It took just one gray-green-painted bench to inspire Emme By Design

Marlena Engstrom had almost never held a paintbrush.

Then at a crossroads in her life, she bought a wooden bench off WestKnoxTrading on Facebook and painted it a gray-green. That started everything. Now she’s the owner of Emme By Design [taken from her initials], her online furniture business.

“It started three summers ago,” she said. “I had never been into decorating and crafty stuff. I had worked at Faith Lutheran [Church] preschool since my son was in the first grade. They closed and I needed to figure out what I wanted to do. I bought a bench on a trading site and figured I’d redo it just to see if I could. I’d never done it before. I painted it green and bought cushions and it’s still on my front porch.

“I bought some furniture and listed it for sale and then people started contacting me and asking me to paint their furniture,” Engstrom added. “For the first few months it was primarily me buying furniture and filling the garage up and offering it for sale. Then it pretty quickly switched to customer-owned furniture.

“After Faith Lutheran closed, I went to work for Cokesbury’s [United Methodist Church] preschool part-time. I only did that for a year. I couldn’t work at the preschool anymore because I was so busy with furniture.”

Engstrom's son has graduated from high school and she has had a graduation of her own — from working for someone to running her own business. Instead of being surrounded by colorful plastic toys, she’s surrounded in her garage with cans of paint.

She has a couple of tricks of the trade that Engstrom is willing to share.

“I use General Finishes paint,” she said. “It’s durable, but I still put a top coat on it. When I’m doing a custom match for a client I use Sherwin Williams paint, but I add my own ingredients to make it more durable.”

Nowadays she does a lot of commissioned work, for instance giving dining tables and chairs a breath of new life with stain and paint.

“I think my first commissioned piece was for my friend, Michaela. It was a dresser for her guest room. I painted it light purple to match the bedding. She went on to buy other pieces from me then."

Engstrom said dining sets are her most requested project.

“People get tired of their kitchen table and chairs, but they’re sturdy and they want to keep them,” she said. “Lately people like a combination [of colors]. Grays are a popular paint color. Darker stains had been very popular, but now people are looking to lighter stain colors like lighter browns and even the gray family."

In late June she was trying to find the perfect shade for a client who wanted some furniture painted light aqua.

She’s also painting a bookshelf golden yellow and a daybed for a little boy’s room navy blue.

“As soon as I get that done, I’m getting ready to do a pub table and chairs for the neighbor across the street,” she said. "I try to give myself a little breathing room between projects."

She still buys pieces from time to time, usually on Facebook sites such as Knox Home Goods, West Knox Trading, Farragut Fine Furniture or in thrift stores.

“I’ve tried to stop working on weekends if my husband is home,” Engstrom said. “I don’t have time to go to garage sales. I’m a terrible negotiator."

Engstrom said she has a basic fee schedule for end tables, dining tables, etc., but the price varies depending on the project and the condition of the piece. She receives pictures over her Facebook business page, emmebydesign, or by e-mail at or by text at 865-789-5421.