For me, there are three different camps when it comes to antiques: enthusiasts that actively seek out treasures, DIY-ers who crave the thrill of a project, and anti-antiquers (these types often guffaw at the sight of a worn or non-new piece). I'm a combination of one and three. I'm all for an aged accessory and quite enjoy the dig at markets, vintage stores, and thrift shops. But the sight of a room filled to the brim with decades-old furniture brings an uncontrollable wince to my face. With a transitional taste in interiors, I'm very much here for the blend of old and new — clean lines and character for the win! Which got me wondering if there were ways to blend antiques in a modern home that I haven't yet embraced.
A necessary clarification: I'm not a DIY-er. I like to think that one day I will be and admire those who are. While I'm not about to sand down a side table or attempt a clever paint job, there are other ways to decorate a contemporary home with antique furniture than going in with a complicated refinishing job. Yes, painting, resurfacing, and reupholstering are all reliable tactics, but I can also trust my eye to arrange a storied piece in a way that feels right in my space. That is, with a few tips from design professionals.
After speaking with five interior designers, I've learned a host of savvy hacks for blending well-aged pieces with shiny new ones. It's all about balance and taking your time when piecing it all together, from knowing the best wood grains and design periods that complement each other to accent wall colors that give off an ultra-modern vibe. There are even a few DIY tips I'd be willing to take on for the right piece, like switching out hardware or a lampshade and oil-treating wood for a quick and easy refresh.
Whether you're already an antique fan or coming around to the idea of mixing some pre-loved pieces into your sleek space, ahead are 13 helpful tips from interior designs on making older furniture and decor items work in a modern home.
How To Blend Antiques In A Modern Home: Choose One Focal-Point Piece of Furniture
The wince I mentioned before? More easily avoided when you use antiques sparingly, as interior designer Alexander Doherty suggests. "Antiques can bring visual interest, warmth, and legacy into a contemporary setting," he says. His pro-tip: Choose one or two pieces, make them a focal point, and consider contrasting the furniture with lighter or more contemporary pieces.
Joy Williams, principal of Joyful Designs Studio, says simple furniture with clean lines is great for balancing an ornate antique. "A recent client wanted to keep some heirloom farmhouse style chairs that are rather ornate. Because the chairs have sentimental value and are not true antiques, we painted the chairs all one color and paired them with a more modern table with a sleeker profile," she explains.
"Desks are a great way to introduce antique furniture into a more modern esthetic," interior designer Kevin Dumais of Dumais (he and his lighting-designer husband, Charlie, also own a pottery studio, Dumais Made), tells TZR. "There's something about sitting at a substantial wood desk that feels empowering and academic." For Williams, a dresser is her top pick for an antique furniture focal point.
Interior designer Mikel Welch says credenzas and dining room buffets are often the simplest antique pieces to fuse into modern spaces. "These pieces are typically larger and scale — they command more attention and can hold their own in a room. This makes it easy for you to simply layer with modern accessories," he explains.
How To Blend Antiques In A Modern Home: Ease In With Accent Pieces
If a big piece of furniture feels like too much — space or investment-wise — Dumais and Williams both suggest a smaller antique piece like a chair, mirror, drink, or side table. "They can act as an accessory piece that pulls the room together," Dumais says of small antique tables. "These can also move around a room, depending on how [they're] being used."
Welch says that vintage artwork is a great way to introduce antiques into a modern space — a trend he says is resurfacing in the design world. "You can easily mix-and-match vintage paintings with updated frames. Or take a walk on the wild side and dust off the antique frame and mix it up with your modern artwork to create an eclectic collective gallery," the designer explains.
How To Blend Antiques In A Modern Home: Liven Up Older Furniture With Trendy Accessories
An incredibly hot tip for making an antique piece of furniture feel more modern if, like me, DIY isn't your thing? Modern accessories. "Give new life and energy to hand-me-down furniture by styling and layering them with trendy decor," Welch suggests. "You can never go wrong with vases and objects in bright white, brass, or even a small burst of color."
Williams echoes this sentiment: "I also recommend using contemporary decor items and complementary textiles that enhance rather than detract from the lines of the antique in question."
Welch also swears by a 70/30 balance (70% modern and 30% vintage) when blending the old with the new. He says, "Make sure that the older pieces aren't riding solo. [The 70/30 balance] will ensure that the vintage pieces aren't sticking out like a sore thumb."
How To Blend Antiques In A Modern Home: Incorporate A Modern Rug
Interior designer Olivia Stutz recommends a modern rug to counterbalance antique furniture in a space. "I used two vintage Milo Baughman leather chairs in a recent project on top of an uber-modern and almost futuristic custom rug by Alex Proba Studio," she shares. "The contrast paired so well together because we reupholstered the leather to look new, which is, in my opinion, the most important step when bringing a vintage chair or sofa into a modern space." She says a furniture piece with metal, like the Milo Baughman chairs' shiny steel arms, will blend more seamlessly in a modern space, too.
