Antiques: The New Look of Old

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For quite a while now, it’s been common knowledge that “antiques are out.” Not just Victorian, or Regency, or French antiques, but an entire category of formerly precious objects, now irreverently referred to as “brown furniture,” has fallen out of favor with contemporary buyers. Architectural Digest, Interiors, and House Beautiful, magazines which once showcased rooms filled with polished antiques at unattainable prices, are now showing sleek, clutter-free interiors, with one or two antiques used mainly as accent pieces.

Wesley Finnerty, whose store Antique Exchange in Hampden started offering modern accessories and design along with vintage pieces about ten years ago, put it this way. “It’s a completely different market than when we opened. Interest in antiques seems to be in free fall, and we are making up the difference by offering well-designed contemporary furnishings.”

A recent New York Times article quoted Colin Stair, the owner of an auction house in Hudson, New York, as saying that average prices for antiques are now “80 percent off” what the same pieces would have brought in the glory days of collecting.

Instead of period or reproduction antiques collected by previous generations, today’s buyers of all ages are gravitating to the clean-lined, mid-price range of furniture from Pottery Barn, West Elm, Arhaus, and Ikea. More modern and more affordable, these pieces — loosely mid-century in inspiration –are often displayed in carefully designed room settings.  While the quality can vary, the stuff looks great — young and unstuffy – plus, you can furnish the whole house on a rainy afternoon.

But tasteful as it all is, it is largely someone else’s vision. And for the same reason, you wouldn’t dress in head-to-toe J. Crew or Joseph Bank or really anyone, you should probably aspire to more than a one-dimensional look in your home.  Antiques, whether valuable or not, come with a history that will add style and character to your space. Combined with art, rugs, and photographs in a process called “layering” – the older pieces add texture and real style.

This is particularly true in contemporary and newer built houses and apartments, which were not built with the wood and plaster details that were standard in older homes. The patina of an older piece can add dimension, warmth, and interest to these spaces. They catch your eye and soften the room. The mixture of old and new, classic and contemporary will show off your own personality, origins, and individual style.

Here are some ways you can incorporate the old into the new, and have a home that is uniquely your own.

A modern monochromatic room can be enlivened by adding a classic portrait, made more contemporary by removing the elaborate gilded frame. Be sure to keep the frame, which is sometimes that’s more valuable than the portrait.

 

Add a curvy wooden rocker or a French Bergere-style chair to a room of mid-century modern type furniture. If you have other upholstered pieces in the room, keep the fabrics in similar shades or patterns. Alternately, if the chair is not a priceless antique, you can paint the frame to update it. [green chair]

Regardless of the age of your house, storage is always an issue. Creative solutions to the problem include re-purposing your antiques. For example, use a Victorian-era armoire or an old doctor’s cabinet in a completely modern bath. It’s perfect for holding towels and other linens, as well as beautiful bottles and other interesting items. An old three-drawer dresser can be re-imagined as a bar. Put the bottles on the top, using a tray with a great design. Utilize the drawers for glassware, napkins and other accoutrements. If the wood is not great, paint it to coordinate with your room.

Deconstruct your grandmother’s tea service. Use the teapot for a loose and casual flower arrangement. Use the sugar bowl to hold Q-tips or cotton balls in the bathroom. Use the creamer for pens and pencils on your desk. [silver]

 

If you inherit your parents’ old sofa or dining room chairs, recovering them will be significantly less expensive than buying new ones. Update them with a fabulous Marimekko or Lilly Pulitzer print. You’re guaranteed that no one else will have one like it! [marimekko or upholstery]

If you aren’t lucky enough to have family heirlooms, there are always options for acquiring someone else’s family heirlooms: auctions, estate sales, and antique shops.

The Baltimore area is fortunate to have some great auction houses which conduct both in-person and online auctions. A big plus for either type of auction is that you can preview the items. You can examine the items to make sure chairs are sturdy, tables don’t have major scratches, artwork isn’t ripped and that the size in the online image isn’t deceptive.

Before you get rid of any of that “brown furniture,” consider taking the long view.  The pendulum always swings back. There are stirrings of hope in the breasts of antique dealers from Baltimore to London. Phil Dubey of Dubey’s Art and Antiques is a fixture on Howard Street, specializing, as he always has, in Chinese export porcelain and American fine antique furniture.  “Tastes have changed’, he acknowledges, but “prices have corrected themselves since the bubble of twenty years ago, and I am starting to see green shoots coming up. At the Winter (Antiques) Show in DC this January, there were quite a number buyers —  and young buyers. People are starting to collect again.”

Meg Fielding

Meg Fielding writes the local interior design and lifestyle blog Pigtown Design. She enjoys dual citizenship with the US and the UK.