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The days when you might have turned your nose up at the wood buffet your grandmother offloaded on you — or resorted to Craigslist couches only to stay under budget — are gone. Thanks in part to supply chain issues in the wake of COVID-19 and a desire for more unique home furnishings, the secondhand market is surging, and everyone wants to grab their own piece of home history.
From Louis XVI dressers to mid-century end tables, you’ve probably fallen in love with at least one Facebook Marketplace find or something you saw at a thrift store, flea market, or even a fancy antique mall. Each time you show off your latest treasure though, with a “Isn’t this antique coffee table incredible? I found it on FBMP for a steal!” or “Check out this great vintage accent chair I thrifted!” are you really using the right nomenclature?
The lines between antique and vintage can seem blurry when you’re new to the used furniture scene. Doesn’t it all just mean… old? Not exactly. I talked to two expert furniture dealers, one who specializes in vintage wares and a duo who work mostly with antiques, to find out how they define each category and what they look for when choosing items to acquire. From age to provenance, quality to quantity, here’s what furniture purveyors have to say on shopping secondhand.
“Antique” vs. “Vintage,” According to a Vintage Dealer
Steven Brown, co-owner of Modern Republic, a vintage furniture and home goods storefront in Philadelphia (which he runs with Kenya Abdul-hadi) boils the vintage versus antique label down to this easy to remember figure. “Antique is, in a nutshell, one hundred years old or older,” he says. “It’s often what you think of as ‘don’t touch this’!’”
On the other hand, Brown’s specialty, vintage, is anything manufactured or made after 1920 and through the 1990s to early 2000s postmodern era. Yes, let that sink in for a minute. Your inflatable chair from 1998 might be considered vintage at this point. More commonly, however, you’ll see vintage pieces that fall into design eras including mid-century, Memphis, Bauhaus, or Art Deco (those these latter two periods are starting to reach the cusp of “antique” status). Brown adds that he often thinks of vintage pieces as those that were made to serve a practical function in someone’s home but in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing. They’re well-designed products that were thoughtfully made — they tell a story now and did so back then, too.
All that aside, Brown wants would-be vintage buyers to branch out from the wooden furniture created between the 1950s to the 1970s when possible; he’s found many shoppers conflate the label “vintage” with that period and material in particular. While mid-century modern designs have been a dominant force in the design world for several years now, vintage can mean so much more. For a truly collected look, Brown suggests mixing different styles and pieces from various decades together.
“Antique” vs. “Vintage,” According to an Antiques Dealer Duo
For details on what qualifies as “antique,” husband-and-wife duo Hayley and Craig Redmond Cilley of Richmond, Virginia-based Tilt Top Living brought their expertise to the table. Well-versed in identifying and styling antique furniture, they’re educating their Instagram audience with weekly deep dives into eras, styles, and exactly what to look for while antiquing.
Redmond Cilley echoes Brown’s 100-year distinction. “The technical definition of an antique is something that is 100 years or older,” she says. “Every year, a new wave of items turns 100, which we jokingly call their antique birthday.”
The Redmond Cilleys expounded upon this classification though, introducing me to an interesting nuance when it comes to the age of antiques and their desirability by collectors. Prior to 1870, almost all furniture was crafted by hand, and those pieces are considered to be of higher quality — and rarer, in general due, to quantities — than the mass-produced items that came after. However, the duo is quick to add that this piece of information shouldn’t dictate all of your shopping decisions. “The antique collecting world and the average home furnisher are often not looking for the same thing,” says Redmond Cilley. “There are great quality post-1870 antique and vintage pieces out there. One just needs to be a savvy consumer to assess the quality and construction of ‘newer’ pieces.”
In general, whether shopping or looking for antique items, check out the bones, or structure of a piece. Make sure the piece feels sturdy, and don’t worry about chipping or small flaws — often a piece can be professionally restored, fixed, or refinished. You can assess quality by looking for markings or branding on an item, which can provide a jumping off point for you to do some research on a given manufacturer. Any kind of dovetailing or advanced joinery, as well as original hardware or fine detail work, can also provide signs of a piece’s finery.
What’s Better for Your Home?
It all depends on which you prefer! There’s often an unfair assumption that antiques are fragile or only belong in a museum, but reality is, if a piece has stood strong for centuries, it will likely continue to do so. If you have a historic home, you might want to try to find some pieces that are period appropriate, including things like pier mirrors, sideboards, chairs, or even tables. Find what works with your budget though, and only buy what you love.
So fill your home with stories, whether they’re vintage, antique, or both because, as Redmond Cilley told us, “We may be biased, but we believe any antique and vintage piece holds a bit of magic one cannot just buy from the store.” Now you know how to use the terms correctly, too!