Defining "Vintage" Furniture

Old, But Not Yet Antique

1960s style lounge
Steven Taylor/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

In nearly every issue you can find examples of shelter magazines promoting vintage furniture in gorgeous displays of interesting rooms that exude one-of-a-kind charm. But what is vintage furniture exactly? How is it different from antique furniture?

Definition

The term vintage has no official "legal" meaning and is defined differently depending on the source. For most people, the term vintage furniture is used to describe a piece is between 30 to 100 years old—at 100 years or older, a furniture piece becomes classified as an antique. Within the vintage category, newer pieces, especially those dating from the 1950s to1980, are generally considered retro. Newer used pieces, those dating from the mid-1980s and later, are simply regarded as used furniture. All furniture in the mid-century modern style that has been popular since the first decade of the 21st century can be labeled as both vintage and retro.

Simply being old does not make any furniture vintage in the technical sense, even though most people use the term old and vintage interchangeably. To earn the title vintage, the piece should also be an example of what defined a particular style of that period. For example, an Eames chair is a good example of vintage (or retro) furniture of the mid-century modern era. The piece does not have to belong to a well-known line or the best-known manufacturer—it simply has to exhibit the best characteristics of that era.

Vintage furniture is on trend, and there are several reasons for its popularity.

Creates a Unique Look

Vintage pieces become less common as time goes by—even pieces that were once mass-produced and ubiquitous. As they grow more unusual, vintage pieces give your decor individuality and style, maybe even creating a "cool" factor that can't be achieved when furnishing entirely with new pieces.

Since the vintage category covers furniture over several decades, you have two choices when decorating with vintage pieces. You can either choose pieces all from one vintage/retro era, such as mid-century modern, using them to re-create that style right down to the accessories; or you can carefully curate a collection of vintage pieces from different eras in a combination that makes a harmonious and cohesive look. If you combine pieces from several eras, make sure to tie the room together with color and a level of formality, so that even if the pieces are from different times, they all share certain visual elements.

Budget-Friendly

If you appreciate fine quality furniture but your budget is limited, buying vintage pieces gives you the ability to indulge your fondness for the better things in life. Vintage pieces are less expensive than buying new furniture of the same quality. You may also find that older furniture was better made and used finer materials than new pieces costing many times more.

Vintage Is Earth-Friendly

You are being a friend to the planet when you buy vintage pieces. It is one of the environmentally conscious methods for furnishing your home because you are preventing old furniture from going to the landfill. And furnishing with vintage pieces is healthier for your home because the furniture has already finished off-gassing whatever formaldehyde or other toxic substances present in the finishes and glues. If these pieces need to be refinished, you can use finishes that are non-toxic.

Where to Find Vintage Pieces

Shopping for vintage furniture is an adventure since you never know what you are going to find, or where you will find it. If you shop online, be sure to add in the cost of shipping and do all the research you can before you buy. Some places to look for vintage furniture pieces: 

  • Handoffs from older family members
  • Edgy retail stores
  • Online retailers
  • Estate sales
  • Live auctions
  • Auction websites
  • Garage and yard sales
  • Charity flea markets
  • Second-hand stores