10 tips for shopping antiques and vintage furniture like a pro

There’s no better way to upgrade your home decor than by introducing a timeless vintage piece that imparts a certain je ne sais quoi that only objects with history can. If you’re on the hunt for that perfect piece, we share our top tips on buying antiques and vintage pieces like the pros.

This new approach to blending old and new is all about decorating stylishly and sustainably. Interiors expert Deborah Bibby opens the door to this smart way of thinking.
There’s a return right now – and about time, too – to authenticity, honesty, comfort, good design and things you can trust, such as handcrafted designs using natural materials. People are more conscious. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to the need for more sustainable shopping, and a life more in harmony and rhythm with nature. To that end…
Last year, I decided to rent out my Sydney house (with everything left in it) and take up the offer to live in a boathouse on Sydney’s Pittwater, right at the water’s edge – a little dream I’ve had all my life. The boathouse was already furnished with the basics. I took my laptop, one treasured painting by New York artist Jessica Falstein, a few photographic prints, some of my favourite linens and a suitcase of clothes for the year-long adventure (maybe two years now – I’m loving it so much).
With all of us being homebodies for most of 2020, it was the perfect work-from-home base. Of course, I wanted to add my own interior touch to the place, but I also wanted to be resourceful and smart and not buy a whole pile of new furniture.
When interiors writer and stylist Deborah went to live in her dream boathouse north of Sydney, it came furnished with the basics so she only brought a few things with her and added key vintage or recycled pieces.
When interiors writer and stylist Deborah went to live in her dream boathouse north of Sydney, it came furnished with the basics so she only brought a few things with her and added key vintage or recycled pieces.
What I did invest in were two beautiful Eames chairs I bought at a friend’s sale for a few hundred dollars (bargain!) and a number of key pieces from Avalon’s best-kept secret, Composition By Office Elias. The rest I either foraged at my local Salvos store, was gifted to me by the neighbours, was washed up outside my boathouse or recycled in some way.
Beauty is more than skin deep when it comes to interiors. Combining stylish sustainability, whether that’s with thrift-store finds or reusing what you have, and adding a key ‘designer’ piece of provenance or a contemporary modern piece gives a space confidence, depth and balance. That mix of eras and styles equals magic. Adding a hero design item is like adding a gorgeous designer shoe to an affordable outfit. If the shoe is beautiful you can get away with murder.
I’ve always had a magpie instinct. It’s so rewarding, and the thrift pieces are often one-off finds as opposed to mass-produced ‘stuff’. Having said that, I have found the odd mass-produced item in Salvos, and if it saves another piece going to landfill, the joy of giving something ‘crappy’ another life feels like beating the system – ha!
Most of all, I’m drawn to soulful, timeless pieces (things with a history and a narrative) or pieces that transcend trends. But if something is a little wacky, unique or out there and you fall for it, grab it. Sometimes it is that item that can make a space sing.
Having an ‘eye’ is everything in the interiors world, even when foraging. It helps you pick the gems, but I do have a few tips and design secrets to help you hunt out that bargain or swoon-worthy piece. Here goes:
Her moodboard and amber Maison Balzac carafe catching the early-morning light.
Her moodboard and amber Maison Balzac carafe catching the early-morning light.

BE PATIENT

It takes time, so make sure you are looking in all of the (right) places, all of the time. Be passionate in the hunt. I run into my local Salvos every time I pass by in case I find a gem for an interior project.
One 1960s-style four-bedroom house I styled for an Airbnb was close to entirely sourced from the Salvos for $2000, except for a beautiful, original 1960s designer sofacoffee table, armchair and headboard.
I sourced large, original, era-appropriate timber frames (over a few weeks) and framed fashion tear sheets from magazines to give the place a current vibe while adding an element of fun. The vases, lamps and other homewares I placed there were all sourced from the Salvos.

MAKE FRIENDS

Relationships are key, so you receive a heads-up when good pieces hit the floor. Get to know the shopkeepers and owners and they might clue you in ahead of the others.

LOOK AT THE MATERIAL OF THE PIECE

Is it solid timber, brass, leather, pottery? Turn it upside down and inside out. The most important tip I can give is to always look for good quality, and items that have a story to tell.
This treasured lamp adds a playful and warm touch to the kitchen space.
This treasured lamp adds a playful and warm touch to the kitchen space.

GO WITH CLASSIC

Look for simple lines and curves in pieces. Imagine you are shopping for sculpture.

KNOW WHEN TO SPLURGE

In regards to the more expensive items, never splurge on anything that doesn’t make you swoon – or at least increases your heartbeat.

FOCUS ON TIMELESS

I own pieces I’ve had for 25 years, which have stood the test of time. Some are meaningful; others practical.
Lighting is one of those, and it’s a great practical investment because lights can go with you anywhere, especially accent lights (see my little designer kitchen lamp against the pink-tiled wall). This could be the piece that changes a room instantly with its gentle glow.
This office table was salvaged from Salvos.
This office table was salvaged from Salvos.

CAST A WIDE NET

Take the road less travelled and look into the following: Salvos Stores, Vinnies, Gumtree, eBay, Facebook Marketplace, weekend markets, antique stores, vintage stores and makers direct. You’ll find treasures at all those places.

VAGUER IS BETTER.

Use unique word combinations related to what you’re after, for example, ‘handmade’ or ‘handcrafted’ and pop in two material combinations, such as timber and leather, and you’ll get more choice.
*Photography: James Henry / bauersyndication.com.au*
Photography: James Henry / bauersyndication.com.au

CHOOSE YOUR PIECES WELL

That means items that resonate with you, that are personal and that you will love forever. Be brave! Going forward, sustainable living and shopping – whether that means recycling, upcycling or supporting brands that care about making products that will last a lifetime – should become a way of life for all of us.

The journey of improving your home is one of the best things you can undertake. Have confidence in your style, forget the trends, trust your heart and create an interior designed to last and feel like home.

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