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Publication Date: 2019-03-19

Behind the Design

How to Style Antique & Vintage Furnishings

Incorporating vintage and antique furnishings into a design often means parsing together objects from aesthetic movements that are decades or centuries apart — or, if the pieces belong to the same period, designers must ensure that the style of the space does not seem stale or derivative. We asked several Dering Hall designers for advice on thoughtfully sourcing and styling with vintage/antique objects to craft spaces that are both referential and original. Explore their thoughts here.

Dustin Halleck

“Buy items you truly love, and you can't make many mistakes.” | Claire Staszak, Centered by Design

Favorite Vintage/Antique Finds: a vintage brass Sarreid coffee table and a pair of Alky Chairs by Giancarlo Piretti for Castelli.

Styling Process: I look for weird, wonderful, and unique objects and furniture. It's lovely if they come with a brand name or historical significance, but that's not always necessary. It's really about if it will look right in your design. Buy items you truly love and you can't make many mistakes. I’ve also learned to prepare clients for the "patina" that comes with buying something old. I typically always incorporate a vintage element in my rooms. Often it's a family heirloom we design with, or an element of the room will make more sense to be vintage than new, and then I present that concept to the client. My advice for styling is, mix and match — it's so much more interesting! But don't go overboard.

In this image, Staszak paired 20th-century vintage pieces with old world antiques — like the armoire, dining set, chandelier, and painting — to create a design that’s “elegant yet slightly irreverent,” in the words of the designer.

Julie Soefer

“Create a room that speaks to today.” | Benjamin Johnston, Benjamin Johnston Design

Favorite Vintage/Antique Finds: an antique Venini chandelier worth ten times more than the price.

Styling Process: I tend to buy a lot of pieces at auction and then keep them until I find just the right client for them. If a client has a special piece already, I may base a design off of it. However, more commonly, I look for special vintage pieces to complete a design that is already under way.

I think mixing things up is what gives a space tension and excitement. The biggest mistake to me is creating “period” rooms. I may mix some tribal elements with some mid-century modern and Art Deco. These combinations are sometimes unexpected, but they're often more exciting than if I was only pulling from a single period. My advice is, mix, mix, mix. Don’t recreate a room from the past. Create a room that speaks to today by mixing in both contemporary and vintage pieces. It’s exciting to give an antique new life or to present it in a new and interesting way. And they work amazingly well in contemporary spaces – especially when paired with contemporary artwork. And finally, have a little fun with the design!

For this home office, Johnston relied on vintage chairs; the pair in front of the desk is from the 1980s, and the pair near the window is from the 1960s. The Italian gondola-inspired console is an antique. “I chose the chairs for their fantastic shapes and lines,” he says, “and the console for the contrast in style that it brought to the modern home office.”


Dustin Halleck

“There are some eras that naturally go together, and others that feel like they compete.” | Jen Talbot, Jen Talbot Design

Favorite Vintage/Antique Finds: a mauve mohair Baker sofa from the 70’s and an 80’s headboard.

Styling Process: When shopping for antique and vintage pieces, I look for interesting profiles — pieces that are well made and classic examples of the era, or a piece that is overlooked because it has such bad fabric and needs a bit of vision and love to bring it back to life. In a design, I always start with a floor plan and sizes, so I know what size I'm looking for in terms of furnishings. I usually start with other pieces and pull in a vintage table or chair toward the end to round out the space. With that said, I do sometimes start with an amazing vintage piece and work everything else around it. 

Buying vintage is a bit like a "trust fall" because you are mostly purchasing it online and buying it without seeing it in person or sitting on it. I would always ask to see additional pictures from the vendor and ask more questions than the descriptions they have listed, so that you have a better idea of the true condition of the piece. Never purchase something with structural issues — wood is harder to reconstruct. Any fabric or foam can be replaced with a good upholster. In a rooom, I typically like to keep in a similar era range, such as 70’s and 80’s. There are some eras that naturally go together and other that feel like they compete. It really also depends on the piece.

In this room, Talbot used vintage red chairs to make a statement. “Red is a strong color,” she says, “so I wanted to pair them with other strong colors so that they would not overpower the space visually.”


Paul Dyer

“Choosing the right antique is more alchemy than science.” | Maria Haidamus, Maria Haidamus Interiors

Favorite Vintage/Antique Finds: I find the most uniques pieces in the most unexpected parts of the world.

Styling Process: I find that choosing the right antique is more alchemy than science. I look for a unique piece that attracts me. I am very inspired by my travels; I am always on the lookout, and my eyes are always searching for unique finds. I find the most uniques pieces in the most unexpected parts of the world. I do mix styles, and I think it is great to mix and match periods, shapes, forms, and color as long as the rules of scale and proportions  are respected. Proportions are so important when designing any space, whether you are including antiques or not. Make sure what you are buying is a true antique — work with dealers and reputable vendors you trust. Learn from them. They have lots of knowledge.

