10 Truths About Vintage Decorating

If You Do Vintage, You Know What I Mean

Vintage decor in a store

Jazmin Quaynor / Unsplash

True vintage lovers wouldn't want a brand-new house full of new furniture if you gave it to them -- except to sell for cash to buy more old stuff. But, decorating with vintage has its pros, cons, and inevitabilities. Here are the 10 truths about vintage decorating:

1. You Have to Keep Things Cleaner

Living with vintage means you need to clean more than people who buy everything new.

When a new house with new stuff gets a little dusty, it just looks a little dusty. 

When an old house with vintage furnishings gets dusty, it doesn't just look old and dusty. It looks old and dirty. Even if it doesn't to you, it will to your guests. They'll imagine a moldy, musty smell and years worth of caked-on grime -- even when it's nothing five minutes and a feather duster can't fix.

2. You Won't Always Save Money

Buying vintage (even buying antiques) often costs a lot less than shopping a catalog or furniture store, but not always. It depends on what you buy and how much work it needs.

Consider vintage upholstery, for example. If the piece needs new springs, new padding, new cushions, and new fabric, the final cost may total more than a low- to medium-quality new piece.

So, is it worth it?

Possibly, if you chose a high-quality piece with good lines and a sturdy frame. But, what if your goal is saving money in addition to getting a great vintage look? Choose a piece with usable fabric or one you can reupholster yourself.

3. Some People Will Assume You're Broke (or Cheap)

When you shop for furnishings at estate sales, flea markets, thrift stores, and yard sales, some people in your life will inevitably assume you're broke. But, they'll think that even if you buy your vintage stuff from 1stdibs and swanky antique shops, so ignore them.

Just say "thanks, but no thanks" when your aunt tells you about the easy financing on an 18-piece matching set at the cheap furniture chain. And, definitely decline when a friend offers you last season's laminate catalog-store console. You know, the one her kid decorated with magic markers. In her mind, it's still better than your old stuff. 

4. A Time Capsule Can Be a Prison

When your house or favorite furnishings reflect a particular period or style, it's easy to slip into time capsule mode. At first you're just excited about finding more of whatever it is you have/love, but soon you start to feel like you can't mix in anything else. Talk about taking the joy out of vintage decorating.

Remember, you don't live in a museum or on a stage set. 

Let's say you buy a 1970's modern home (complete with diagonal wood siding on the exterior) and find a retro-delicious pit group (that's period speak for sectional) for the sunken living room. Does that limit you to polyester shag and string art when it's time to accessorize? 


There's no reason in the world not to lay a Danish Modern Rya rug on the floor and hang a six-panel Japanese screen on the big wall. If it looks good together and you like it, you can do it.

5. You Have to Hunt Harder and Look Longer

When you're shopping for something specific, buying vintage is always harder than buying new.

Imagine that you need a new sofa and take a trip to a furniture store. You tell the salesperson the size and style you want, and then he'll show you what he has that works. If it's a medium- to high-end store, he'll even whip out wood and fabric samples so you can customize your choice.

It's not that easy when you're looking for an antique or vintage version. You have to hunt until you find the right piece -- and that may take weeks or even months. Vintage decorating takes patience

6. It Won't Be Perfect

Decorating with vintage means learning to live with imperfections.

Wood furniture frequently has dents, dings, and watermarks. An otherwise pristine old sofa may have one loose spring that pokes people who sit in the middle seat, for example. A vintage vase may have a chip in the base and your favorite old oil painting could have a few cracks.

If the problems are severe, you may need to refinish, reupholster, or otherwise repair. But, if they don't affect beauty or function, just think of minor imperfections as the scars of age.

7. Not Everything Needs Paint

Painting is a wonderful way to update old furniture -- especially when the finish is to too damaged to restore (or wasn't that great to start). Still, not every piece needs paint. And, not every paint technique and color works on every piece.

I recently spotted a marvelous Mid-Century Modern console destroyed with light blue chalk paint and dark wax. The new finish was too sweet, too faux antique, and too fussy formal for the piece. 

The elegant antique secretary covered with lime green and zebra stripes was another painted furniture mistake that nearly made me weep. Sometimes bold and shocking works -- and sometimes you just ruin a perfectly lovely piece.

Before you start your next paint project -- and I'm not saying don't -- make sure it really needs paint. Exposed wood grain is not your enemy. And, make sure the paint you choose actually complements the piece.

8. It's Okay to Mix in Some New 

Living in an old home and/or decorating with vintage furnishings doesn't mean you're never allowed to use anything that's brand new. 

In some cases, such as your mattress, you need to buy new for your health and safety.

Sometimes buying new makes sense because vintage is impossible to find. If that new mattress is a king, for example, you may need a new headboard because kings just weren't done before a certain time.

Sometimes you may even want something new just because you like it -- and that's perfectly fine. Buying that new rug, painting, or chair to mix with your vintage stuff is a good design choice. Mixing different periods adds layers and interest, even when one of the periods is right now.

9. You Can't Use Everything As Is

When new furniture arrives on a delivery truck, you expect it to be perfect. If it's not, you send it back.

With vintage furnishings, finding them and hauling them home are just the first steps. Any fixing required is up to you.

That new-to-you chest of drawers may need a coat of wax and new pulls. The old lamp probably needs new wiring, and possibly a new shade. And, before you plan your next dinner party, you might want to reupholster the old dining chair seats.

Vintage decorating definitely requires more elbow grease than buying new, but vintage lovers tend to think it's worth the extra work.

10. Some People Will Never Understand

Some people equate new with nice and they always will. You can explain why you think old is better until you turn blue and they will never, ever get it.

I remember moving into a large, lovely 1920's apartment years ago. I chose it for the French doors, old hardwood floors, high ceilings, and original built-in cabinetry. The movers I hired were acquaintances. Thus, they felt free to speculate aloud about why I'd chosen such a "ratty old place."

The most vocal of the two suggested I look at something more like his place, a tiny beige box of an apartment with walls thin enough to hear a neighbor sigh. He did concede that my vintage velvet channel-back chair would suit my place, though he referred to it as that "dirty old chair." 

I was offended and wouldn't have hired them again. But, with time, I realized they were just incapable of understanding. They felt free to speak their minds because they knew me -- and they'd probably have felt the same if I'd been moving into an historic district mansion.