Tricks of the Trade: 6 Tips for Antiques and Vintage Designs Shopping

vintage interior

In a recent post: '7 tips to style your interior like a Parisian', tip #5 was about mixing up styles: antiques, vintage and modern pieces all in one room. So first things first: let's redefine what is antique vs. vintage:

  • Antiques are furniture or accessories of 100 years old or more.
  • Vintage pieces are more recent pieces, this term being used for fashion and interior design alike.

In most recent years, the come-back of the Mid-Century Modern style saw the word 'vintage' being overly used for pretty much anything related to that era (70's) while this is a little restrictive. On the other hand, European-looking items also tend to be easily qualified as 'vintage' (I am thinking of old fashion clocks such as the ones in the picture above) while they are technically antiques. Either way, we are not the Nomenclature Police so feel free to call it whatever resonates with you - but beware when you are talking to a professional about it, they tend to make the distinction (as they should), especially as antiques come at a higher price point than vintage pieces.

As mentioned in the previous post, in Europe - and in France in particular - furniture is a part of the family's heritage in the same way real estate is: pieces were often ordered and made by the local carpenter (as wedding gifts for instance), with locally-sourced wood and were meant to be passed on from one generation to the next. In the US, given the size of the country and its very culture, family heirlooms are less common so here are a few tips for sourcing and purchasing vintage pieces and antiques in the US.

  1. First of all, define what you are after: real vintage and antique pieces? Or brand new, modern designs, inspired by past eras? Are you really open to searching for something in, at times, dusty stores and pick up an item that might not be the cleanest? Do you have the patience? Some people love it, some don't - just be clear on what you are after. If you are after real vintage, read on - if not, read on (some tips are applicable to any purchases) and feel free to contact us or comment and we will give you additional resources.
  2. Take your measurements. This may sound rather obvious but NEVER omit to have your measurements with you and we mean ALL your measurements: your ceiling height and depth or width available for a piece (especially if meant to be a storage piece): Both are critical so you do not end up with something that is out of proportion. Also search what are the standards used today for the piece you are after, to define your ideal proportions: people may have been smaller back then and chair depth may be uncomfortable for a long dinner or the width of the table may just be too small: all those details count and can vary greatly, especially when you shop for antiques. The reason it is important is that whether online or in stores, the return policy for antiques and vintage pieces is often very restricted so be sure you know this will fit (your space and your needs). 
  3. Know what you can fix. Prior going shopping, be aware of what you can or cannot repair. A nail that came off can be repaired, an entire sofa to upholster is a bigger project to take on. Of course, you can often get it done by someone else, but be sure you have an idea of how much this will cost you (upholstering can be very expensive for instance) and how easily you will find that person to do it for you. If it is a big piece, do not forget to factor in the transportation budget that will add up.
  4. Pay regular visits to the stores. We have nothing against online retailers (we will give some links further down) but as Europeans, we tend to be attached somehow to the story behind the piece, and this story often can come only from an actual shop owner who sources his/her stuff him/herself. So get the story, understand who made it, get down to the fine details of the material: not only you will have a better idea of where it comes from but you, yourself will have a better story to tell when people comment on it. (Extra tip: the shop owner will also be more inclined to negotiate the price down with someone he/she sees is genuinely interested in what the piece is about). Plus, if a piece does not sell quickly, chances are, the price will be reduced at some point so be sure to check it out regularly.
  5. Search for quality. In other words: if you do not feel you can sit on that chair or put your elbows on that table, you may just need to pass - even if you are a big DIY fan who can rebuild anything. During your search process, it is important to focus on 3 aspects:
    1. Look at whether the structure of the item is sturdy: sometimes, a wobbly table can be fixed with a simple wood chip under the right leg (not very pretty option) but if this has been going on for years, chances are, the entire structure is compromised (remember that wood expands and shrinks depending on humidity levels so nobody knows how it may have affected the whole shape). 
    2. Check out the quality of the material: is it good, solid wood (if so, check out for bugs) or is it veneer that you can see chipping on one corner? Search for signs of water damage, knock on the material to see whether it is hollow and may break anytime soon. Small scratches may give character, but poor quality does not.
    3. Signs of good craftsmanship can be identified on corners as this is where bent nails live and poorly done joins so check them out carefully to see if anything seems off. If there are ornaments as well: inspect them to see whether those have been done properly and consistently throughout. If not, don't purchase it.
  6. Google is your best friend. Yes, even for old items, if you happen to know what is the name of the designer (especially for vintage items) or the maker, just Google it to see whether what you are about to purchase is legit.
Shopping selection

Above is a selection of items we particularly like in stores we typically go to when in need of some antiques or vintage items (in the New York area). Of course, this list could go on - feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments or ask us for more details! 

Brooklyn

Brooklyn Reclamation: http://www.brooklynreclamation.com/ (metal tins* to be found here)

Repop New York: http://repopny.com/ (Eames office chair* to be found here)

Eclectic Collectibles and Antiques: does not have a website and no picture policy but worth the trip (store on 285 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg) - it also got reviewed by the NY Times 

Wynne City Works: http://www.wynnecityworks.com/ (Mid-Century School Chairs* to be found here)

Collier West: http://collierwest.com/ (Mid-Century Crystal and Iron Chandelier* to be found here)

Manhattan

Olde Good Things: https://ogtstore.com/ (Antique Bronze Cash Register* to be found here)

Online

1st Dibs: https://www.1stdibs.com/ - our favorite to start browsing would be this Brass and Mahogany chandelier by Hans Bergström* here.

Krrb: https://krrb.com/ - an upgraded version of Craigslist, specialized in vintage and antiques (so you can see before you buy). We LOVE this mid-century red chair* for instance.

Flea Pop/Polyvore: http://fleapop.polyvore.com/ - we really like the little arrangements they make to get you a sense of how things go together as in this example here.

* availability on items cannot be guaranteed given the nature of the business.