Buy Like A Pro
Using an industry insider’s eye, knowledge and experience to make home décor purchases
Graci Interiors, LLC
The new floors are down, and the walls are finally painted. The curtains are hung, and so are the light fixtures. As the furniture makes its way into the room, new questions arise. There’s empty wall space now where a tall, flimsy bookshelf once stood. Perhaps there’s empty floor space where the outdated coffee table once held a few magazines.
When it’s time to fill new or newly renovated spaces with art and furnishings, many homeowners are intimidated by the task of shopping for the items that help define a room. Unless you grew up surrounded by original works of art and antique items, your exposure to fine art and antique furniture is likely limited to the valued pieces your family has passed down over time.
Whether shopping for themselves or shopping for clients, experts in design, architecture, art and antiques are informed by their careers and the knowledge that accompanies their experience. This season, we’ve asked a number of local experts for buying tips that will help readers assess their own needs and avoid buyer’s remorse when investing in the items that reflect their style and expression.
“When I learned how to look at and evaluate objects in grad school, we studied Charles Montgomery’s ‘14 points of connoisseurship.’ I love that the first step of evaluating a piece of art or an antique is subjective: ‘Does it sing to you?’” says Lydia Blackmore, Decorative Arts Curator at The Historic New Orleans Collection. “After that, you should learn what it is made of, what were the techniques of its construction, how old it is, and how it fits into the continuum of style and art history,” she says.
After deciphering these details, she recommends finding out (if possible) its provenance: details on the original owner, subsequent owners, and how it ended up for sale.
Finding a piece that “sings to you” and, in the words of Marie Kondo, organizing guru and minimalist, “sparks joy” should be the first step in your shopping adventure, whether it be in stores or galleries, online or at auction. When Mason Ros Design Principal Kristen Mason Klamer has a need to fill, it’s always fresh on her mind. Whether she’s walking around town or scrolling through a blog or Instagram feed, Klamer knows she’ll know it when she sees it — the moment it sings. She follows the online presence of artists, photographers and architects, always seeking inspiration for her design work while also happening upon the occasional personal need. She recently reached out to a photographer on Instagram about purchasing a photo for her home and was able to procure a piece she loved without breaking the bank.
“Usually I just feel so connected to something — I don’t want to live without it. For me, it’s more spontaneous and less about research. Of course, professionally, it’s a different story.”
The same rings true for antique furniture, and fortunately for Kelly Sutton, Owner of Kelly Sutton Design and Sutton House, she was able to learn a lot about antiques from her mother, who owns Lafayette Antique Market in Lafayette. From various markings to construction types, the details all tell a story. But for Sutton personally, shopping is more about a gut feeling than a brand or price.
“I love finding a bargain, and I love finding a piece that can be re-done from a hole-in-the-wall flea market. I typically look for quality details — marble tops or beautiful burl veneers or veneers that have been book matched — details that make a statement piece,” she says.
While some homeowners are excited to hit the town or search the web, others just don’t enjoy the hunt. Interior designers can of course help with acquiring new or new-to-you art and furniture.
“Our search begins with a quick assessment of the art the client currently owns,” says Maria Barcelona, Owner of Maria Barcelona Interiors. “This gives us some knowledge as to their likes and dislikes as well as budget guidelines. This is the time to determine whether the client is looking for an investment piece of fine art versus something pretty that fills the space and goes with the room design,” she says.
According to our experts, the number one reason for buyer’s remorse comes in poor planning. Taking measurements are a crucial step in filling a space, whether two-dimensional or three-dimensional.
“Always check the dimensions first,” emphasizes Chad Graci, Owner and lead designer at Graci Interiors, LLC. “When you can, see the piece in person. Online, items can seem larger or smaller than in real life. You don’t want to get stuck with something — expensive or not — that doesn’t work.”
Good designers make a priority of getting to know the style preferences of their clients, and a great designer knows how to build trust and take worthwhile risks that might push the limits of a client’s comfort zone.
Graci remembers a rewarding instance when he encouraged a client who tended to prefer light, bright accessories and art to consider a grand, framed 18th-century Flemish tapestry as the anchor for her dining room over a painted Swedish enfilade.
“I was so nervous afterwards, but at the install it truly made the room,” he says.
Homeowners who do choose to embark on the hunt themselves can find a wealth of information on the internet. Penny Francis, Principal Designer at Eclectic Home, suggests doing your homework.
“Sites like Ebay, Etsy and auction sites have information about pieces and what the condition and price are as well as what pieces have sold in the past,” says Francis. “Condition plays a big part in the value, so look at as many resources as you can find.”
Auctions are another fun way to hunt for antiques, and Francis recommends attending the preview parties to take a close look at the items beforehand.
“They have amazing photography and details in their auction catalogs; however, nothing beats seeing it in person,” she says. If you can’t attend the preview party, Francis suggests requesting condition reports for the items you are interested in bidding on. She also brings up another cause of buyer’s remorse: being more excited by the deal than the piece itself. Just because you acquired an item at a steal doesn’t mean it will work in the home or bring you the joy you’d sought.
When it comes to antiques, Terri Goldsmith, Owner of Maison de Provence, advises using the internet as a sourcing tool but then actually buying locally.
“In today’s culture of one click purchasing, everyone should be extremely wary of buying online. Although it is an efficient way to source availability and pricing of items, images alone will not provide sufficient information for the investment that antique furnishings require,” she says.
When considering a piece in person, Goldsmith examines the exterior aspects, type of wood or main material of the item, and construction techniques such as original nails or specific woodworking to help determine age, style, and authenticity. If abroad, she then considers the current currency conversion rates, insurance and shipping costs, and moving costs all while negotiating.
“Often I have a price in mind before indicating my interest in a piece,” she says.
Vikki Leftwich, Interior Designer and Owner of Villa Vici, also loves buying local and appreciates the vast market of antiques you can find in New Orleans.
“I like to touch and feel antiques and New Orleans’ antique dealers have an incredible inventory of one-of-a-kind pieces,” she says. Leftwich keeps a running wish list for both clients and herself saved on her iPhone with measurements included. That way, when something “sings,” she knows she’ll have the perfect spot for it. When buying online, she echoes similar concerns as Goldsmith.
“Reading the fine print is also important to determine if exchanges or returns are possible. It is always helpful if the vendor has their own shipper and be sure all purchases are insured for the full value of the piece you are purchasing,” she says. Leftwich also brings up another cause of buyer’s remorse — perhaps not yours but your significant other’s. She stresses the importance of both partners loving a piece. Otherwise, she says, your purchase may end up in a closet or on a donation list.
At Renaissance Interiors, co-owner Larry Mann has seen thousands of pieces come and go from his high-end consignment shop full of home décor and furnishings. Mann’s biggest pieces of advice are to avoid surprises and to be patient. Measure and personally examine the piece if possible, and always consider the nature of the space where the item will eventually be placed. Do everything you can to envision the item in the space so that when the item shows up, you’re not disappointed by any aspects of it.
Also, according to Mann, perhaps the best things in life come to those who wait.
“We find the best success stories are from our customers who are diligent in their pursuit of a particular piece and are willing to wait it out to find just the right item,” he says. Mann frequently tells customers not to settle.
“Those who wait are often rewarded with something they just absolutely love,” he says.