How To Blend Antiques In A Modern Home: Mix Up Wood Finishes
When blending various wood pieces, Dumais says to avoid having the same wood finish in one room. "Mixing wood species and finishes, just like metals, will help the space feel unique, as if you curated everything over time," he explains. The designer adds that, because wood pieces are celebrated for their color, texture, and warmth, they easily define a space. With gray or taupe walls — two popular choices for a contemporary look — he suggests golden teak and rich dark walnut wood finishes.
How To Blend Antiques In A Modern Home: Focus On 20th-Century Pieces
Doherty recommends concentrating on pieces from the 20th century when procuring antiques, including European designs from the '30s and '40s and Scandinavian pieces from the '50s. "They are still highly valuable and collectible today," he says. Strong architectural lines are best for a modern look, according to the designer. "Desks and sideboards work really well in most spaces," he adds.
How To Blend Antiques In A Modern Home: Style Against A Matte Black Wall
Not into painting furniture? No problem! Instead, try a black matte accent wall to help an antique mingle in your modern space. "Let's say you get a sideboard handed down to you from your parents, but it's in a not ideal color or just doesn't go with much in your modern place," Stutz says. "By painting an accent wall matte black and placing that item in front of it, you've just created an amazing contrast that is both eclectic and contemporary."
How To Blend Antiques In A Modern Home: Change Out Hardware And Lampshades
An across-the-board tip from all five designers: changing out hardware on an antique piece of furniture. "A quick hardware change goes a long way towards updating and blending an antique," Williams says. Welch recommends matte brass or matte black hardware for an instant modern upgrade (Rejuvenation is his go-to source).
Dumais warns about a common mistake: choosing hardware that's the wrong scale or style for the piece of furniture it's complementing. "Be sure to choose new hardware that works with the lines of the piece," he says.
Stutz says lampshades are another quick fix. "If you have an antique lamp, change out the lampshade to something more neutral and modern. That way, you get to highlight a vintage item in your space, but with the modern twist you're after," she explains.
How To Blend Antiques In A Modern Home: Paint In A High-Gloss Finish
For a low-key DIY project, Williams recommends a good old coat of paint. "A design trick I love to use to modernize antiques is to take something like an antique dresser and put a high-gloss finish on it with new and modern hardware," she says.
How To Blend Antiques In A Modern Home: Refresh A Finish With Danish Oil
If you don't want to take away from the aged feel of an antique but would like to improve a dull finish, Dumais says to apply Danish oil with a soft cloth to refresh it. "The oil will give some moisture to the wood and bring out the richness of the original color," he says.
How To Blend Antiques In A Modern Home: Refinish Wood
If you have an antique piece you aren't attached to, but like the scale, function, or basic shape of, Dumais suggests painting or refinishing it, followed by a change of hardware. For diehard DIY-ers, Williams recommends stripping or bleaching wood antiques for a more modern look.
Welch says a new coat of paint is another age-old trick. "Sand, wipe, paint, repeat! You can magically transform most outdated furniture by choosing to refinish them in current trending paint colors," he explains.
Patience is key when updating a piece of furniture. Before coating a piece, lightly sand away old varnish, wipe off any loose debris, and then finish off with your new paint color. "Don't try to rush the process," Welch adds. "Most older items may require several coats of paint or a couple of layers of new stain." It is also important to allow things to properly dry and cure to avoid messes when placing them in your space.
How To Blend Antiques In A Modern Home: Reupholster Textiles
What refinishing is to wood, reupholstering is to textile pieces. Williams says a vintage couch with great lines, such as a curved sofa, is instantly modernized when recovered in unexpected textiles like bold colors and patterns. "If the sofa is particularly ornate, I might use a deep velvet with fringe," she says. Stutz says chairs and ottomans are also great to recover.
Reupholstering pieces like a side chair in a new print or textured fabric will help transform family heirlooms that otherwise don't fit into your space. "This will easily help you transition that vintage piece into your home without sacrificing your own style," Welch says.
How To Blend Antiques In A Modern Home: Embrace Patina And Style Around It
Refurbishing antiques is a toss-up, but in many cases, it's best to leave a piece as-is to appreciate the well-aged charm or "patina," as many design buffs say. Doherty and Dumais most often recommend leaving antiques as they are and styling around them, especially if they're of high-quality or a noteworthy piece of furniture.
Stutz says, "If you look at the well-known furniture stores of today, they're always trying to make new furniture look old, but there is nothing like a vintage find with the perfect patina! You can't replicate that."
Similarly, Williams says it's best to leave the original patina of valuable antiques in the four-figure range to not only preserve them but as a way to add character to a room, suggesting an ancillary space such as a sunroom, den, or guest space. "The owner gets to enjoy the sentimental value of the pieces with no impact on her desire for modern furnishings in the rest of the home," she adds.