Give your decorating a unique look with vintage furniture

¬†For some, garage sales or thrift shopping is a favourite pastime. A 1930s cottage-style buffet, a mid-century modern chair, a 19th-century crystal sconce woven into interiors that marry new and old — these finds can add instant history, charm and personality to a home. In this troubled economy, shoppers are looking to alternative, less costly sources for home furnishings.

Garage sales, flea markets, consignment stores, Craigslist — even alleys are fair game. And many shoppers are beginning to appreciate what aficionados long have enjoyed: the thrill of the hunt and the opportunity to land one-of-a-kind treasures.

“Without fail, the most interesting and unique spaces belong to people who enjoy mixing up their decor with vintage furniture and accessories,” says Tate Gunnerson, a writer and scout for home design magazines who also authors a blog called “Strange Closets.”

For the uninitiated, buying vintage can be overwhelming. At flea markets, the sea of object-filled tables can be dizzying. Nor are most thrift stores about visual merchandising, with few offering the neat, cohesive displays essential to smart furniture retailers. So once your eyes stop glazing over, you need to imagine how a piece will look — as-is or tweaked — in your own space.

But what to buy? If you don’t have a prescribed agenda (say, finding a club chair for your TV room, furnishing a bedroom or picking up a storage piece for the bath), most experts advise the obvious: Buy what you like.

Stan Williams, a former fashion director for Maxim magazine and veteran flea market shopper, says: “Look for quality over provenance. I don’t care if something is 18th century or made in the ’70s. Don’t look for brands. Decide if the item fits your needs. See if you can clean it up really easily..”

One of the most obvious tips is to not be afraid to rejuvenate or repurpose. That’s another appealing aspect of vintage or second-hand shopping: It boosts sustainability.

An imaginative example of recycling is a fireplace mantel studded with oyster shells, which lend intriguing texture to a pristine white frame.

Assuming a bit of creative risk can have a big payoff. Alex Bandon, online editor at, snapped up a set of six 1960s wicker-and-wood chairs — a steal for $120. “She noticed everything was in good shape,” says Williams. “The caning was not cracked.” But Bandon did something a bit daring: She painted the frames in lipstick red in a lacquer finish, contrasting the caning with black, which she applied with a small paint brush. “I watched her do that in her backyard on a Sunday afternoon,” Williams says.

Paint can be a dramatic quick fix. A pair of ordinary dressers, amazing in a bright green, gets even more impact when the two are placed side by side to suggest a more substantive credenza.

Although bold colours such as lime, coral, mustard, cobalt blue or turquoise are explosive and sure to be focal points in a neutral space, don’t underestimate the power of white or black.

The simplicity of a neutral ground allows a bit of dolling up with trims or hardware. Imagine the impact of colourful glass or patterned ceramic pulls on a white cabinet. Anthropologie is an excellent source for elegant as well as artsy pulls ranging from kicky black-and-white check to hand-painted birds on ceramic and mother of pearl clusters of blossoms, for $6 to $16

David Jiminez, vice president of visual merchandising and store design for Hallmark, took a pair of thrift wing chairs and replaced Naugahyde upholstery with white vinyl, punctuated by nailhead trim. The chairs are not identical, but the treatment unifies them, and black cabriole legs play up the crisp white.

Williams also advises not to be stuck with conventional ideas about particular pieces of furniture. “Who says that a dresser has to be placed in a bedroom? Haul it to a living room and see how it looks (as a bureau).”

Most of all, carefully examine your prospective “finds.”

“Inspect the drawers,” says Williams. “That will tell you a lot. They should glide in and out with ease, without sticking. Inspect the bottom and make sure it’s not buckled. Look at the back of the piece. See how it’s joined, if it’s nailed or screwed. Look at the corners inside the drawer. Are they mitered? Is it plywood or solid wood? If you gently lean against a piece, will it wiggle or wobble?”

Tate Gunnerson advises scoping out local dealers you can trust. “Tell your favourite dealers what you’re hunting for; they’ll call you when they come across it. Web sites such as Ebay, 1st Dibs and Craigslist also offer targeted search capabilities, and the latter is particularly useful for finding great deals.