Elderly wooden furniture with peeling paintwork, old tins and glass bottles, mismatched crockery, salvaged print fabrics and linens, ancient garden chairs, any old cast iron - in the hands of a cunning decorator, all these can enjoy a new lease of life. "Shabby chic" or "junk style", with its pleasing mix of textures and patinas, softly weathered colours and welcoming air of well-worn comfort, can look wonderfully appealing.
It may seem crazy even to consider forking out good money for things that have been bashed up by years of use, but for those who can't afford Sheraton or Hepplewhite, junk pieces are the "new" antiques. British people have always liked old things, according to Susy Smith, editor of Country Living magazine, which identifies a new surge of interest in junk style this month. "'Real' antiques are harder to come by," she says. "So things you wouldn't even have given house room to four or five years ago are acquiring a new shine."
Particularly popular at the moment, she says, are relics of the Forties and Fifties. "Post-war utilitarian things have never been fashionable up to now. People are clearing out sheds and garages and rediscovering things they would have thrown out a few years ago." Anything goes, she adds. "People are taking things destined for one use and using them for another - like old cast iron railing finials, which can end up on mantelpieces or cupboard tops." Stylist Ben Kendrick recommends taking this to extremes. "Old gates or ladders can be used as shelves," he suggests.
Although shabby chic is a hand-hewn, hand-crafted kind of look, it can work well in some surprising spaces. As well as the obvious cottage and country homes, it would fit well in a loft space or in a Georgian property. "It crosses barriers," says Susy Smith. "Ironically, one of the most difficult places to make it work would be in a straight suburban semi built in the era this stuff came from." However, it does take a certain amount of taste to pull off a shabby-chic home successfully: at its worst it could simply mean making your house look like a junk shop.
"The hunting and gathering process is very appealing, but it's not the easiest look to achieve. You can't buy it off the peg - you've got to take a while to assemble it," says Ben Kendrick.
With time, care and effort this can be done on the cheap - but trying to achieve an instant transformation by going out to buy other people's junk can cost as much as buying new. Chairs and tables whose main selling point is that someone else has been kicking them around for 50 years or accessories that have been gathering dust at the back of a cowshed do not come cheap. At a chi-chi city emporium, says stylist Ben Kendrick, a Thirties vase that might turn up at a country sale for pounds 7.50 could cost as much as pounds 90.
And not everyone is enamoured of the lived-in look. Some dealers will go so far as to say it is a rip-off. "People are being conned into paying money for old rope," says one antiques dealer. "Just because something can't be bought at a department store doesn't mean it has any particular merit, whether aesthetic or practical. It would make me laugh if it weren't so ridiculous when I see people paying hundreds of pounds for worm-eaten, rough and ready old kitchen chairs that are worth a fiver each, if that." It is, she says, perfectly possible to find genuine Victoriana, properly restored, for the prices some dealers are selling what she disdainfully refers to as "not chic junk, just plain junk".
"Old stuff that isn't what I would call antique can look good and if you're trying to create a certain Forties or Fifties look then fine, but don't spend pounds 600 on something that's worth pounds 40. Try to haggle: but if there's someone behind you who'll pay the asking price don't count on getting a discount." And don't rely on investment value, she warns. "There is little resale on this kind of thing. It's not like buying a genuine old piece."
Philip Bartlam, editor of Collectors' Guide, says that shabby chic has been building up in popularity over the past five years. "It's mostly among people under 40 rather than older collectors," he says. He says that to be sure of getting value for money, buyers should concentrate on quality. "Just as Victorian furniture ranges from very poor commercial quality to exhibition standard, so does the Forties and Fifties stuff. Good makers like Heal's are well made, and so is Mouseman furniture. Handle as many pieces as possible. Always get a detailed receipt from dealers and make sure they will take it back if it isn't satisfactory." He advises caution when buying at auction, because what you see is what you get.
In the end, though, if you want to pay pounds 45 for a cushion made out of old animal feed sacks or pounds 50 for a retired chimney pot to grow petunias in or even pounds 800 for half a dozen decrepit garden chairs, it's up to you. "There are always people with money but no time, or who think they aren't creative enough, and it does push the prices up," says Country Living's Susy Smith. "But if you see the perfect thing, I would view a lot of these in the same way I would view pieces of art. You might pay pounds 800 for a painting which gives you pleasure, or the same for a lovely piece of furniture. As long as it gives you pleasure, why not?"
HOW TO GET THE DISTRESSED LOOK
Car boot sales. According to Country Living's Susy Smith, these tend to be haunted by dealers who nab the good stuff early on and dash off to resell it (sometimes at the other end of the same sale). Because of this, turn up extremely early for genuine bargains at sensible prices. Best for accessories rather than large pieces of furniture.
Salvage centres. For details of centres, call Salvo on 01890 820333. These are good for larger pieces such as bathrooms and garden benches, says stylist Ben Kendrick. He suggests trying Baileys Home & Garden, The Engine Shed, Station Approach, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire HR9 7BW (tel 01989 563015).
Country shops and antique fairs. For better prices, leave the city. Ben Kendrick recommends Ann Lingard Antiques, 18-20 Rope Walk, Rye, East Sussex TN31 7NA (tel 01797 223486). Partly housed in a converted chapel, it is great for vintage pieces. Look out for old garden chairs, ceramics and glass.
Fake finishes. Putting one lot of paint on top of another and giving the top layer a scraping so the colour underneath shows through helps to suggest that it has been in your family for years.
Dents and bashes. Susy Smith suggests: "Get a big bunch of keys on the end of a piece of string and batter the hell out of it. I heartily recommend this as therapy." Then calm yourself sufficiently to sand down the corners.