Vintage furniture and accessories can add personality, authenticity and a touch of sentimentality to any home. Reusing old pieces is also more eco-friendly than buying new. It’s no wonder secondhand pieces are having a moment.
Lorna Gross, an interior designer in North Bethesda, Md., agrees. “Some people say they don’t like antiques. I believe there is an antique era for everyone,” she says. “Everyone thinks of antiques as super ornate baroque and Renaissance, gold and heavily carved. Those in proportion work for some, and then for others, they like the clean lines of mid-century or art deco.”
But how can you incorporate older pieces in your home without making it feel like a fussy and dusty antique store or a disjointed mishmash of styles? We spoke with design experts from the D.C. area about how to blend old and new to get a look that is harmonious and reflects your individual style.
A balanced approach
To make sure you’re creating more harmony than discord when mixing periods and styles, keep the big picture in mind. “It’s difficult for people, because they are approaching it one item at a time and not how all the items play together,” says Lisa Shaffer, owner of the D.C. design firm Lisa & Leroy.
A vision board can help you see how contemporary pieces look when paired with something older. Disabella recommends using Google Slides to compile personal snapshots and images pulled from websites.
It’s also important that the antiques speak to the vernacular of the home. “The architecture of the home should be influencing the interior design,” Shaffer says. If it’s a turn-of-the-century structure, include furnishings and decor from that era, but don’t go overboard; create a mix. For instance, Shaffer loves pairing vintage dining chairs with a new table, or vice versa. “The tension between the two can create such interest,” she says.
To get started, Shaffer says, pick two eras that you love, then mix in pieces from those periods with your existing furnishings. She likes combining pieces with sleek postmodern lines and those with intricate elements to create contrast.
You don’t want to lay it on too thick, though, and make your home feel disjointed and chaotic. Your eye won’t know where to go if you have too many statement pieces competing for your attention. Disabella says there should be at least one element of vintage in each room, creating a focal point. “If there’s too many of those things, it’s not special anymore, and then it’s just a house filled with junk,” she says.
Gross takes a mathematical approach when blending styles, so she strikes the right balance. To start, she recommends using a 90/10 or 80/20 ratio of new to old. “I don’t exceed a 70/30 mix if I want that space to appear fresh and current,” she says.
Sticking to a cohesive color palette also helps marry the old and new, Gross says. For case goods, such as dressers, bookcases and buffets, that means making sure the wood tone and stain are in the same family. For upholstery, cover sofas and chairs in a fabric that relates to the room. “That’s the way to pull it in and give it a sense of belonging,” she says.
And although family heirlooms have sentimental value, they may be hard to incorporate if they don’t fit your style. In that case, Gross recommends reimagining the piece. If it’s a buffet, she says, top it with contemporary objets d’art, candlesticks or ginger jars, or update the hardware with something more modern. “Put [something new] on a piece that is 150 years old, and then it’s brought up to current times,” she says.
Where to start
Shaffer likes to use vintage buffets, dressers and nightstands when furnishing clients’ homes. She particularly gravitates toward pieces marked by notable designers and manufacturers — such as Henredon, Hickory Chair, or Milo Baughman for Thayer Coggin — because that shows quality construction. “I want it to last another 50, 60, 100 years,” she says.
If you’re not ready to invest in bigger items, start small and layer in pieces as your budget allows and as you get a sense of what you like. Rugs, artwork, decorative objects and accent furniture (think side tables) are great starting points.
For accessories, Shaffer favors small statement pieces, such as Stiffel lamps and brass candlesticks. Gross enjoys accent tables, namely a good martini table. And Disabella likes chairs. “One of the easiest things is a cool chair, whether it be some old dining chair or something simple with a nice, weathered look to it, because a chair can be used in almost any room as an accent or a plant stand, or in a guest room as a place for bags to be set on,” she says.
Some furnishings are best purchased new rather than vintage, though. Antique upholstery, for instance, can be hard to work with. A new sofa with firm cushions and pristine fabric outshines an old, dusty, worn-in couch that smells like mothballs. “A lot of people struggle with upholstery,” Shaffer says. “You have to do something with it. They’ll pick a vintage sofa and put a very historical pattern on it, and then they get stuck.”
Antique lighting, although beautiful, also can be difficult to work with, because it may need some elbow grease and rewiring to get it functioning again. But when you find a great piece, it can be worth the effort. Gross fell in love with the bronze and frosted glass on an octagonal art deco fixture made in the 1930s in France. She had it replicated, so she could use it in a room where she needed more than one fixture. “The design was so perfect, and I couldn’t find anything out there like it,” she says.
In the end, it’s all about finding those types of pieces: the ones that you connect with on a deeper level. “Have fun and enjoy the hunt, and there’s no wrong decision,” Disabella says. “If something speaks to you, that’s all you need, and you work around that and figure out how to make it sing.”
Marissa Hermanson is a writer in Richmond.