Furniture is something that most of us will buy at some point throughout our lives. As we use furniture, it becomes, well… used I suppose. Article of furniture are not something that we tend to replace every year, but perhaps every few years. with the need to be more flexible in the employment market, we sometimes find that we’ll move a bit more often than our parents might have done. This habit of moving house frequently saw a high point in the property boom with families and individuals moving up the property ladder. These moving points create opportunities for refreshing interior design and buying furniture. What worked in the old house may not necessarily work in the new house. All this leads me to champion the case for buying furniture at auction, over new furniture from a retailer.
There is a perception that antique furniture is elite and expensive but this need not necessarily be the case. Some high-end antiques are always going to cost more than new high-street furniture, but I’m not comparing like with like in that case. Modern reproduction furniture can often be found at auction houses for a fraction of its original cost. I remember one of the first auction I attended in Yorkshire. I could have bought an elegant regency reproduction extending dining table in mahogany veneer for £60. Add six matching reproduction dining chairs with a pair of carver chairs for another £60. With the buyer’s premium and VAT, that’s a dining table and eight chairs for well under £200. No-one bid on either of these items and they left the auction house unsold. I would have bid on them, had I had the space in my own house to accommodate them. As it is, my own house is almost entirely furnished with antique and vintage pieces of furniture, gathered from auction houses, antique shops and even eBay sellers over the last ten years or so.
As with most interior designs, antique furniture goes through trends and buying the right pieces at the right time can save an enormous amount of money, as well as giving your interior a unique and personal appearance. That doesn’t mean that you have to settle for an interior inspired by the bilge spouted by that Grand Dame of hypocrisy and shabby chic tat, Kirsty Allsop (I cite her hypocrisy in that, after years of espousing bland beige identikit interiors and modern “clean” furniture, she now completely decries her past and is advising those bereft of any inspiration (or ability to think on their own) how to give their homes an individual look). There is absolutely no reason why antique (or even modern reproduction) furniture couldn’t work with ultra-modern interior designs. This is the age of post-modern bricolage and pastiche. The inclusion of one or two choice pieces of antique furniture in a modern loft conversion, for example, would emphasise both the antique nature of the furniture and the contemporary milieu in which is it placed.
As I write, in early 2012, the fashion for heavy Victorian “brown” furniture is in the middle of a slump which has lasted maybe four or five years already. Interiors just aren’t happy with the heavy and dark woods and imposing forms of Victorian pieces. I should insert a caveat at this point, as some high-end pieces are still in demand and have held their prices well. This means that you can pick up many useful and decorative pieces of furniture for very little indeed, and for significantly less than the price of a new piece of furniture. Need a desk for the laptop, which needs to be useful and not take up too much space? What about a writing bureau? Or a Victorian Davenport? Or an Edwardian writing table? This is just one example of how antique furniture can fulfil the needs of modern life. The less austere Edwardian period produced elegant furniture which was smaller, lighter and softer than the high Victorian period and perhaps more suitable for modern life. Why settle for that hideous piece of soulless flatpack furniture from the land of interior furnishings and Swedish meatballs?
Another point to consider is the resale value of antique versus the resale value of new. The moment you take delivery of that new piece of furniture, it will lose probably ⅔ of its value. In the short-medium term, an antique piece will mostly hold its resale value or even increase in value (unless you are unfortunate to buy just before a market slump hits). Most people don’t even consider the idea of resale value when buying furniture, but its something that I try to take into account.
The major sticking point that I think people have with antique furniture is knowledge. There are so many periods and styles of antique furniture that the whole idea of buying antique can seem impenetrably complicated. This needn’t be the case. I’m by no means an antique furniture expert (I know a furniture restorer and I’m constantly befuddled by what pieces belong to what periods), but I can see what works visually and functionally. If you can see something having a use and fitting in with your interior decor, and have the time to browse the auction houses’ online catalogues, you’re probably about 90% there. Take the plunge and go to an auction.
Since moving to the outskirts of London, on the borders of Surrey, I have been blessed with some of the finest charity shops in the country. Before I moved two years ago, I lived in the rugged county of Yorkshire, which was sadly bereft of any quality charity shops selling menswear.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the idea of charity shops (which I believe are a specific UK phenomenon), these are shops which are run by charities, selling donated clothes, bric-a-brac and basically anything that people no longer want or use but which still have a useful life in them. Items are donated to the shops by the public and then resold, bringing income for the charity. The prices of items sold in charity shops barely compare to the original retail price, the only issue being that you’re buying second hand items. That’s occasionally a cause of snobbery, but when you think about the second-hand market in clothes on eBay, there’s not much difference.
Since moving away from Yorkshire, I have had the good fortune to furnish my wardrobe with designer labels, mainly from charity shops and at a fraction of the original retail price. A Barbour Northumbria coat with lining and separate hood would set you back about £280 in one of their retail outlets. I found one for £35. Armani jeans (£5), Dolce & Gabanna wool jacket (barely worn, £25), Ralph Lauren hoodie (last season, £12); these are just a few of the items I have found in charity shops in the local area.
My crowning glory was a handbag for my wife. I found an unused, genuine (it still had the tags and certificate of authenticity) Balenciaga handbag. The exact same bag was still on sale in the Balenciaga online store for £1240. It had all the right bits & pieces with it, still had the little plastic covers on the leather zipper bits, the only thing I could see was that the plastic cover from one of the handles had been removed. I paid £195 for it. That’s a difference of over £900!
I’ve yet to find anything to beat the Balenciaga handbag. That really was a one-in-a-million find. I think that since I’ve been living down here, the only thing that I’ve paid full price for was a black Barbour International biker jacket (produced to celebrate the brand’s 75 year anniversary), for £220. I felt guilty paying full price for it; before I moved I would never have been able to justify paying that much for a coat. When I consider the savings I have made on all the other clothes in my wardrobe though, I don’t feel so bad. Although I seem to be becoming a label slave, there’s no way I could ever justify paying full price for a new item from, say, Dolce & Gabanna, when I have so much choice in the charity shops.
A note of caution should also be struck; while I can find all sorts of designer labels in the charity shops, they’re rarely current season. This doesn’t bother me at all, as I’m less interested in following fashion than I am in creating a sense of style. Whereas fashion changes from week-to-week, style has a more enduring quality. And if vintage clothing is your thing, there’s no better place to start filling your wardrobe than charity shops.