9 Décor Items You Should Never Buy New

When to say no to new.

There’s something about a house filled with treasures that brings a little something extra. If you find a room feels lacking, or even missing that finishing touch, it’s oftentimes a just-had-to-have-it find that can make all the difference. “Antique and vintage furniture can add warmth, depth, and character to a room,” says Jessica Lev of Jessica Lev Antiques. “There is something very special about owning a piece that is unique to you and can’t be purchased in a catalog or showroom.” 

Chest with Antiques

Photo: Laurey W. Glenn

It’s the punch of personality that oftentimes inspires designers and in-the-know amateur decorators to go vintage or bust, but that doesn’t mean you need to go all in on antique everything. Bria Hammel, CEO and creative director of Bria Hammel Interiors says to skip the upholstery if buying vintage and Laura Pankonien of The Pankonien Group agrees. “While I love the form of many antique upholstered pieces, I will generally recommend new upholstery for clients, especially those with children or pets,” says Pankonien. “I might still incorporate an antique side chair, settee, or bench into a space, but for larger pieces I prefer the scale of new pieces combined with the modern construction of new springs, foam, and fabric.”

But what about the pieces that you should never buy new? Here Hammel, Lev, and Pankonien share their take on the items that do better with a little patina, plus how to go about hunting down the best new-to-you secondhand finds.

Why Should You Buy Antiques, Secondhand, or Vintage Décor?

Beyond looks, there are plenty of reasons to resist buying new and, instead, enjoy the thrill of hunting for one-of-a-kind décor at estate sales, antique stores, or secondhand retailers. “First, antiques are often of higher quality than new furnishings,” says Lev. True antiques are hand constructed which oftentimes gives them a sturdier build and more interesting details. While they also tend to hold their value more than new furnishings and décor and continue to appreciate, Hammel says they can prove to be a more cost-effective way to furnish your home, as long as you don’t overpay. “You can always do a quick Google search and see what it’s running for online,” the designer suggests. “Don’t be afraid to negotiate—most antique stores are willing to meet you in the middle.”

Finally, when it comes to their environmental benefits, you just can't beat buying pre-used items. “So much new furniture ends up in landfills, and recycling vintage and antique furniture is better for the planet,” she says. 

Why Does Vintage or Antique Matter?

"When considering vintage furniture, there can be huge variations in terms of quality,” says Lev. “A piece of furniture made in the 1930s or 1940s will have more of the features that we desire in an antique (patina, more handmade construction, better wood), than in the 1980s.” That being said, she’s noticed everyone from consumers to designers and even dealers referring to anything greater than a decade old as “vintage.” When determining if a piece is worth your investment, whether it’s truly vintage or antique matters. Lev suggests considering whether the piece is unique to a specific time period, for starters. “A mid-century modern credenza, for example, has collectible value of being vintage to a specific period,” she explains. The second thing to consider is whether the construction of the piece is better than what you find with a new piece today. “One of the benefits of buying an older piece of furniture is better construction and higher quality materials than you could get today without spending a fortune.” 

Where To Buy the Best Antiques

Before you hit up your antique stores and vintage sources, both Hammel and Lev suggest keeping an open mind (and eye). “It is great to start with a list of what you are looking for, but always be open to finding something you absolutely love,” says Lev. “For me, antique buying is an emotional experience. If I love it, I will find a place for it!” Hammel also urges amateur secondhand sleuths to keep an open mind. For example, perhaps there’s an amazing piece of art that just needs a new frame or a gorgeous armoire begging for a fresh paint job. 

“For a new collector, I recommend starting locally,” says Lev. Seeing vintage furniture in person and making sure you’re okay with the imperfections that come along with its age is an important aspect of the process, she says. Hammel suggests seeking out small towns in your area for “diamonds in the rough” and at a better price point than what you might find in larger cities. Either way, seeing these new-to-you treasures in person is integral to building your antique smarts. “You may be fine with an antique chest in your entry, but not comfortable storing clothes in it,” says Lev. She recommends using local antique stores to build your knowledge and uncover certain styles and eras you’re drawn to. “When you feel comfortable, buying online or at auction opens up a whole new world of antiques,” she says. 

Items You Should Never Buy New

Antique and vintage rugs: Pankonien suggests keeping an eye out for vintage runners or five-by-eight-foot rugs that can be layered under a living room cocktail table. This look works for any home or style, she says.

Books: Here’s one that you might not have thought of: old books. Lev says they can bring a warmth and instant patina to bookshelves making any space feel cozy. 

Boxes: The one item Lev’s clients can’t get enough of are antique boxes. “They are perfect for styling on bookshelves, table tops, or coffee tables, and for hiding remotes and other clutter,” she says. 

Chests: According to Lev, there are few items with as much antique appeal as that of chests. “An antique chest or commode is one of the most versatile furniture pieces you can own,” she says. “From an entry to a hallway to a living room to a bedroom there is always a spot for one.”

China: “Styling plates on a bookshelf or wall can bring in color to any space,” says Lev. “I collect Chinese porcelain, and I find that collections make a home feel unique and personal.” Plus, the designer and antique dealer says they can act as a great conversation starter. 

Dining tables: When it comes to dining tables, they can often bust the budget when buying new, so Lev suggests going secondhand instead. “Buying a new solid mahogany dining table can cost a small fortune, but a similar vintage or antique table can be not only more cost-effective but also higher quality.” 

Foot stools: “Foot stools and even small side tables sized like foot stools are perfect to upholster in that beautiful expensive textile since you only need a yard of it or less, the wood patina and shape add instant character to your space,” says Pankonien. “If you’re lucky enough to find a foot stool upholstered in a vintage fabric in good condition, even better!”

Side or dining chairs: Pankonien says a stand-alone dining chair can be used as a side chair to be placed anywhere from a corner in the kitchen to a hall or library.

Small original art: Pankonien says these treasures are even more sought after when they come in antique frames. “They add just the right patina to a space and are perfect for decorating a small wall, console tables, bookshelves, or on a small easel in the kitchen,” she says. “Even my clients who don’t love to decorate with vintage always love a sweet little antique piece of art on a living room console.”

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