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New, Old World Charm

Making modern use of antique furniture & art

Kevin Gillentine

theresa cassagne photographs

Aside from its architecture, a home’s art and furniture are often what give it character — but character isn’t necessarily all you want. Art and antique furniture shouldn’t be mysterious or inaccessible — they exist to be enjoyed, to be used. Original, handmade items typically excel in quality, and whether you’re buying the piece for its original intent or hoping to give it new life with a new use, adding to your collection should be fun and full of inspiration.

President, CEO, and third generation owner of M.S. Rau Antiques, one of the largest premier fine arts and antique galleries in the world, William Rau is as much a lover of art and antiques as he is an expert.

“I am a true history buff, so I am most drawn to pieces with historical significance,” says Rau. “For me, that’s the real allure of collecting — discovering the story behind an item or a work of art.”

While Rau recognizes that beauty and allure is the function of some pieces, he also enjoys the usefulness of items with practical purposes and has furnished his home with a few that he uses every day: a rice carved bed in his bedroom, Victorian bookcases in his den and the Tiffany flatware used on special occasions.

“People shouldn’t be afraid to live with and use their antiques,” he says. “These pieces have survived for a very long time — some, hundreds of years. Chances are good they will continue to survive.”

An interior designer for over 25 years, Kathy Slater also worked in antique buying and dealing before developing her furniture line, the Kathy Slater Design Collection. Growing up in Georgia, she was surrounded by English and Chippendale furniture, as well as chinoiserie. A move to New Orleans instilled a love of French antiques, especially the Louis XVI style. Antiques are hardly for collecting dust in Slater’s home, as she makes use of them in a variety of ways.

“I use an 18th century German commode that I bought from Tara Shaw many years ago as storage for all my linens,” she says. “I use my Louis XV French buffet — bought from a Paris flea market on a buying trip — as storage for dinnerware and serving pieces. And I use a Louis XVI French canapé as my main seating in my living room.”

A favorite piece of Slater’s is a gilded 19th century Louis XVI daybed her parents bought from a French Quarter antique store many years ago. She fondly remembers her children napping on that daybed when it was in her mother’s home.

While the aforementioned uses are largely true to the pieces’ original purposes, there are a lot of ways to incorporate antiques into modern lifestyles.
“Take the past and give it a transformation,” says Laura Roland, designer, buyer and manager for Fireside Antiques.

According to Roland, antique armoires were once in high demand for their ability to hide previously deep TVs. In today’s streamlined, flat-screen world, armoires are less effective.

“Enfilades, which are buffets with three or more doors, are one of the most sought-after antiques,” says Roland. “They go below those big, flat-screen TVs and house all the TV components.”

Bibliotheques are also taking the place of armoires in many homes as they can give the needed height in a room with tall ceilings. Their ability to both declutter a room and display your treasures in one place helps keep a room simple.

Roland’s favorite antique is her family’s French buffet a deux corps, which is filled with a variety of dishes, serving pieces, glasses and flatware collected from France and Italy and used on weekends and long lunches.

“I smile every time I open those 200-year-old doors, revealing my treasures that each come with a story,” she says. “Our past must never be forgotten.”  

And speaking of not forgetting the past, it’s important to retain the integrity and history of antiques — especially those that are fine or that exhibit a remarkable patina. Transforming and altering a piece for an altogether new use should be done mindfully so as to not risk ruining a true work of art.

“If you have an antique piece that’s not a high-end piece, it’s okay to paint it or transform it,” says Rivers Spencer. “For instance, I had a big antique armoire cabinet that wasn’t especially nice, and I converted it to a bar by lacquering it robins egg blue and putting a mirror in the back of it. But if it’s an old beautifully patinaed wood chest, you wouldn’t want to do that,” says Rivers Spencer, designer and owner of Rivers Spencer Collection.

Spencer is seeing a rising trend in using antiques in nurseries. People are taking old pieces, painting them, adding crystal knobs or other features, and converting them into changing tables.

Left, Kathy Slater; Right, MS Rau

One of Spencer’s favorite refurbished pieces in her home is an old, French mirror with intricate wood carving. Spencer wasn’t enamored with the wood color, so she refinished it using the champagne silver leaf finish she developed for the Rivers Spencer Collection to breathe new life into the piece.

Penny Francis, owner and designer of Eclectic Home, loves to use old chests of drawers for vanity sinks.

“By adding a stone top and notching out the first drawer for the P trap, they become amazing original works,” she says. She recommends considering pieces in new contexts, like using an old farm table or cabinet as a center island for the kitchen. Like Spencer, Francis also recommends modern finishes in place of old finishes you can’t get past.

“Classics with modern finishes you will want to keep,” says Francis.

Just as a new finish can liven up wood furniture, reupholstering can make a similar world of difference in chairs and sofas. Some pieces may have been upholstered during decades with unmistakable styles, and making it your own with a fabric that fits your personality or home can transform it from something you once shrugged at to something you now love.

Katie Koch Home, newly located at 3905 Magazine St., offers reupholstery services or antiques and vintage pieces (as well as slipcovers) and drapery consultation, design, and on-site fabrication. The new showroom also features a variety of one-of-a-kind vintage and contemporary design pieces such as lighting, furniture, rugs and pillows.

“Katie likes to elevate a piece by reupholstering in fabrics with either bold patterns, color, texture, or a combination of all three elements,” says Lori Watts, showroom manager.

Some of her go-to fabric designers include Pierre Frey for his unique patterns and Jim Thompson for his work with texture. The showroom has a fabric library to help with selections and upholstery consultations. The work is handled on-site with personal supervision by the design team. The company works with the design trade as well.

Art, whether antique or modern, plays an important role in bringing a room together and giving it a pleasing aesthetic. There are a number of ways to give new life to your walls.

Kevin Gillentine is well known for his contemporary landscape paintings, and the Kevin Gillentine Gallery houses some of those works in addition to works from guest artists, antique prints and museum-quality custom framing. As both an artist and designer, Gillentine knows the intricate relationship of art to its surroundings, and there are a number of ways to make the old look new and the new look old. One way to do that is to mix the two.

“Mixing antiques and contemporary items is a hallmark of a good design,” says Gillentine. “If you mix in something antique, it gives more character to the room and gives it warmth. If everything is contemporary with no balance of antiques, it can often make a room feel cold — it can be beautiful but not have the same warmth.”

Whether you prefer to mix a few contemporary pieces into a more traditional home design or mix a few antique pieces into a contemporary home, both methods will positively affect the overall ambiance. Paintings like Gillentine’s can adapt to the look of their surroundings and appear antique when placed over an old piece of furniture or contemporary amidst contemporary furniture.

Another way of changing the feel of visual art is through its framing. According to Gillentine, framing and hanging a series of antique prints, such as hand-painted natural history bookplates, can be a great way to warm up the wall of a contemporary room, especially if you use contemporary frames. Likewise, framing modern artwork with antique-style, hand-carved, gilded frames will allow it to take on a more historic, museum-like appearance.

The beautiful thing about art and antiques is that they are always adaptable — adaptable to the room they are placed in and adaptable to new use. If you fall in love with a particular piece of antique furniture or art, adapt it to your home and explore its possibilities. Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to use it.


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