Hunting for, buying and decorating with vintage furniture can be one of the smartest — and most creative — interior design decisions you can make. There are many good reasons to shop vintage, along with designs for virtually every style. I made this special page as a guide to buying and decorating with vintage furniture, incorporating learning from 20+ years of experience and lots of reader experience, too.
Four key reasons to buy vintage furniture
Vintage furniture can be one of the best bargains around. I came up with four key reasons why:
- Vintage furniture often has better quality. This furniture is more likely to have been made with solid wood, not some sort of wood or wood composite substrate covered with veneer. You also see nice craftsmanship, such as dovetailed drawers and the like.
- Vintage furniture has stood the test of time. This benefit is a build on the idea above: If a piece of furniture has lasted, for example, 50 years, under at least moderate use, it’s likely going to last another 50 years, or more.
- Buying vintage furniture can save you massive amounts of money. In general, only the hottest designer names of vintage furniture command prices that may be higher than what you’d buy new from a nice furniture store. In general, people who are downsizing or liquidating an estate just need to get rid of the stuff and now — which means that if you are in the market, you are line for a good deal.
- Today’s vintage furniture may become tomorrow’s valuable antique. It’s only as time passes that furniture and antique dealers and the collective market decide which vintage furniture designs are the most valuable. Develop your eye… and get in early… and you may bump into a piece that is, as they say, trash-to-treasure.
Styles of vintage furniture
For purposes of this page, I am casting a pretty wide net over what I call “vintage” furniture. In general, though, here I am going to include and talk about furniture made and marketed in midcentury and early postmodern America — roughly spanning 1940 to 1980. Following is a starting list of some of the different styles seen during this period — and of course, there were many variations even among these categories:
- Streamline modern — typified by blonde Heywood Wakefield designs, as well as other curvy designs emanating from 1940s interior design
- French provincial — this time capsule house includes some nice examples of French Provincial design. European formality still had its fans.
- Midcentury modern — a very diverse category, but I’ll take a stab and say: Bias toward biomorphic designs and lack of ornamentation. However, design evolved very quickly beyond these precepts, very rapidly — to meet the wants and needs of the mass market.
- Scandinavian modern — often in teak, these designs came from the Scandinavian countries. For example: Cado wall systems.
- Asian — oriental motifs were popular, often in chairs and lacquered pieces
- Tiki — a novelty design
- Flower power — Like this Drexel Plus One furniture design, along with anything sold in the 1960s and into the 1970s that focused on acid trip colors as the key design feature.
- Brutalist — a postmodern evolution
- Memphis — also very postmodern, in response to the limits imposed by midcentury modernism
Where to buy vintage furniture
The #1 place I like to look for vintage furniture is estate sales. This is ground zero — original furniture from original owners in its original habitat. Prices are likely to be good. You will know whether they smoked or not. You will have some sense of your furniture’s story. See my eight tips to shop an estate sale.
I have a hard time buying any big piece of furniture sight unseen, so my next go-to places to shop would be: Thrift stores, used furniture stores and craigslist. Read this story with ideas from readers on how to improve your searching on craigslist.
Of course, I would also haunt local stores specializing in midcentury furniture. But, I put this lower down on the list, because I am a bargain hunter, and a specialty shop is more likely to charge more for a piece of vintage furniture with particular value. That said, if it’s something I really want, I might well pay, without complaint. That’s because, quite often, I’ve found, specialty stores get their pieces from folks who know they have something and they call the store direct. So, the store gets it because they have a real bricks-and-mortar presence. For sure this costs money, too. Small businesses have a rough time surviving. I will happily pay a fair price if it’s something I really want/need.
Oh, and don’t forget auctions. These can be big time commitments. But, great bargains can be found. Just don’t get caught up in the excitement and end up with something you don’t want.
Garage sales are also worth checking, but that may take lots of shopping around because quality varies so widely at garage sales.
I doubt I would ever buy a large piece of furniture from ebay or etsy, because, as I said above, I need to see something big before I commit.
The best deals in vintage furniture
It’s been my experience that the very best deals you can find in vintage furniture are in dining rooms sets and bedroom sets. Why? A person can collect lots of chairs, lots of end tables, lots of lamps or other small items. But in general, we only have room in our house for one dining room furniture and for one bedroom set per bedroom. I think you are pretty much crazy if you don’t buy your dining room set and bedroom furniture vintage. The one issue you might have is if you want a king-sized headboard. Those can be hard to come by. But not impossible, by any means. Wait it out.
The one piece of furniture you may not want to buy vintage
Okay. There is one piece of furniture that you may end up feeling like you don’t have the patience to buy and deal with vintage: A sofa or sofa-sectional. Sofas often need upholstering… or, worse, they may need rebuilding all the way from the frame up. Which can be very expensive. Note, if there is foam in the back, the foam can harden over time. Needs to be replaced. Needs someone who knows what they are doing and can fuss with you to get it right. Other potential issues: Smells. And bedbugs. Oh, buy a mattress used? I don’t think so…
All this said, it is possible to find vintage sofas that are in great shape and workable. The sofa above is a vintage Thayer Coggin, with original upholstery. Wow! I have two sofas and two loveseats that are vintage, and which I had reupholstered, and they are great.
If you want to buy a sofa new, I compiled this list of 28 places to buy an affordable midcentury style sofa.
Mixing vintage furniture with new furniture
Can you mix new and old? Of course! However, one important thing you need to be aware of is the issue of: Scale. Much furniture sold new today is scaled larger than furniture from the past. This makes sense. Americans are both taller and heavier — and we invented the term “couch potato” not too long ago — so it makes sense that today’s furniture designs are wider and deeper. This can become an issue when you are trying to mix vintage and new. For example, a vintage 1950s occasional table set next to one of today’s supersized sofas may be immediately and clearly dwarfed. Kinda like the room in Pee Wee’s playhouse.
Relately, many midcentury homes had lower ceilings. As a result, furniture was scaled long and low. Sometimes, putting a new supersized sofa or sectional in those midcentury spaces just makes the sofa take over.
Should you refinish or paint vintage furniture?
- If you think the furniture has any real value, or may be likely to increase in value, I say: No! Preserve the original finish. Don’t refinish it, don’t paint it.
- If the piece has no significant value, or is really wrecked, I say: Do what you please. We had a really good conversation in this story about whether to paint or refinish a piece of wrecked Heywood Wakefield table.