Haidamus bought the Japanese shelving unit in this room from the Antique and Art Exchange in San Francisco. “I fell in love with it and decided to use it as a liquor bar,” she says. “It fits perfectly in this corner and blends well with the rest of the space.”


Lauren Logan

“Not all antique vendors are the same.” | Maureen Stevens, Maureen Stevens Design

Favorite Vintage/Antique Finds: Arne Norell safari chairs, a 19th-century chandelier, and a large gilt mirror from a New York City hotel.

Styling Process: I always think of different things when vintage and antique shopping — the scale, style and feel, color palette, uniqueness of the item, and depending on the client, the price, of course. I always start with a design, as I'm a planner, and I always ensure there is a clear design concept that we are going for. It's not unusual, though, that a client also has a piece that they are dying to incorporate into their space or a collectible item that they have been wanting to get. Not all antique vendors are the same — you want to buy from seasoned dealers and from the ones that are vetted to ensure you are getting the real deal. I'm really into Pepto-Bismol pink lately. I'm also into Marie Antoinette with a twist these days. I've also been going to auctions and have gotten case pieces. They just don't make furniture like they did a long time ago.

Everything in the image above is vintage, except for the table lamps and the throw pillow.


Matthew Millman

“Know your sources and do your homework.” | Martin Young, Martin Young Design

Favorite Vintage/Antique Finds: 1960s vases with a blue volcanic glaze to reference the artist Yves Klein and an antique handpainted fabric screen.

Styling Process: In vintage and antique objects, I look for aesthetic appropriateness to a specific project and client; sense of timelessness; sense of soul; and condition of the item. I tend to prioritize silhouette, texture, material, and scale over the period of an item. The result is a layering of periods and cohesion of tangible details – the basis of a contemporary approach. The biggest mistake you can make is not understanding scale and size appropriateness to a given space.

For a recent project located in Silicon Valley, we created a collection of ceramic vessels that recalled the blue pigment paintings by artist Yves Klein. We sourced 1960s German pieces from different dealers, which all had a beautiful textured volcanic glaze in a brilliant blue reminiscent of the artist’s famous work. For another recent project, we found a handpainted antique fabric screen/room divider, which became the bridging element in the room between the client’s personality, reflected in the room’s Francophile proclivity and family heirlooms, and the Tudor design of the home. 

Know your sources and do your homework! There are many beautiful pieces from all periods, from the Hellenistic to the 21st century, so it is important to work with a trusted network when sourcing for unique objects.

In this image of the designer’s home built c. 1907, the Eames rocker, Aalto stool, Jurgen Bally coffee table, and Marta Maas Fjorestorm area rug are vintage. The painting is by German artist Martin Assig.

Carter Berg

“Using antiques add an extra layer of personality and character to a successfully decorated room.” | Liliane Hart, Liliane Hart Interiors

Favorite Vintage/Antique Finds: a bibliotheque from a furniture fair in London.

Styling Process: Using antiques adds an extra layer of personality and character to a successfully decorated room. There are different ways that antiques come to a project. Frequently our clients have antiques which they would like to reuse in their new homes. We will begin with these pieces in the initial floor plans. In some cases, we create walls or corners for beloved antique furniture. In a project where the client does not have vintage pieces, we add antiques to further develop the character of a room. I love when I find large pieces of furniture that complete a wall. It’s very satisfying. I also think antique lighting can make a room.

When you use too many pieces of a certain era, one can create a historic interior. Some houses call for a certain period; for example, a northeastern shingle house on the coast looks great with turn-of-the-century furnishings. Conversely, I am not a fan of too many styles of antiques in one room. Sometimes when there too many styles represented, an interior can feel disparate and mismatched. Know the dealers that provide quality pieces, and make sure to get a quality report in advance from the dealer.

In this image, the designer created the wall around her client's vintage apothecary.

R.Brad Knipstein

"It's a mistake to include pieces that are not compelling in some way, and to assume that for an item to be compelling it must be costly." | Angela Free, Angela Free Design

Favorite Vintage/Antique Finds: a pair of beautiful Biedermeier chests.

Styling Process: Sometimes we are looking for stunning period pieces that are beautifully and expertly preserved, and other times, items without a lot of age that are quirkier with character might be just right. In all instances, the pieces must ring true – authenticity wins out each time. It's a mistake to include pieces that are not compelling in some way, and to assume that for an item to be compelling it must be costly. 

Period rooms are great for museums. In my work we never do period rooms – period! Nothing feels more stale and lifeless – static spaces just don’t interest me. High-low is a great way to go almost all of the time. From my work, I've learned to not rush it, to take the time to go down the rabbit hole and be open to what will emerge when searching. One never knows what the next click will deliver.

For this room, Free included an antique fruitwood Biedermeier side chair. "Its lyrical form and patina present a nice counterpoint to the formal geometry of the highly polished marble floor and the modern art," she says. 


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