It seems as if one of the buzzwords in antique-collecting and home decorating today is “vintage.” It can describe a piece of furniture of a particular era and in some cases is used interchangeably with “retro.” “Vintage,” used as an adjective, can also describe something that is top-of-the-line. So what, pray tell, is vintage furniture, and when and how can it be displayed in today’s homes?
Make no mistake: Vintage is neither retro nor antique, but if it’s showcased correctly, it can add a “wow” factor to your room.“Vintage furniture was made before 1965 but is not an antique, which must be 100 years old or more,” says Evelyne Clinton, a New Orleans decorator and owner of Source. on Magazine Street. “Think of the great pieces made between 1920 and 1965. It must have a certain maturity, be made of the finest-
quality materials and craftsmanship and have an enduring appeal.”
Clinton first fell in love with antique and vintage furniture as a child when she visited her grandparents in Abbeville
and in Mississippi.
“One of my grandfathers was a surgeon in World War II who served in China, India and Burma,” she says. “He and my grandmother collected exotic-looking Moroccan tables with gorgeous inlaid woods and mother-of-pearl details. Their home had wonderful porcelains, Swedish pieces and amazing Oriental rugs.”
Another grandfather, the late state Sen. Dudley J. LeBlanc, founder of Hadacol, also collected fine classic pieces such as huge French chandeliers, Oriental rugs and Italian art that he found at auctions.
“It was magical to visit both sets of grandparents, and I knew at an early age that what I saw in these homes was special,” she says.
Today Clinton scours markets in Europe and America for vintage pieces to feature in her Lower Garden District shop and to decorate her clients’ homes but advises that such pieces be used sparingly.
Finding good vintage furniture takes a trained eye. Vintage, after all, doesn’t mean old, dowdy or boring. Clinton recommends that a person hire someone he or she trusts for advice. She favors works by Dorothy Draper, David Hicks and Jacques Adnet. Finnish-born designers Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen are also well-respected in
the vintage world.But if these are out of your budget, she recommends that you search auction houses, reputable stores and garage and estate sales for furniture created before 1965 with clean lines, a warm patina to the wood and a style that has stood the test of time. And don’t be afraid to repurpose the piece.
Clinton cites a client who found two tall circa-1960 chairs in a Dumpster. The chairs had exquisite lines and were beautifully made. She had her staff artist at Source. lacquer the chairs white and reupholster them in a white faux suede. The once-rejects now add the perfect balance to a formal living room in a chic French Quarter home.
That same client inherited two vintage chairs, bought at Leonard Bernstein’s estate sale, that begged for a more updated look. Clinton reupholstered them in a rich blue velvet, thus giving a new look to some special chairs.
“Vintage pieces, used correctly, can add pop to a room without looking contrived,” she says. “It
can give balance, excitement and even a much-needed sense of whimsy to a serious room. If not used correctly, it
can look misplaced.”
For example, to add interest to a dining room that is furnished in predominantly English antiques, she would add a vintage chandelier, a French bibliothèque or an art deco buffet.
To a room that has a French aesthetic, she recommends adding a 1950s Italian tole chandelier or an Italian tole mirror.
The key, she says, is to buy a top-quality piece that you love and plan to live with a long time.
“If a vintage piece is well-made and has great lines, it’s worth keeping,” she says. “And if you love it – for whatever reason – it’s worth saving. Some fresh paint properly applied or just lightening the wood or upholstering with wonderful fabric can give fine old fixtures new life. Vintage pieces are treasures and can take a room in a new, fresh direction.”