vintage shelf
Harling’s Guide to Buying Vintage Furniture
08.05.19

When I first started thinking about furnishing my new apartment, I felt like a snail navigating a foam pit–overwhelmed, out of my depth, and well aware that my particular set of skills was not conducive to the mission. Give me a naked body and I will give you a litany of ideas for how and where to clothe it. Give me a naked apartment and I will give you a nervous grin.

paintings
I searched for “nudes” (yes, really) on Chairish to find the little painting on the left. The bigger one is a hand-me-down from my parents.

But after coexisting with roommates and deteriorating IKEA furniture for four years, I was ready for the challenge of approaching home decor in a more thoughtful way when I signed my own lease in May. Thoughtful, to me, meant mostly vintage items and investing slightly more with the intention of holding onto things for years to come. I’ve spent the past three months elbows-deep in this pursuit, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. Below are my most important takeaways from the experience.

Portrait of Harling
I’ve always wanted to use a room divider as a headboard. I ended up purchasing one from Chairish after months of stalking different options. The mirror over my dresser is from the Instagram account @claudehome. When I went to pick it up, I found out the previous owner was my friend Eva Alt, who runs Glossier’s Instagram! Total coincidence.

1. Bookmark inspiration

Because I’d never thoughtfully decorated an apartment before, I didn’t have a clue what my interiors style even was. I decided to try piecing that puzzle together by diligently following home inspiration, design, and vintage resale accounts on Instagram and bookmarking stuff that appealed to me, an exercise that proved to be very helpful. Some of my favorite follows include: @porterjamesny, @kathryn_bentley_, @homeunion, @pearly_interiors, @collectoshop, @mdfg.nyc, @matildagoad, @rebeccathandi, @ah_berlin, @ponceberga, @lonnymag, @studioives, @claudehome, and @johnslivingroom.

2, Develop a running list of keywords

The more inspiration you gather, and the clearer your preferences become, the more data you’ll have about what specific time periods, silhouettes, materials, and designers fit into the makeup of your home aesthetic. These will eventually serve as the keywords you use to search for pieces on resale websites like Chairish, Etsy, eBay, and Craigslist, and even for conducting hashtag searches on Instagram. I’ve had great luck searching “mid century modern,” “burl wood,”  “Vladimir Kagan,” “Eames,” and “Bitossi” (vintage stuff from the latter three designers usually retails at a steep price, but searches will often turn up less expensive items that sellers tag accordingly because of their similar style or origin).

chair
I came across this chair on Etsy completely by accident after searching the keyword “Eames.” It wasn’t designed by Eames, but the seller tagged it as such based on its similarity to that style of furniture. I’m going to use it as a desk chair.

3. Ask for close-up photos and confirm everything works

Oftentimes the condition listed for vintage items will be somewhat vague (what does “good” really mean!?). So before buying previously used items, make sure to ask for closeup photos of any flaws, scratches, or blemishes, and double check that all the important stuff is in working order. This is especially important when ordering a piece with drawers, as these don’t always open and close fluidly on older furniture. In addition to confirming that they do, you can (and should!) ask if the drawers are dovetailed (if they are, it means the piece is especially well-made). Inquiring about possible flaws is not only helpful for evaluating the item in question, but it’s also great leverage for potential negotiations, which brings me to my next point…

Lamp and night stand
I found these lamps on the Esty account ModSquadHome by searching “Bitossi” (they aren’t Bitossi lamps but they have a similar ceramic style and are MUCH more affordable). My nightstands are from another Etsy account, ChurchofMod. I need to remove my mattress foundation so my bed is more level with them, but I’ve been too lazy to do it yet.

4. Always negotiate

Some websites, like Chairish and eBay, have built-in technology to facilitate price negotiation for vintage pieces (you can “make an offer” that is lower than the listed price). On sites like Etsy that deal in a lot of used pieces, you can message sellers privately and ask if the price is negotiable, which it almost always is. Sellers will also often accept even steeper discounts if you offer to pay in cash upon delivery.

5. Compare with modern replicas

Though I’ve made a big effort to buy mostly vintage for my apartment, I still think it’s worth comparing the prices of popular vintage pieces to those of modern replicas so you can weigh the pros and cons of investing in one over the other. The vintage versions often cost more but are of a higher quality, so you get what you pay for. Sometimes, however, the price differential is so significant that buying the modern replica with the understanding that it might not hold up as long is unequivocally the logical path forward. For example: I spent weeks researching vintage Eames fiberglass shell chairs to fulfill the fantasy of pairing them with my kitchen table, but ultimately the only ones that even came close to being within my budget were irreparably scratched and damaged. I ended up buying replicas from Wayfair for a fraction of the cost. They’re not well-made, but they achieve a similar visual effect that satisfies enough for now.

Lamp
My egg lamp is from ArtVintageandDesign on Etsy. I found it by searching “murano egg lamp.” When it arrived I realized it had a European outlet plug, so I had to order an adapter for it.

6. Budget time for shipping

Fashion commerce spoils us when it comes to shipping cost and duration. Unfortunately (albeit understandably, given the contents), shipping furniture can cost an arm and a leg and take weeks, sometimes even months. This revelation was perhaps the biggest pain point of my naïveté. I should have started ordering stuff WAY sooner! Because I didn’t, I’ve been lounging on temporary bean bags instead of a sofa or armchair. Said bean bags cost me a total of $40 for two of them, and they defy every scrap of my lingering 90s-era bean bag nostalgia by somehow being incredible uncomfortable, and not at all conducive to molding. Lesson learned. I’m so excited for the distant future in which I have a couch.

What tips do you have from your own adventures in home furnishing? I’m eager to add to mine.

 

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