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How to Buy Vintage Furniture That Will Last Forever

See the styles and materials to look out when combining vintage furniture with your modern pieces

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By House & Garden | May 13, 2024 | Design

Not so long ago, a trip to a regional auction house might have seen you leaving with a car load of beautiful, high quality antiques for a few hundred pounds. But a combination of social media and the fact that almost every auction also plays out online means that you’d be hard pushed to do the same today. ‘Everything has opened up, which means that very few good pieces are overlooked anymore,’ says dealer and interior designer Thea Speke. ‘It also means the prices have been pushed up because what was once a random auction house has now been opened up to the whole country,’ she adds.

There is no doubt that a piece with extraordinary provenance and patina is deserving of a higher price, but there are also plenty of pieces, materials and styles that are still at the more affordable end of the spectrum if you know what to look for.

Like this aged wood table, If a piece exhibits quality of design, material and manufacture, it will always represent good value. Image courtesy of the Royal Portfolio.

For years, dealers and designers have sung the praises of brown furniture –and rightly so. These solid, well made, dark wood pieces, largely dating from the Georgian to Edwardian periods, can be picked up for remarkably little – in fact often much less than their Ikea alternative – and have a place in almost every type of interior. The decoration of architect George Saumarez-Smith’s house in Winchester all kicked off 10 years ago when he realised how brown furniture was an economical and aesthetically pleasing way to enliven empty corners.

The day bed in the Hotel Château du Grand-Lucé is a luxuriously and aesthetically pleasing way to liven up an empty corner. Image courtesy of Hotel Château du Grand-Lucé.

Charlie Porter, Tat London’s founder and House & Garden alumni, is also a fan: ‘on mass, it can look despicable but one or two pieces of mahogany can make a home,’ she says. Fourth generation antiques dealer Will Green agrees. ‘I’ve found Georgian drop-leaf tables to be good value, especially considering their usefulness – with the leaves down they work perfectly as lamp tables by a sofa and with their leaves up they can be used as a small breakfast table.’ It is an important point – value is not just defined by the price you pay, but also by the fact a piece can fulfil multiple functions.

Filling your bathroom with vintage accessories introduces both texture and warmth into an otherwise cold are of the house. Photography by Elsa Young.

Periods that have fallen by the wayside are a good route to more affordable pieces. While the Aesthetic Movement and Arts & Crafts has garnered plenty of attention, Derbyshire-based antiques dealer and interiors consultant Guy Tobin suggests that this still isn’t quite reflected in the prices they attract. ‘Where a piece of 20th-century design by a named designer might require you to dig deep into your purse, a piece of furniture by a titan of the Arts and Crafts period like Ernest Gimson, William Morris or Edward William Godwin could cost mid-hundreds of pounds,’ he suggests. ‘For a few thousand you might buy a well documented oak and ebony wardrobe of the highest quality by Philip Webb at a recent Lyon & Turnbull auction in Edinburgh,’ he adds. ‘This is surely a piece that would cost tens of thousand to replicate by cabinet makers today and ought to be worth multiples of the hammer price achieved.’

Sleek, vintage pieces are ironically timeless and work really well with earlier furniture or contemporary pieces. Photography by Mattia Aquila.

Modern furniture dealer Stanley Quaia, who runs Béton Brut, suggests that Art Deco is another period that has been a little overlooked. ‘It’s about to have its well deserved moment in the spotlight,’ he says. ‘Names like Jacques Adnet and Edgar Brandt are synonymous with the era, but I’d recommend looking for pieces with a more rationalist aesthetic. These designs are a little more minimal – not to mention more affordable.’ Dealer Gwen Pilard, whose shop Quindry is a Lillie Road stalwart, agrees that Art Deco era pieces represent good value. ‘Often it is associated with heavy, clumpy pieces and dark veneers, but there are some pared down, sleek pieces that are timeless and work really well with earlier furniture or contemporary pieces,’ she says. ‘Look out for modernist pieces in solid timbers rather than veneers.’

Early oak from the 16th and 17th centuries (like the chair above), offers incredible value for the quality of materials. Image: Supplied.

When it comes to materials, Will Green suggests that early oak from the 16th and 17th centuries offers incredible value for the quality of materials. ‘It isn’t in vogue, but the quality can be very high and the depth of colour is incomparable,’ he says. ‘It deserves more attention, especially if age, colour and patina are your thing.’ Stanley Quaia suggests that pine – especially from the 1970s and 1980s – still represents good value for money. ‘You get what you see with pine, which I think people find appealing amidst the onslaught of poorly-made, mass-produced furniture – it has this wonderful sense of modesty and heft,’ he says. ‘Pieces by poster boy Axel Einar Hjorth have gone stratospheric but happily there’s a second cohort of designers who speak the same design language,’ he adds. ‘Look out for names like Roland Wilhemsson and Rainer Daumiller.’

Consider buying vintage brass and copper pieces (like this bathtub) if age, colour and patina form part of your home’s decor.’Image: Supplied.

In fact, seeking out pieces by lesser known names or even unsigned pieces is an obvious way to find relative bargains. ‘My advice would be to look out for artisans who worked very much in their own silo and so are less exposed to the whims of the market,’ says Stanley. ‘Interest in midcentury and postmodern design, for example, tends to be capricious and you often get these spikes in demand for certain names that are rooted in little more than increased awareness,’ he adds.

‘Meanwhile, these masters of craft fly under the radar.’ Tobias Vernon, founder of Bath and London-based gallery 8 Holland Street, agrees that a good way to find value is to look beyond the big names. ‘We often source rugs by some of the most celebrated Swedish textile designers and weavers of the 20th century, such as Märta Måås-Fjetterström, Ingerard Sulow and Edna Martin, but their prices are now very high – cast a wider net and look for unsigned pieces from the rest of Scandinavia as well as modernist designs from Turkey, Greece, Morocco and Iran,’ he suggests. It is a good way to get the same quality and exquisite craftsmanship – at a fraction of the price.

Inspired by Australia’s Queensland coast, this home combines bespoke island garden wallpaper by legendary house de Gournay with vintage pieces in natural materials. Photography by Tim Salisbury

He suggests that 1950s and 1960s lighting is a good area to start: ‘Forget the highly covetable Barovier & Toso and Stilnova lighting and delve deeper for less recognisable, idiosyncratic finds,’ he suggests. Thea Speke agrees that lighting is a more affordable area. ‘I’m always amazed by how inexpensive French pottery table lamps from the 1950s and 1960s are,’ she says. ‘They’re one-offs and really beautifully made, and for that reason they offer incredible value.’

Choosing pieces where the provenance is unknown or attribution has been forgotten is a way to get pieces that are not just less ubiquitous but always good value

Aside from specific eras and materials, almost all of the dealers featured here made the same more general point: affordable pieces are found by looking beyond anything too recognisable or representative of the current zeitgeist. Gwen Pilard, for instance, makes a point of avoiding anything immediately identifiable. ‘If a piece exhibits quality of design, material and manufacture, it will always represent good value,’ says Guy Tobin.

When searching for vintage furniture, affordable pieces are found by looking beyond anything too recognisable or representative of the current zeitgeist. Photography by John Athimaritis

This story originally appeared on House & Garden UK.