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How to Decide What Vintage Furniture Is Salvageable—and What to Pass Up

That torn armchair might be worth a second look. Our expert weighs in.

vintage chairs
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Elizabeth Pash, designer and owner of Elizabeth Pash Interiors & Antiques, has plenty of experience shopping for vintage treasures. In this column, she shares some of her best tips. We are aware that many are currently practicing social distancing, but we will continue to publish vintage shopping content (and ideas for online sources) in anticipation of the day we are all able to return to our favorite markets!

Antique shops and flea markets offer a vast array of items—furniture, lighting, accessories. Sometimes it is difficult to spot the treasures among the junk. Some of what is offered belongs to the “You’ve Got to be Kidding” category and many other items are not exactly ready for prime time! But if you look closely, some of those pieces that appear to be junk at first glance can be easily transformed into gems. I find this particularly true with vintage upholstery pieces. Before you walk by what may be a hidden treasure, ask yourself, “can this be saved?”

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Sturdy frame: If the piece is well-built, it's worth an investment, and can hold up to a refinish or reupholster.
  • Quality of materials: On a related note, pieces that are solid wood or strong metal can be saved; if you see peeling veneer, scratched plastic, or rotted wood, it's probably a lost cause.
  • Source: When looking at upholstered pieces, you do want to consider the source; items from an unknown or dirty home could have bugs or fleas in them—not worth it!
  • Unique details: If a piece has carving, inlay, or a shape that's totally unique and you love it, it's probably worth a shot at salvaging, since you're not likely to find something like it again.
  • Size and scale: Many vintage and antique pieces are smaller scale than contemporary furniture. If you find something that's the perfect fit for a place you have in mind, don't let bad upholstery or paint deter you.

Here are a few examples of pieces that could easily have been left behind, but turned into great finds:

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This fine English Regency side arm chair has such exquisite detail—a painted finish with gold leaf accents, lovely fluting on top and sides, turned legs and an intertwining ring design on the chair back. But all these wonderful details were overshadowed by the condition of the seat cushion. A simple solution? Have a new seat cushion made—a very easy and inexpensive way to give this chair a major facelift. We chose a silk in acid green—not only does it brighten up the chair, but makes a dusty antique look fresh and modern!

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This Louis XVI Style Settee has wonderful, clean lines, and this piece would be perfect in an entry, living room, or at the foot of a bed. The fabric screamed old lady! To freshen it up, we used a blush pink linen with a cording in a deeper pink. The frosting on the cake was to add some cushions made by Bviz Designs in blush pink velvet—a whole new look that make this venerable piece look young and fresh.

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    The “bones” of these ottomans are wonderful—a generous size with a nice, tailored look and turned legs on castors. We found them at a flea market and knew that, after a little work, we could find homes for them. One found its way to our client’s pied à terre in New York City. We needed to “soften” an awkward space under a staircase. We covered one of the ottomans in a mango velvet and voila!!

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      This little Louis XV style slipper chair was perfectly fine as is. It has great lines and is finished in a natural linen. However, why not add a little fun? The taupe velvet shows off the frame of the piece, which is in a limed oak. And the orange leather piping, a great contrast to the velvet, offers a contemporary touch to a very traditional chair!

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        Not all Louis XVI style bergères are created equal. In this state, this duo may not make a good first impression on most. However, a closer examination reveals the graceful lines and solid construction of the chairs. With a fresh white fabric, these chairs were saved and brought back to their original beauty.

          In conclusion, it is always worth digging a bit deeper when looking at vintage pieces that are showing their age. Look at front, back, and underneath—and be sure to sit in them. If they are sound structurally and pleasing to the eye, chances are they can be saved with a good refinish or reupholster!

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