Tips for Combining Antiques with Modern Pieces in Your Home

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Vintage furniture and accessories can add personality, authenticity, and a touch of sentimentality to any home. Reusing old parts is also more environmentally friendly than buying new ones. It’s no wonder used parts are on the rise.

“There’s always a way to tell a story in your home, and that’s what vintage pieces deliver,” says District interior designer Heather Disabella. “This is where you can be unique and different and stand out from your neighbor’s house.”

Lorna Gross, interior designer in North Bethesda, Maryland, agrees. “Some people say they don’t like antiques. I believe there is an ancient era for everyone,” she says. “Everyone thinks of antiques as super ornate, gilded and heavily carved Baroque and Renaissance. Those in proportion work for some, and then for others they like the clean lines of mid-century or art deco.

But how can you incorporate older pieces into your home without making it feel like a fussy, dusty antique store or a rambling hodgepodge of styles? We spoke with DC-area design experts about how to blend old and new to achieve a look that works together and reflects your individual style.

To ensure that you create more harmony than discord when mixing periods and styles, keep the big picture in mind. “It’s difficult for people because they’re tackling one element at a time and not how all the elements play together,” says Lisa Shaffer, owner of DC design company Lisa & Leroy.

A vision board can help you see what contemporary pieces look like when paired with something older. Disabella recommends using Google Slides to compile personal snapshots and images from websites.

Antiques and vintage sales have soared, thanks to supply chain issues

It is also important that the antiques speak to the vernacular of the house. “The architecture of the house should influence the interior design,” says Shaffer. If it’s a turn-of-the-century structure, include furniture and decor from that era, but don’t overdo it; create a mix. For example, Shaffer likes pairing vintage dining chairs with a new table, or vice versa. “The tension between the two can create such interest,” she says.

To get started, Shaffer says, pick two eras you like, then mix pieces from those periods with your existing furniture. She likes to combine pieces with postmodern clean lines and those with intricate elements to create contrast.

You don’t want to lay it down too thick, though, and make your home look disjointed and chaotic. Your eye won’t know where to go if you have too many competing statement pieces to catch your eye. Disabella says there should be at least one vintage element in every room, creating a focal point. “If there’s too much of these things, it’s no longer special, and then it’s just a house full of junk,” she says.

Gross takes a mathematical approach when mixing styles, so she strikes the right balance. To start, she recommends using a 90/10 or 80/20 new-to-old ratio. “I don’t go over a 70/30 mix if I want this space to appear fresh and current,” she says.

Sticking to a cohesive color palette also helps marry old and new, Gross says. For storage furniture, such as chests of drawers, bookcases and sideboards, this means ensuring that the tone and stain of the wood belong to the same family. For upholstery, cover sofas and armchairs with a fabric related to the room. “It’s the way to attract him and give him a sense of belonging,” she says.

And while heirlooms have sentimental value, they can be hard to fit in if they don’t match your style. In this case, Gross recommends reinventing the room. If it’s a buffet, she says, stock it with contemporary artwork, candlesticks or ginger jars, or update the hardware with something more modern. “Put [something new] on a piece that’s 150 years old, and then it’s brought back to the present day,” she says.

Shaffer enjoys using vintage sideboards, dressers and bedside tables to furnish clients’ homes. She particularly gravitates towards pieces marked by notable designers and manufacturers – such as Henredon, Hickory Chair, or Milo Baughman for Thayer Coggin – because it shows quality construction. “I want it to last another 50, 60, 100 years,” she says.

If you’re not ready to invest in bigger items, start small and layer up according to your budget and as you get a feel for what you like. Area rugs, artwork, decorative items, and accent furniture (think side tables) are great places to start.

For accessories, Shaffer favors small statement pieces, such as Stiffel lamps and brass candlesticks. Gross loves side tables, namely a good martini table. And Disabella loves chairs. “One of the easiest things is a cool chair, whether it’s an old dining chair or something simple with a nice weathered look, because a chair can be used in almost any room as an accent. or plant stand, or in a guest room as a place to put the bags,” she says.

However, some pieces of furniture are better bought new than vintage. Antique upholstery, for example, can be difficult to work with. A new sofa with firm cushions and crisp fabric overshadows a dusty, worn old sofa that smells of mothballs. “A lot of people struggle with padding,” Shaffer says. “You have to do something about it. They’ll choose a vintage sofa and put a very historical pattern on it, and then they’ll be stuck.

Antique lighting, while beautiful, can also be tricky to use, as it may require a bit of elbow grease and rewiring to get it working again. But when you find a great room, it can be worth it. Gross fell in love with the bronze and frosted glass of an octagonal art deco light fixture made in 1930s France. She had it replicated, so she could use it in a room where she needed more than one light fixture. “The design was so perfect, and I couldn’t find anything like it,” she says.

Ultimately, it’s about finding those kinds of pieces: the ones you connect with on a deeper level. “Have fun and enjoy the hunt, and there’s no wrong decision,” says Disabella. “If something speaks to you, that’s all you need, and you work around that and figure out how to make it sing.”

Marissa Hermanson is a writer in Richmond.

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