Creating your own style by using the old and the new

The rules of home décor have changed to allow the mixing of vintage and contemporary furnishings.

by Leigh Elmore

The black and white color scheme helps to unify the use of traditional chairs with the rest of the contemporary décor. Here a few traditional pieces are used to contrast with the overall modern look.

Time was you had to be in style. That is, as far as your interior décor is concerned you needed to pick a style and stick with it. Slavishly. So, if you collected early 19th century furniture, everything else in your living room had to match, at least be from the same time period. Conversely, if you decorated your home in the most contemporary of styles available, everything else needed to match. Otherwise, you risked the "tsk, tsk, tsks" of the decorating class.

That was then. This is now. Increasingly, interior designers and dealers of vintage décor agree, today those old rules are just that – old, passé, bankrupt. No less an authority than Leslie Keno, one of the star appraisers on the PBS-TV favorite, "Antiques Roadshow.""You can mix and match furniture from different eras, you don't have to create a museum in your home.," he told Discover Vintage America in August. "I'm all for setting Chippendale chairs around an Eero Saarinen table frankly. Mixing and matching is the way to go in this market," Keno said. He also noted that the antique furniture market has opened up to the younger generations, whose ideas of style and conforming to rules don't square exactly with their preceding generations.

"The market will always evolve and things that were bringing top dollar 10 years ago, might not be today," Keno said. "But you know what? This is a great time to be buying 18th and early 19th century furniture. There are bargains out there crying out to be found. For example American Empire furniture from 1810-1840 is a great place to be buying right now." So, let's say you have several rooms of predominately early 19th century furniture and you're aching to loosen up your look a bit, how would you go about it? Somehow, a room with half Heppelwhite furnishings and half sleek Mid 20th Century Modern doesn't seem to work in our imaginations.

Contrast and balance

A bold look – Eero Saarinen chairs serving a very traditional table providing contrast.

The secret is contrast and balance, according to Marie Smith, owner of MLB Designs in Kansas City. "If you are starting out with a fairly traditional décor, you can provide some contrast by adding modern accent pieces," she said. "It is important to balance what you like in one style versus the other. Don't overdo it." She says the same is true when designing in the other direction, that is, starting from modern and adding traditional accents.

She says the most livable rooms can't be pinned to a decade or design period. Instead, they skillfully mix old and new pieces to create the impression of having been collected over time, a secret to ensuring that a room won't look dated in a year – or 10. "Today, you can mix and match very contemporary things with very traditional things and no one will raise an eyebrow, as long as you remain tasteful and remember the concepts of contrast and balance," Smith said. "For example, you can take an older divan or sofa, say a Duncan Phyfe, which was very popular in the 1950s. It's really good furniture, but it doesn't appeal to a lot of younger home owners. But depending on the wood tone you can pick new upholstery that will transform it."

The conservative approach. A few antique items offset the contemporary, albeit conservative furniture styles.

Smith says if the wood has a very dark tone you can pick a bright color, magenta say, that will contrast dramatically. "If the wood tone is lighter, you can pick a cooler shade that will marry well with it," Smith said. "Voila!" Smith says, "You have brought your grandmother's sofa back to life. It's your home, after all, so it's really all about furnishing it in a way that brings you enjoyment and evokes memories.
"I have a friend whose décor I would describe as Country French," Smith says. "Yet she has a whole lot of photographs displayed in clear Lucite picture frames on top of a built-in buffet. They really stand out in contrast, but it works perfectly." Smith says another way to mix styles is through art.
"Many people like to display their contemporary art works, paintings especially, contrasted in a room of very traditional furniture. And on the other hand, I've seen Hudson Valley paintings from the mid 19th century setting off a room of mid-century modern."

