accent table finds a place in a modern home with robin’s-egg blue paint and some distressing, with a mirror to match.
“I always liked pretty things,” said Liriano. “My mom and my aunt have a really good eye for interior décor and can make anything look nice. So I grew up seeing them making pretty things. I like old stuff, vintage, but in New York I didn’t have much space to transform anything.”
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After a move to Raleigh, she had room to store a few items at a time as she worked on them. When her father died last year, she threw herself into her work, which she considers “time for me” amid a busy family and work life. She taught herself how to paint, distress and restore furniture from watching YouTube videos, reading books and looking at the products on the market.
“I just learned little by little,” she said. “With each piece you get a little better, as with anything in life.”
She finds most of her pieces at garage sales, flea markets and estate sales, and the hunt comes naturally, she said.
“It just happens like this,” she said, snapping her fingers, to describe how she finds a piece she knows she can work with. “In two seconds, I can totally visualize in my mind what I want to do with it, and where it might work, what space in the house.”
Finding a gem among the garbage is her specialty, and the bigger the challenge, the better.
“When I go to yard sales, I like the messy ones, the ones with old stuff,” Liriano said. “If I see a moving sale online and all the furniture is new and organized, I don’t even go there. To me it’s like going hunting for a treasure.”
Sometimes, though, the treasures come to her.
Jenn Van Meter of Morrisville found the Pretty by Perla Instagram account and enjoyed browsing through the pieces Liriano posted. She started wondering if Liriano might be able to work some magic on a dark wooden chest Van Meter had.
Van Meter inquired with Liriano, and soon they were exchanging photos and texts about next steps. Before long, Liriano had used gray chalk paint, some light distressing techniques and new fabric to transform “this really dark wood, solid piece” that Van Meter’s mother had received as a graduation present into an up-to-date heirloom that Van Meter is proud to have as a centerpiece in her bedroom.
That kind of update is what first drew Van Meter to Pretty by Perla’s style: “It’s not overly rustic, but it’s bright and it’s cheery and it’s fresh and it’s kind of contemporary,” Van Meter said. “Even though the structure of the piece is vintage or older, she stills seems to put this contemporary, fresh look on it.”
Now she’s on the lookout for a nightstand she can hand off to Liriano. Like Van Meter, Liriano believes that it’s hard to beat old furniture for sturdiness and long-lasting value. But you do have to be careful what you choose.
One mistake Liriano made along the way, she said, was going by looks alone. Only after she worked with a pair of tables that, as she found when she got them home, reeked of cigarette smoke, did she learn that some things are beyond repair (and that paint won’t stick to wood infused with smoke).
“From now on, besides everything else, I need to smell the pieces,” she said with a laugh.
Pretty by Perla is only online. Besides Instagram, she posts on Facebook and Craigslist, and on localized sale apps such as OfferUp, letgo and Close5. But she dreams of one day opening a store, a place where she can sell furniture, offer clients “a little bit of tea or wine, something to make it a fun experience,” and offer consultations about design and organization.
For now, though, Liriano fits in Pretty by Perla as much as she can between a full-time marketing job and, with her husband, raising two busy kids, ages 7 and 11. She’s confident that one day all the pieces will fit together the way she wants them to, the way that rolltop desk fit in her Raleigh entryway — at least for a little while.
After a year, she sold the desk to a client, deciding that she wanted to use that space for a piece her family could sit on to put on their shoes instead. “I thought about it for a couple months,” she said, and concluded, “You know what? I’m done. I enjoyed it for one year, now time to move on.”
Reach Chandler at firstname.lastname@example.org.