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6 Designers Share: When to Change a Vintage Piece Or Leave It As-Is

by Rebekah Carey

Many interior designers agree that vintage pieces are key for layering a space. The Internet has taught us to look out for that “diamond in the rough” piece that can either be styled in a modern way, or rehabbed back to its former glory. But, all of the resources on how you can transform vintage items leave us with this question — when is it okay to change a vintage piece, and when do you need to treat it more preciously? Today, six designers are sharing their thoughts on when it’s a good idea to change a vintage piece, and when it’s best to leave it as-is! Rebekah

Image above: Orlando Soria took a sad yellow loveseat found at a flea market and turned it into a stylish and modern piece that will remain a classic that will live on for many more iterations. “I found a relatively hideous (but cheap!) loveseat at the flea market and had it reupholstered to be way more simple,” Orlando shares. “I loved the original shape and structure, but not so much all the detail. When it was done, it was much more in keeping with the contemporary feel of the space.” Photography by Zeke Ruelas and Tessa Neustadt

First up, we’re talking to Orlando Soria, whose hilarious Instagram posts are making us ever-so-eager to get our hands on his forthcoming book when it’s released! Orlando’s giving us tips on vintage pieces like the loveseat he transformed above, “My take on when to reupholster and when to leave as-is: For me, there are no steadfast rules of when to make changes to vintage furnishings and when to leave them as-is. You kind of have to take it on a case-by-case basis. Most blemishes can be corrected: rusted chrome can be re-chromed, scratches in wood can be sanded and refinished, chipped lacquer can be re-coated, and so on,” Orlando advises.

“Some pieces look charming with a little more age (say, an old wooden French provincial dining table with scratches and dents all over it) while some pieces will let you know if they need some help (a dresser with missing hardware). I make decisions on whether to change something based on if it will improve the overall look of the piece. Antiques are often easiest to get away with leaving as-is while mid-century and 70s/80s furniture often needs to be updated/refinished because it’s often shiny, glossy, and polished and doesn’t look as good when it’s weathered,” Orlando shares.

Orlando continues with why he tends to reupholster vintage pieces, “I almost always change upholstery when I’m using vintage. This is for a few reasons. Firstly, because clients get skeeved out by sitting on something someone else has been using for years. Second, because often vintage pieces have considerable wear and tear that distracts from the beauty of their design. An exception is pieces upholstered in high-quality leather. Leather often looks better over time. The more age the better. When changing or updating vintage furniture, I try to be as faithful to its original design as possible, especially if it’s a designer piece. Sometimes, however, the original design doesn’t work well with my design plan so I make some edits.”

Image above: Gail Davis shares the details behind a vintage chair she was gifted and the subtle changes she made, “The chair was given to me by my former employer. It is an antique gentleman’s chair. I wanted to freshen it up with a golden brown shagreen and just sand down and refinish the wood with a hint of a shine.  I love the simple, undulating elegance of this chair; it sits in my pumpkin orange dining room underneath a lithograph art piece entitled ‘thankful poor.’ It is where antique meets gospel.” Photography by Laura Olsson

Gail Davis is sharing her vintage wisdom: “Vintage should be left alone when the patina adds to its beauty. If it is an upholstered piece, there are times where I will not touch it just because of the history. The few times I did a ‘refresh,’ it needed a new fabric to give it a modern feel.” You can also find Gail on Instagram.

Image above: One of Regan Baker’s beautifully designed spaces featuring both new and vintage elements. Photography by Sarah Hebenstreit of Modern Kids Co. and Sharon Risedorph.

San Francisco-based designer Regan Baker tells us, “The first thing I always find out is whether the piece is vintage or antique, because sometimes that will help determine whether you should augment the piece. An antique is typically something that is 100 years old or more, and is valued for its aesthetic or historical significance. Some appraisers might consider something to be antique that is 80 years old,” Regan explains.

“I love mixing together old and modern styles, so I’ll avoid changing an antique piece, because they are visually beautiful and help create a focal point, but you also help preserve the value of the piece. Vintage items are more common, as they have somewhat varying definitions. Commonly, vintage pieces are those considered to be made during a certain era of trends or a certain era of time, and are no longer made. I love taking vintage pieces and modernizing them with new fabric or refinishing the material. It’s a simple way to update a piece without losing the overall structure and integrity of the vintage item,” Regan shares. Keep your eyes peeled on Regan’s Instagram where you can spy more rooms that layer vintage and new pieces.

Image above: A vintage couch gets a new life in this lounge area after being freshly reupholstered. Photography by Jason Varney and Andrew Baasch.

We love how Ashli Mizell shares the practical questions to ask yourself when you’re wondering if you should change a vintage piece — and they can often be asked of a new piece, too. Ashli also gives specific details to keep an eye out for, “When considering your options of how to breathe new life into a vintage piece of furniture, you may ask yourself many of the same questions that you would if you were buying a new piece. Is it well proportioned and comfortable? Is it made well? Does the shape speak to you? Regardless of the value of the piece or era in which it was made, the answers to these questions should dictate if it is worth the effort and investment for you personally. Ashli continues, “If a resounding YES is the answer to all of the above, dig a little deeper!”

Ashli shares details worth keeping, “If you are lucky enough to find that it has a natural or horsehair fill, it is always great to maintain as much of the originality as possible and maintain the history of the piece along the way. On occasion, the original fabric on an antique piece is of historical importance and it is likely best left untouched. In most cases, a fun, fresh fabric and new cushion fill can breathe new life into a great old piece.”

Image above: This vintage trunk was one that Brady Tolbert found and simply cleaned and sprayed with a sealant to make it apartment-ready! Photography by Tessa Neustadt and Zeke Ruelas.  

Brady Tolbert, whom you may be following for his great behind-the-scenes photo shoot peeks, is a fan of both keeping vintage intact and knowing when to fold ’em. “When it comes to vintage furniture, I am all for repurposing it to make it work for you and your space, however there are a few things to keep in mind when buying or repurposing vintage. Scale, size and lines can’t be changed. However, finish, color and upholstery can,” Brady explains.

“So when you start sourcing, remember that and don’t get turned off if you find an amazing chair with great lines but that has stuffing falling out of it, and a terrible upholstery job. More often than not, the best pieces end up being a vintage old couch with a bad upholstery job, that gets a new lease on life with some new stuffing and fabric. On the opposite side of the spectrum if you find a credenza with doors that are falling off, wood that is chipping, and a rickety frame, there is no amount of sanding or paint that will make that project worth it so it might be time to move along,” Brady offers.

Image above: Justina Blakeney gives a vintage dresser a color infusion with a fresh coat of bright blue. Photography by Justina Blakeney and Jungalow.  

Lastly, we’re happily closing with the queen of color (and of mixing vintage and new to create incredibly layered spaces), Justina Blakeney. “For me, there are no ‘rules’ with regard to when a piece of furniture can/’should’ be reupholstered or painted. My feeling is, if it’ll make you happy, go for it! (Of course, if your hope is to eventually resell the piece, there may be other things to take into consideration.) I get easily bored, so after living with a piece for a while I like to switch things up. I love to reupholster pieces in vintage textiles — for example a chair that we had recovered in a vintage suzani blanket. I also now have my own line of upholstery fabrics, so I’ve been going a little nuts having fun with that lately, too,” Justina admits.

“As for paint, I like to paint things in all kinds of [bold] colors! It’s such an easy and quick way to completely transform a piece,” Justina explains. “Also, I like to play with finish. Sometimes I go glossy — it can really change the personality of a piece. Matte paint can also lend a feeling of age to a piece, which can be fun, too.”

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