How to bring retro, vintage and antique items into your home

Even the most modern houses can benefit from something from the past, so to coincide with National Old Stuff Day on 2nd March, here is our guide on how to make your home stand out and feel more special to you…

“Every picture tells a story,” a famous writer once said. Or possibly it was sawdust-throated rocker Rod Stewart on an early 1970s album. living room in luxury home

Anyway, the point we’re making is that each room in your house is actually a 3D picture, and that too should tell a story; a story about where you’ve been, where you are now, and also what really gets to you (in Rod’s song, incidentally, it was a lady called Lil).

The shiniest, newest pieces in our homes don’t often appeal to the heart – they’re ‘head buys’, all very practical and, although they may look very nice, lack a dash of genuine personality. For character, you need unique pieces – retro, vintage and antique pieces – which have stood the test of time and have a real tale to tell.

You don’t have to flood each room with antiques, though. One rule is to go four fifths modern and one fifth old – a fine or quirky antique can fit perfectly well into a mainly contemporary setting.

And ‘antique’ doesn’t have to mean stern and Victorian; something that embodies the plain ‘40s, stylish ‘50s, colourful ‘60s, hippy ‘70s or even chunky ‘80s will still work well.

Living rooms

old shabby pieces

Some people would worry about introducing an antique sofa or chairs into their lounge – even re-covered, that’s certainly quite a daring retro statement.

It’s safer to start smaller with something like a coffee table, an antique sideboard, an antique mirror over the fireplace or a vintage rug. An old clock, ornaments or pictures add a nice finishing touch, particularly if there’s family history in them.

Place ornaments and pictures in groups. Ornaments can be themed by colour, style or subject; even quite contrasting pictures can be pulled together with similar frames.

If you’re mixing woods, remember there are two ‘families’ – formal and informal. Mahogany, cherry and oak are formal, so they'll go well with one another. Pine, maple, and bamboo are informal choices – they match each other, but won’t go with formal woods.

Think about re-purposed antiques, as well – and be inventive. For example, we’ve seen (in order of size) horseshoes used as coasters, a vintage bird cage converted into a handy clutter organiser, a half-barrel coffee table and an old grand piano placed sideways on a wall as a surprisingly effective bookcase.

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vintage crocks and jars

Clearly we’re not going to suggest a vintage cooker or washing machine; retro is here to enhance enjoyment, not to add to your work.

But even among the slabs of efficient colour in the kitchen, there’s room for quirky. Try old jars, bottles and containers, either for use as storage or as attractive ornaments that provide a vibrant splash of colour.

A collection of decorative plates (blue-and-whites are easily obtained and work well) or copper pans, or even a frieze of vintage tin covers, can be wall-mounted for a colour hit.

A school-style chalkboard works as a message board and an old food-related sign on the wall can look good. We covet a 1950s poster in a friend’s kitchen that has an Audrey Hepburn-like face and the slogan ‘Chocolate Doesn’t Ask Silly Questions’.

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vintage still life

We’d suggest keeping the bed itself modern and comfortable. But around that modern centre point, anything goes – especially in your own bedroom.

Vintage could mean choosing from antique wardrobes, dressing tables, bedside furniture and all sorts of pictures and knick-knacks. Just don’t get too cluttered; that’s for flea market stalls and very old ladies. It isn’t relaxing either, and too much stuff is not what you want in a bedroom.

How about an antique bedding box at the foot of the bed, for surplus duvets and pillow cases? Or a chest of drawers painted to match your colour scheme? Remember, old furniture is a bargain, as well as being better made and downright woodier than modern equivalents.

Bedrooms are a good place to branch out with lighting too. Clearly you need the ceiling light, but why not incorporate decorative wall and table lights too? These will not only look pretty but are also practical for bedtime readers.

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How and where to shop

flea market in tuscany

The rule, if you’ve got time, is to double-shop. First, go to a smart antique shop or city-centre fair, somewhere where everything is overpriced. Buy nothing here if you can help it. This is where you find out what you like and what look you want to go achieve.

Now take these ideas out to your real shops – the rural antiques fairs, the flea markets, the charity shops, and even car boot and jumble sales. Ask your neighbours and friends, and search the local papers to find where and when these are.

Here’s a fascinating fact for you: Europe’s largest antiques market is in Newark, Nottinghamshire – an enormous fair spread across 10 buildings and 44 marquees, with 4,000-plus stalls. If you’re not too far away, it’s well worth a trip.

When entering any fair/market/sale, search thoroughly: the same market may have very similar items at wildly different prices throughout the place. And take cash – it looks more tempting to sellers, and at these places they don’t all have credit card machines

When you find something, don’t pay the asking price. Come on, you’ve surely seen Bargain Hunt and the like on TV? You’ll haggle and you’ll enjoy it.

You’ll say “what’s your best price on this?” followed by “if I buy all three can I pay...” and offer the price for two. Then you’ll say “well my absolute maximum is...” and you’ll remain polite and calm throughout.

Finally, don’t forget to look at websites like Pinterest for inspiration and eBay, Gumtree, Preloved and Freecycle for good deals.

And remember, you are the person who spots a buy and turns it into a bargain.

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