Since Veranda magazine was kind enough to include me in its article about vintage items, I thought I’d expand upon that subject for you, Gentle Readers. There’s so much to say.
First, terminology. The word “antique” is applied to furniture that is 100 years old or older. “Vintage” is less well defined.
Some people say “vintage” describes items older than 25 years, others say 50 years. I was in a consignment shop not too long ago, and the perky young woman behind the counter exclaimed proudly, “These earrings are vintage! They’re from the ‘80s!” As a person who had owned the same earrings as a teenager, I did not appreciate the sales pitch, technically accurate though it may have been.
Designing with vintage items has many benefits. First, you’re repurposing items that might otherwise end up in a landfill. A win for the earth!
Second, while not every vintage item is one-of-a-kind, mixing vintage with newly purchased objects makes a room special. It’s more creative to integrate vintage into a modern scheme than to buy everything new.
The items in this post are from Chairish, but it is my sincere hope that you will poke around the vintage stores and “opp shops” in your area first. If that kind of free time eludes you, then Chairish, Etsy, Ebay, and Replacements Unlimited are great resources for vintage items.
Look for…vintage accessories
Why do I hate this word so much? Let’s say “decorative objects” instead. Bowls, trays, vases…anything that could add interest to a shelf or table. Strange tip: the larger the object, the more current it will feel and the better it will mix with the things you own. I don’t know why that is; it just is.
Because who besides you should decide what to hang on your walls?! If you like prints, maps, watercolors, or other works on paper, look for water damage, excessive foxing (little brown spots — indicators of deterioration, not mildew), and significant fading. But just note these deficiencies. You’re buying for pleasure, not for resale, so as long as something looks acceptable to you and is priced right, go for it.
Oil paintings generally hold up better than works on paper. Just make sure there isn’t so much cracking and flaking that you won’t get a few years out of the piece.
Look for…furniture whose FRAME is the main attraction
It’s so difficult to assess the state of an upholstered piece without seeing it in person. If you see a piece that has an interesting wooden frame, it’s worth considering. If you fall in love with the upholstery only, you must ask yourself: if I had to replace this fabric tomorrow, would I still love the piece?
If you ARE looking for upholstered furniture, just ditch the “vintage” label and look for “pre-owned,” “secondhand” or the oft-looked-down-upon “used.” You can find great stuff through Craig’s List and similar. The more recent the piece, the better the chances of it not being stained, smelly, or worn out.
Look for…case goods
Etagères, coffee tables, small side tables, and buffets.
Wiggle the piece around. Is it rickety? Examine the surface. Can you live with the gouges and scrapes on a wooden surface? If not, are you willing to refinish or pay someone else to refinish the piece for you? Open the doors and drawers. Do they stick or refuse to open? Does the inside of the drawers smell funny?
Sometimes all that’s needed is a candle along the bottom of a drawer or a drop of WD-40 on a hinge to make a piece work beautifully. But not always.
I know, I know: I just advised you to LOOK for vintage case goods! Maybe I should say instead, “BE DISCERNING when it comes to vintage dressers.” If you buy a dresser, vintage or new, chances are you actually want to use it. So please make sure the drawers will not imbue your napkins or t-shirts with a distinctive, musty, not-so-fresh scent. If your grandmother is giving you a dresser, it’s probably fine. If you’re buying one that’s been stored inside (in a building other than a barn), you may be ok. If you see the dresser on the side of the road, be brutal in your assessment.
Avoid…fully upholstered furniture
Unless you love the frame, as mentioned above. OR unless the fabric seems to be in excellent condition, which is best assessed in person. OR unless the piece is an absolute steal. OR unless you plan to use it in your 12-month rental and then leave it for the next occupant.
Listen. No one understands better than I do that fabulous upholstery is hard to resist. But you shouldn’t buy a vintage piece for that alone.
Especially torchieres, which I hate with all my heart. They cast light upwards, which is most unflattering, and they’re just clunky. If you have one and you love it, fantastic; I don’t mean to offend you. But I will never recommend that you seek one out.
Decorating with antique-y lamps like this:
is incredibly difficult when you’re trying to mix modern and classic. There is no context in which antique lamps gain new, interesting life. They’re just too fussy.
Now, this isn’t to say that I don’t like cloisonné and some other antique lamps. Some are actually quite sweet. So where CAN you use these lamps if you already have them? Bedrooms. They can be the tail that wags the dog in a guest bedroom, decorating-wise. But in living, dining, or family rooms, I do not recommend fussy vintage lamps unless you’re going for a full-on time capsule effect.
I hope these tips are helpful, Gentle Readers. I didn’t even talk about how fun vintage shopping can be, whether or not you come home with something. I just like looking at things and imagining who may have loved them in the past.
Annie Elliott Design is based in Washington, DC with offices in St. Michaels, Maryland, and Middlebury, Vermont.