There has always been a fondness for antique furniture. A common taste these days.
Antiques are in high demand due in part to delays in the supply chain and higher prices for many custom or mass market pieces. Add to this the public’s shift towards sustainability: eco-conscious shoppers are rejecting throwaway furniture and looking to reuse and recycle.
And as always, pop culture plays a role. Era-specific shows like Bridgerton, Downton Abbey, and Outlander have brought a romantic glow to the styles of bygone eras. Mad Men fueled a hip market for mid-century modern furniture. And designers are also pointing to a renewed interest in ’70s and ’80s furnishings.
All of this has led to crowds of designers and ordinary people at auctions, antique shops and estate sales. Online platforms like vintage furniture retailer Chairish and collectors site 1stDibs also say sales are up.
The good news from a design perspective is that it’s easy and trendy to incorporate antiques into any space and mix them up with pieces from any era, designers say.
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A classic 18th-century cherry dresser could be given glamorous contemporary brushed copper handles. A curvy floor lamp from the ’60s could illuminate a room swathed in primitive Laura Ashley wallpaper.
More vintage 20th-century pieces are popping up, whether it’s a finely carved Edwardian side table, a Le Corbusier chaise, a Pop Art-era mirror, or something as charming and small as a vintage book or book pottery trades.
The variety of old things grows beyond the limits of “traditional” furnishings. And a mix creates interesting stories in a room.
Antique lovers then and now
Among the designers who became famous for their skillful blending of eras is Billy Baldwin, whom Architectural Digest dubbed “America’s interior decorating dean of the 1950s and 1960s.” He created chic homes for society figures and favored a mix of modern and antique furniture. Baldwin said an older piece “gives a taste for space”.
Known for elegant, dramatic interiors, Jay Spectre was in love with Art Deco. And interior designers like Elsie de Wolfe and Sister Parish excelled at allowing elegant turn-of-the-century European furniture to breathe in light-filled modern spaces.
Today, for example, designer Kelly Wearstler brings an adventurous style to both homes and boutique hotels.
“My aesthetic revolves around mixology; always something old and something new, raw and refined, masculine and feminine,” she says.
Georgia Zikas, a designer in West Hartford, Connecticut, says modern art and an achromatic rug create a beautiful foundation for mixed furniture styles and dispel any sloppiness.
An example of a simple update: A Zikas customer had a beautiful pair of vintage Waterford crystal lamps from her mother. They replaced the outdated pleated sunglasses with clear, white, tapered ones.
Different parts of the country seem to be going in certain directions when it comes to antiques.
“For example, in the South, where I live, French antiques are most desirable because of our historically French heritage,” says Lance Thomas, senior designer at Thomas Guy Interiors in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
“I’ve found that coastal cities like West Palm Beach, Florida and Malibu, California are drawn to classic and antique Italian contemporary pieces. The Midwest leans toward American antiques.”
Thomas says more customers than ever are asking for antiques. He and his team recently went on a two-week shopping trip to France to see her.
how to buy
If you’re buying antiques unseen, Thomas says use a reliable auction site.
“There are some very good fakes and reproductions out there that would fool even the most seasoned buyer,” he says. “A reputable auction site will usually check and list whether the item is genuine or not.”
Some of his tips for identifying genuine antiques: “Watch out for staining on mirrors. Ancient mirrors were made of tin and mercury or silver and have oxidized over time to create waviness and staining on the front. That patina is a good sign that it’s antique.”
For closets and dressers, check how well they are constructed. Look at the back of the piece where it is less likely to be painted. “Are there more dovetail joints than well-hidden Phillips screws? And notice the hinge mechanisms – are they hand forged or machine made?” says Thomas.
Carved and painted details can help confirm a piece’s age as they indicate the furniture-making skills of the period.
“Many pieces from the 18th century have decorations similar to their 20th-century counterparts. But the precision and accuracy improved drastically between those two periods,” says Thomas. Curvy floral details, for example, probably won’t be as rounded on an 18th-century piece because they didn’t have the tools to create a perfect curve.
Beau Ciolino, who co-wrote the new book Probably This Housewarming (Abrams) with Matt Armato, recommends the www.estatesales.net app to get notifications of sales in your area.
“The best thing about antiques is that they’re so accessible,” says Ciolino. “While old-school auction houses have a strong reputation for fine antiques, we also enjoy browsing Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, consignment shops and estate sales.”
Other options include eBay, Etsy, and ZZ Driggs, which both sell and rent vintage furniture. You might not be able to afford the $3,000 for an art deco leather chair by James Mont, but you might be able to afford the $75 monthly rent for a year.
A source formerly reserved for the design industry has opened its doors to the public in New York City. The Gallery @ 200 Lex is 33,000 square feet of vintage and antique furniture from dozens of dealers. You can also see what The Gallery’s dealers have posted on Incollect.
tipping over of furniture
Ciolino and Armato say they’ve seen a “furniture flipping” trend.
“While flipping homes can take a lot of money and time, many furniture turners take worn pieces and either revitalize them to their original glory or create an entirely new piece by restaining, painting, and replacing the hardware, and then selling it or them for keep their own four walls,” says Ciolino.
He says it’s usually best to leave the reupholstery to the professionals.
Wood items, especially those without intricate details, are perfect for beginning DIYers, says Armato. “Dressers or side tables can usually only be lightly sanded, varnished or stained if you like, and given a coat of sealer like clear enamel or linseed oil. Some metal pieces like outdoor iron chairs are also very DIY friendly.”
Mary Maloney of Bee’s Knees Interior Design in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, brings old wooden furniture back to life by painting it in cheerful hues.
“My mom taught me how to spot great pieces that needed a little love and reinvention,” says Maloney. “I still cherish my first purchase – a cute little chest of drawers I found on an antique trip with her over 40 years ago. When I updated our guest room, I painted it a sunny yellow.”
Antique furniture usually needs a gentle overall cleaning before unwanted scuffs and scratches are removed or covered.
Unless antique lamps have already been rewired, it’s best to take them to a professional. And you’ll probably want to update the shades.
Kim Cook writes regularly for The AP on design, interiors and lifestyle topics. She can be found on Instagram at @kimcookhome and reached at email@example.com.
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