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New Uses for Old Things: Thoughts in Support of Mixing Antiques in Modern Interiors

by Sarah Reeder of Artifactual History® LLC Appraisals

This is

an opinion piece, and a manifesto of sorts, born out of my personal thoughts working in the appraisal field about the widespread confusion and discomfort about how to mix antiques and art in contemporary homes.

For many years now, there has been an underlying pressure in mainstream culture that all furnishings in your home have to match cohesively, be from one distinct stylistic era, and also ideally be brand new, which has helped contribute to the commercial success of large furniture chains. These stores offer new mass-produced inventory that satisfies these cultural expectations and also removes the perceived risk of having bad taste by making all the design decisions ahead of time for the customers. Looking at it from a historical perspective, many notable 20th century modernists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Charles Sheeler frequently mixed multiple design eras in interiors, so the expectation that everything must match is a much more recent development.

Skewering unique or atypical interior design choices has become a couch pastime in the nation (and yes, I’ve enjoyed my fair share of those television shows too, so I write this well aware of my hypocrisy!) Considering the phenomenon over time though from the perspective of my professional role as an appraiser, I think these trends of popularizing design judgment as a form of entertainment have contributed to making many feel uncomfortable expressing their individual originality and stylistic preferences in their own interiors.

Due to these conditioned fears of ridicule for “getting it wrong,” many people now feel more comfortable buying all of the items pictured on a catalog page of one of the popular mass-produced chain furniture stores, because they have the safety of knowing it was an already “approved” group of furnishings so they can’t make a mistake if they replicate the catalog page within their homes. Many stores even offer coordinating mass-produced printed canvases to hang on the wall above the furniture instead of original one-of-a-kind artwork.

This has been a real loss for our collective creativity and has robbed many of the opportunity to build a deep and intimate relationship with their home environments by selecting pieces that speak to them personally, regardless of whether they have been culturally approved as matching or being “in good taste.” From my professional perspective as an art and antique appraiser, I can also see how this societal practice has contributed to the softening of the art and antique market, particularly in the category of antique furniture.

I’ve had many conversations through the years with individuals who’ve inherited beautiful antique furniture from a family member. In talking with them, I can tell how much they are drawn to it, both for the powerful memories and the solidity of the natural wood materials (which, by the way, don’t give off toxic chemicals like many new mass-produced furniture items and don’t consume precious resources from our already-beleaguered environment), but inevitably there is a point where I hear “but they don’t match my furnishings.” In those instances, I try to...

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