Vintage merchants respond

Anymore, customers of vintage home furnishings are eager to see how the objects work with other pieces. So many display areas in vintage markets today show how an entire room could work using a mix of styles and time periods. Anne Davis, owner of Prairie Legends, a vintage shop in Paola, KS agrees.
"We're focusing a lot more these days on displaying décor ideas. It's what the customers are expecting," she said. "It's the trend." Pam Buttrum, owner of Stacks Depot, a vintage mall in Belton, MO goes so far as to say, "It's OK to break the rules, especially if it makes you feel at home in your home. Whatever makes you smile." The old saying, "One man's trash is another man's treasure," rings true when it comes to repurposing vintage items to use as modern decor. That's where the vintage trade steps in to the rescue.

Old doors and windows can be turned into eclectic tables or wall decor. Remake an old trunk into a chic coffee table. A vintage barber chair can serve dual purposes as an unusual seating option and a quirky focal point. A small stepladder hung on the wall creates unique shelves. Hang an old rake head on a wall, and you have a rustic stemware holder. Antique stores, estate and yard sales are good places to find vintage "junk" to repurpose into eclectic decor.

Start with one style

Mixing modern artworks with traditional furniture along the wall can be a winning combination. (photos courtesy of MLB Designs, Kansas City)

A successful mix of vintage and modern decor requires a careful balance of the two styles, according to Smith. "Choose either vintage or modern as your dominant style and use the other to accent the first."
Because modern furnishings are designed with function following form, it may be more advantageous to furnish the space with modern and contemporary furniture and accent with vintage decor.

If you have an equal amount of mid-century mod pieces mixed in with your Victorian antiques, the space will not look harmonious, but rather just poorly designed. Pick one style to have more presence in your space, and use the other style for accent furnishings or accessories. To keep the look balanced, mix in a few vintage furnishings and modern accents. Offset sleek, smooth surfaces with rough textures. Balance straight lines with sweeping curves. "With unity and balance, your transitional scheme of vintage and modern decor can create an amazing space," Smith said.

Unify with color

A coordinated color palette and the addition of just a few contemporary objects creates a unified look.

Tie vintage and modern decor together with unifying elements such as color. Using a neutral palette as an organizing principle will help meld styles and eras. Choosing shades of white, black, gray, cream, beige, or brown will ensure that antiques and flea market finds will mesh with IKEA staples and transitional pieces, creating texture and subtle contrasts but adding up to a harmonious whole. Modern and vintage furnishings in neutral hues of brown, beige, black, white and gray blend together with an effortless comfort. Mix old and new accessories of the same color, yet with varying monochromatic shades. Create contrast with complementary colors, such as a modern navy sofa accented with bright coral throw pillows covered in a vintage fabric. Repeat the blue and orange color scheme with other modern and vintage accents for a cohesive look.

Assigning roles

The straight lines of the vintage and primitive benches blend with the sleek modern environment.

Before bringing an item into your space, decide what role it will play in the grand scheme. Will the piece become a focal point, or will it simply complement other elements of the room? To create a cohesive design, you need a good combination of vintage and modern, and a few transitional pieces to bridge the gap between styles. If you're not careful, you can wind up with a hodge-podge collection. "Trust your eyes and your heart. Look for pieces that remain true to their styles and speak to your individual preferences," Smith said.

If your space has obvious period style – be it Colonial, Victorian or Craftsman bungalow – choose a few key pieces from the era as a nod to the home's provenance, says Smith, then add contemporary lighting, rugs, or accessories to bring it into the here and now. But remember, too much clutter and too many knick-knacks are going to have your space looking dustier and mustier than a cat lady's, no matter how beautiful your accessories and furnishings. If you want one of your favorite antique lamps to shine, the worst thing you could do would be suffocate it with too many other accessories, especially of mixed styles. In a pre-war urban apartment with original casement windows and oak floors, hang vintage sconces, then add a streamlined mid-century sofa and a boldly patterned contemporary rug to keep the space looking fresh.

In a newly built condo with floor to ceiling windows, use antique frames on your favorite photographs, or artwork, or hang a Victorian crystal chandelier to create a sense of history and warmth. And one of the best aspects of this new approach to home decorating is that what's considered vintage just keeps growing year by year, as is what is contemporary will continue to fill the stores. In short, we have more and more raw material work with and that's good news for enthusiasts of all styles.


Leigh Elmore can be contacted at


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