Since I’m a vintage girl (I was made in 1979 to be exact), I shop a lot at antique malls, flea markets and thrift stores. I’ve been doing it since I could shove my first silver-plated fiddleback spoon in my mouth, and I’m pretty sure my first word was “ironstone,” so the dos and don’ts of second-hand shopping are second nature to me. I know thrifting and flea-marketing can be overwhelming (and yes, there is a lot of crap out there) so I’ve come up with some tips (or shall I say secrets) that will help you get a vintage collected look, without all the junk.
1. Start early and shop BIG first. Don’t go into the stalls or booths unless a BIG piece of furniture grabs your eye. All the best furniture gets bought first, mainly by dealers/store owners, so if you take your time and meander slowly, all the best pieces at the best prices will have been snatched up. I literally race through, like a crazy person at 8am, because there is nothing worse (ok, there are probably worse things) than seeing the perfect dresser, finding out it was $40 but was just SOLD. Doh!
2. Think small SECOND. After you go around once, make your way back through to look for smalls (a generic word I use for anything, well, small), i.e. lamps, vases, objects, art, flatware, books, etc. These items are a bit more common, less desired and aren’t snatched up by dealers as fast. Etsy or eBay are also good sources because shipping is more affordable on smalls than furniture.
3. Focus. Focus. Focus. It will be physically impossible for you to look at every single thing at a flea market. Come with a short list of NEEDS and reference them constantly. Last weekend for instance, I went looking only for an iron candle chandelier, a floor lamp and wooded farm chairs. Of course I found other things, but those were the three things I NEEDED and I had to keep reminding myself of them, or else I would get caught up looking at the vintage measuring cups that somehow I have convinced myself will make my next baking party so much more fun. (Hey, Emily you don’t bake! Put the measuring cups down!) When I was shopping at the flea market for Ian I knew I needed maps, objects for the shelves, frames for artwork and barware, and that is what I looked for. Focus.
4. When it comes to “smalls” think “big.” As much as I love my miniature dollhouse fly swatter collection (It truly is amazing. They are these teeny wire sculptures that some lovely grandma rendered with such care and perfection for her granddaughter 60 years ago), in general I would recommend staying away from the bitsy-er things. Choose instead more substantial items that can be clustered with others or live on their own. If you already have a lot of bulbous-shaped objects for your display shelf, look for something cylindrical or low and wide. A contrast in shapes and scale will help with balance and will look intentional.
5. When thinking small, the trick is to displaying or framing them together. Many small things styled together can have the same impact as one large thing. Spreading out the collection will look cluttered and unintentional and then they become tchockes, which in many circles (especially with my husband) is a four-letter word. You don’t need to collect the world. Pick a few things you are always drawn to and make the best collection you can.
6. Color. Yes, you should keep your color palette in mind while shopping, but don’t worry about matching colors exactly. In my display shelf, I have a few tones of light blues, white, creams, woods and then, oops, look there’s a big pop of indigo up top. And I love it. It wasn’t intentional, but when I saw the vessel in that color for $10, I thought, “It’s in the same family. I can make it work.” Then I balanced it with a vintage Japanese plate leaning against the back on the bottom. Let your color story evolve as you collect your pieces and it will add character and interest to your home.
7. Anything can be art. Frame it or don’t. Yep, you heard me. It could be an old map, an old love letter, a silhouette, a collection of antique spoons, student artwork, industrial letters or stencils, even random portraits or vintage photographs of people you don’t know. Some people have problems with this last one, but I find other people’s lives and histories endlessly fascinating. I’m not talking weird glamour shots from the ’80s, I mean photos from the ’30s of a decked out family picnicking at the beach with an original Ford in the background or a late ’60s gathering of hippies at a party. You can find something interesting and provocative in moments from the past, even if it has nothing to do with your own.
8. Mix and match. The great thing about vintage is there is a reason it’s lasted so long – things are well-made and sturdy. But the drawback is that it’s harder to find sets of some things, for instance, barware. I was lucky enough to find six ’60s blue pop glasses for Ian’s bar, but I didn’t hesitate to mix it with the Moroccan tea glasses and bring back in a few of the FDR scotch glasses. As great as matching sets can be, nothing says a party like not caring about matching glassware.
9. As long as it holds water, it is a vase in my book. Jars are vases, teacups are vases, cafe au lait bowls can be vases. So when shopping at flea markets/thrift stores, look for anything that can hold even a flower or a fern leaf. I used vintage mason jars and pharmacy jars for Ian, and they worked with his antique feel, while having a simple silhouette. You don’t always have to have cut crystal to feel antique and old.
10. Anything can be reupholstered. Well, not a shoe or a tree, although I suppose it could be, but you know what I mean. The wingback I got for Ian was $50 and U.G.L.Y. But since it was so cheap and had great bones, shape and scale, I knew it was worth the investment to reupholster it for $350. Same with the bench in Ian’s bedroom, which was originally $70. It took two yards of fabric and a very quick reupholstering job of $100. Now, both pieces have so much more integrity and character than a new piece that would cost twice as much at a big box store.
Consider yourself 10 steps ahead of everyone else at the flea market or thrift store this weekend. For more design inspiration, check out my blog, The Brass Petal.