The most livable interiors are those that can’t be pinned to a specific era or decade, but integrate elements from the history of home design. The desire to mix old and new can be sparked by the architecture (or lack thereof) of your home, an heirloom, or a thrift store crush. Here are some tips that will help you mix old and new furniture to create a layered interior that transcends time.
What is Vintage vs. Antique?
The common definition of an antique is a piece that is more than 100 years old. Anything more than 20 years old but less than 100 is usually considered vintage. Modern may refer to midcentury modern design from the 20th century, or be used as a synonym for current and contemporary, which generally refers to anything that is less than 20 years old up to brand spanking new.
Find the Right Balance
"When it comes to mixing antiques with modern pieces, almost anything goes," says interior designer Erin Williamson of Erin Williamson Design. "A home should be a collection of things you love and find meaningful, not a catalog of coordinated furniture. That said, it helps to spread the patina throughout a space so that the juxtaposition between old and new feels fresh and surprising rather than shabby."
Williamson emphasizes the importance of considering scale when placing furniture. "Especially antiques," she says, "since they were made to fit different spaces and lifestyles. Many dark, heavy wood pieces don't float comfortably and would be happiest on or near a wall. Conversely, very light and leggy pieces should be placed next to items with more mass so that the room doesn't feel nervy and uncomfortable. A balance of proportion across space offers a lot of leeway to run wild with prints, colors, finishes, and styles."
Form Versus Function
When considering whether to keep or integrate an older piece into a modern design, it’s important to think about both form and function. Antiques often display fine craftsmanship that is harder to come by today and feature intricate wood carving, marquetry, or decorative flourishes that you won’t find in run-of-the-mill modern-day furniture. (One exception to this is Shaker-style furniture, which has been embracing the same clean lines for centuries and still looks current in even the most minimalist modern interiors. )
For interior designer Lisa Gilmore of Lisa Gilmore Design, successfully mixing modern and antiques is “all about playing with your lines, making sure you have a healthy mix of streamlined and curves.” Gilmore says she mixes metal finishes “to give the design legs” and keep it from looking dated.
Repurpose and Refinish
While nothing beats the rich patina of a quality antique or vintage piece in terms of aesthetics and value, the truth is that not all antiques are valuable or need to be preserved in their original state. If you inherit your grandparents’ old dining table, stumble on an antique bed frame at the flea market, or find a thrift store armoire with great bones but a dated finish, take a step back and imagine how it would look stripped to its bones, refinished, or transformed with a brand new coat of paint.
"Fresh upholstery can give antiques a modern feel without sacrificing vintage charm," Williamson says. "If you fancy a print, consider the shape of the piece and decide whether to play with or against the form. Stripes on a curved settee will highlight its shape while florals on a straight back chair might add some softness." Williamson notes that it's a good idea to have the springs and batting refreshed. "New materials can go a long way towards adding contemporary comfort," she says.
Unify with Color
One of the challenges of mixing old and new pieces is figuring out how to make the mix of periods and styles work together while retaining an overall sense of cohesion. Even the most eclectic interiors need balance and harmony. While mixing wood finishes and metals is an art in itself, sometimes the easiest way to integrate disparate elements is to unite them using the same color palette. If you a fan of shabby chic interiors, you can create coherence by painting thrift store finds like nightstands, dining room chairs, tables, and dressers in a creamy white, and add white overstuffed armchairs and sofas. This will make it simple to marry styles and periods by keeping the focus on form.
If you are looking to create maximum impact in a modern room with an antique piece, go bold with a large-scale statement piece like an antique armoire, a Baroque-style or Art Deco headboard, or a massive vintage farm table. Make these pieces functional and appropriate for modern lifestyles by painting, refinishing, refurbishing interiors, or adding upholstery to an antique bed frame or armchair to bring it a sense of modern comfort. This strategy works particularly well in a neutral space that needs a focal point or a sense of drama that is achieved by introducing contrast and juxtaposition. This same formula can work for large-scale decorative pieces, like a giant French gilded mirror or a massive vintage rug to anchor an otherwise contemporary living room.
Not everyone has the appetite or budget for creating large-scale drama with a splashy antique focal point. If you love antiques but feel intimidated by buying antique furniture, start with small furniture pieces such as end tables and wooden stools, or decorative pieces like antique French gilded mirrors, lighting fixtures, and rugs. “For me, a really large antique/vintage rug sets the tone immediately,” says Gilmore, “and you can have lots of fun adding and layering around it.”