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In the vast world of furniture, the number of vocabulary terms bandied about seems as long as the dictionary: traditional, modern, contemporary, classic contemporary, Art Deco, revival, Bauhaus, transitional, rustic, cottage, Tuscan, country, industrial, mid-century modern, etc. And these classifications can be broken down even further. For example, traditional furniture can be categorized as Jacobean, Queen Anne, Louis XVI, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Federal and at least six or eight others.
For those not immersed in the industries of design, decorating and furniture, it can all get a bit muddled and confusing.
To stir the pot more, there are three especially nebulous words: 'antique,' 'vintage' and 'retro.' These are used, sometimes interchangeably, when describing a piece that was created more than 5-10 years ago. To further a better understanding of how the terms differ, the following guide breaks down what each means in the present market.
Antique and Retro
One dictionary defines an antique as “a collectible object that has a high value because of its considerable age.” While the word is often used in this way in colloquial conversation, it is not formally correct by the rules of the trade. Simply put, an 'antique' is at least 100 years old. Some antique dealers have proposed shortening the definition to 50 years, but others think this would cheapen the designation. So, while an Art Deco leather armchair from the 1930s may be nice, it is not yet an antique.
The word 'retro' has lately been applied to everything from clothing to art to furniture to music. Unlike 'antique,' this term isn’t specifically tied to an item’s age, although many feel that to call something retro, its style should be at least 20 years old. Retro is defined as “a style that is imitative or consciously derivative of lifestyles, trends or art forms from the modern past.” So, a macramé wall hanging or a chunky orange sofa from the 1970s is retro. But… a similar macramé wall hanging or chunky orange sofa made in 2019 can also be called retro because they are intentional representations of a style that was popular in the past. Note, however, that an 18th-century Chippendale writing desk isn’t retro. (It's an antique.) 'Retro' applies only to items and styles from the recent past, going back just a few decades — perhaps not before the 1940s or 1950s. Even so, retro isn’t as much about age as it is about a certain style that defines or is identified with a specific time period in the modern past. Much of retro's appeal derives from what is in current memory and depends on consumer nostalgia or fondness for a former era.
Having clarified antique and retro, how does 'vintage' play into all this? Here the lines become a little blurred. Vintage furniture is not old enough to qualify as antique, so the term generally refers to pieces made in the 20th century. Some feel that it can be applied to furniture made as late as the 1990s. So 'vintage' can loosely be used when speaking about items that are between 30 and 100 years old, from Art Deco to mid-century modern to minimalist objects from the last decade of the 20th century.
The word 'vintage' was originally used in winemaking, and in that context, it refers to the specific year or place in which grapes were grown. The term has since crossed over into many other areas. In essence, then, a vintage item is clearly representative of a certain style that was popular at a specific time period in the past, and the item must have been made during that time. That Art Deco leather armchair from the 1930s is definitely vintage, as is the 1950s Johannes Andersen-designed teak coffee table and the sturdy oak entertainment center, circa 1990. All of these pieces were made in the current style of their time — in other words, they’re not later reproductions — and can be called vintage.
Lastly, 'vintage' should not be confused with 'old.' Sellers sometimes use the word vintage to describe an object that is several decades old simply because they can ask more for a “vintage” item. But if there is nothing noteworthy about the item that ties it to a certain historical time, place or mode of production, it isn't vintage (just old). Being aware of this distinction can help buyers avoid being overcharged.
Vintage and retro do have some things in common. (Antique, however, is its own category, older than both.) Both can be applied to some items, and that’s not necessarily wrong. An Eero Saarinen-designed Tulip Chair from the mid-1950s, for example, is both vintage and retro; it’s vintage because it is representative of mid-century modern furniture and made during that period, and it’s retro because it represents a definite style that was popular in its time but is no longer in vogue today. But if someone were to make a modern replica of that same Tulip Chair, it would be retro, but not vintage. Again, to be vintage, the piece had to have been made during the time of the style it represents.
Buying and Decorating with Vintage Pieces
Why decorate with vintage furniture? First of all, it exudes a certain sense of culture, artistic interest and a 'cool factor.' An Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair or an Eames Lounge Chair would command attention in any room: they’re sleek, stylish and the very epitome of mid-century modern design.
Second, the vintage furniture most valued today was often mass-produced, making it easier to find and less expensive than authentic antique pieces, especially for entry-level collectors. Mass production is nothing to frown on; if a piece was well designed, reflects the era in which it was made and is considered an iconic representation of a certain style, it’s worth having. Twentieth-century design is notable for the number of truly great creative artists collaborating with large-scale production lines to bring their work to the public.
And third, vintage furniture — especially case goods like dressers, sideboards, dining tables or other wood pieces — is usually well-built, compared to the glued composites and chipboard of some modern lower-end brands. The fact that a vintage piece has already been around for several decades speaks for the quality of its construction methods and materials. Vintage pieces are much more durable than lower-end brands and tend to hold their value over time.
When decorating with vintage furniture, it’s not necessary to select pieces that are all in the same style or from the same era. Vintage items can be mixed and matched to create a unique look in the home, stamping it with personality and a sense of creativity. A room can be uniform or eclectic, and the pleasure in finding and placing each unique object will add to the overall effect of the whole.