With so many uses for antique furniture and architectural elements, the possibilities are endless—and affordable.
Last year, I realized I loved old furniture when I found myself stripping, sanding and repainting my dresser, a hand-me-down from my parents, for the third time. More recently, I discovered just how much I adore the vintage stuff when I was late for a client meeting because I was busy scavenging through the remains of a partially leveled Chicago flat É in high heels. My goal? Six-pane window frames with the old factory-building glass that distorts light just enough to create a pattern and wash of color as light filters through. Why? If used creatively and correctly, the history and "age" of older pieces can add priceless depth and character to a home.
Why this interest in "old"?
"One man's junk is another man's treasure." I think we'd all agree that new is wonderful. There's nothing like owning a new house. But often a new house doesn't feel like home until it's been lived inÑcomplete with nicks and stains, traditions and history. Take our love of timber homes. The style and building techniques are steeped in rustic ancestry. My window frames don't exactly have a lineage I can trace back to the Mayflower. However, they do have more than a couple decades of architectural history, weathering and color from their stint in the Windy City. The beauty of collecting antiques and vintage architectural elements is finding a way to weave their past into your home's present and make it a part of your future.
What do you mean by "antique"?
If you're any sort of furniture or design buff at all, you've encountered the word "antique." It's grandma's couch from the 1920s that's been passed down through generations or the Queen Anne chair your sister bought at Sotheby's on her last trip to New York City. That definition of antique is the truest sense of the word. However, what I'm talking about typically runs along the lines of vintage antiquity rather than our traditional, high-end definition. My kind of antiques include items that aren't necessarily high-cost—it's the sideboard piece your neighbor threw out when he moved, and you see that all it needs is a coat of paint. Or that old ornamental wrought-iron 4-foot break of garden fence you found at the salvage shop. Many of these "old" items can be rejuvenated with nothing but a little creativity.
So where can I find these pieces?
A good place to start your search is right in your own home. Take a look around and evaluate your furniture. Is there anything that you were thinking of giving away, not because the piece didn't work anymore, but because it wasn't the right color, finish or style for that particular room? Would that piece look better with a different color stain or another fabric? Or better yet, can that piece serve another functional purpose?
Flea markets, antique shows, consignment shops and salvage yards are other obvious places to shop for vintage pieces. But what's not so obvious is how to choose items that are worth the hunt. Pay attention to elements and furniture with interesting shapes and patterns. Take the time to appreciate them for their original function, then think about how you can use theme in a completely new way. Would a wrought-iron gate work just as well as a wall ornament? Could an old-fashioned door be converted into a tabletop? Can you hang that window frame from your loft beams as a room divider?
And while it's nice to touch and feel the pieces before you buy, don't neglect the Internet. Though the information superhighway might seem like the last place you'd look for old relics, quite a few web sites are dedicated to recycled building materials and architectural elements. The California Integrated Waste Management Board site (www.ciwmb.ca.gov/reuse/ links/building.htm) provides an alphabetized list of companies that specialize in salvaged building materials. And Vintage Timberworks (www.vintagetimber.com) focuses on recycled old-growth lumber. The wood can come "as is" with history marks, or can be reworked to your specification. These sites are wonderful ways to generate ideas for your home. While shopping, always make sure you consider each item's scale (height, width and depth) when determining how it will work in your homeÑespecially when you can't see the piece in person.
Once I can find it, how do I use it?
Good question. The biggest factor here is creativity. Here are a few ideas:
Old window frames and doors (both wooden and wrought iron) have a variety of uses. Any glass shop can custom-cut mirrors or colored glass to fit in empty panes. With or without glass, hang the window or door as an artistic element in your room. Or you can turn an interesting wood or wrought-iron door lengthwise and hang above your bed as headboard. (A pair of windows could substitute for this decorative treatment, too.) In a fairly open, loft-like space, a vintage window frame hanging from the ceiling or positioned between a sofa and a console table can serve as a unique room divider.
Pedestals, wellheads, oversized ceramic vessels make wonderful table bases. Depending on their size, use them as side tables, coffee tables and even kitchen tables. Glass is a great table topper because it showcases the base beneath in all its glory. However, you also can use stone (depending on how sturdy your base is) and woodÑeven an old window or door—but make sure it's high enough to offer plenty of sitting and knee room.
Industrial metal lockers can be repainted a cheery color and find a new home in the mudroom as storage for athletic equipment, canned goods and cleaning supplies. In the bathroom they can hold towels or paper goods.
Recycled furniture gets a new life with a fresh coat of paint and new hardware. Just as paint color is rejuvenating for walls, so is changing the hardware on furniture.
Hardware itself is an oft-overlooked way to add depth and interest to a space. Think vintage glass doorknobs, cabinet pulls, hooks and door knockers. Whether used as artistic flair in your home or for the function they were genuinely intended, hardware can immediately jazz up your space for very little money.
Is there a right and wrong way to decorate with vintage pieces?
Wrong: There really is no "wrong" way to use antique and vintage pieces, but you can overdo it. (Remember, in successful decorating, contrast is key.) However, personal preference plays a huge part in your home's overall feel. Cleaning old pieces is essential; always double check for lead-based paint (you can pick up a tester kit at a local hardware store) as it can be harmful. And my rule of thumb: If you have any doubts about price, stability or safety, get the opinion of an antique furniture expert.
Right: Creativity is always right when recycling antique pieces. Complements from house guests always signal when you've got it right. But most of all, the desire to go out hunting for more because your first antique/vintage endeavor turned out marvelously means you did it right.
So what happened with the windowpanes I was scavenging? After much haggling with the contractor (he wanted them, too) I now have five of the windows sitting in my foyer É still dusty and dirty and awaiting a little TLC for their new calling in my home.
Read the full story in the October/November 2005 issue of Timber Home Living.
When she's not traipsing around salvage yards in her stilettos, Jennifer Larsen is a Chicago-based interior designer.