In our last post, we discussed various different ways of ascertaining whether or not a piece of vintage furniture that you're considering purchasing is, in fact, vintage, by talking to the seller of the piece. Unfortunately, most of the time when you're out hunting through vintage shops and antique malls, you're usually several steps removed from the original seller, and the people you have access to may or may not have any useful information to impart. In this case, you will have to make a decision based on your own knowledge. However, for the most part, it's actually pretty easy to tell an old thing from a newly produced thing.
First, let's go for the obvious again - does it LOOK old? Upholstery on a vintage piece of furniture should have a certain amount of wear, and may also be in what we could kindly refer to as a "dated" style. There are certain exceptions, such as leather and (especially) vinyl, but even these more durable materials will take on a certain patina over 30 or 40 years that will distinguish it from new. Of course, furniture can be reupholstered, giving new life to old bones. However, once again, this is a fairly expensive process, so if a dealer has gone to the time and expense of having this done, he/she is almost certainly going to mention the fact, and charge a commensurately higher price.
Other things to consider when looking at vintage upholstered furniture are the foam and springs or webbing. A surefire sign that an upholstered chair or sofa is genuinely old is the presence of flattened, hardened or "crunchy" foam. In the worst cases, foam will disintegrate into a foul smelling, noxious powdery substance. If you look at the ground underneath where a chair has been sitting and notice the presence of a yellowish dust, know that a) the foam in the chair has probably gone bad, and b) it's definitely a vintage piece! Of course, just because the foam is still good and pliable in a piece does not mean it's not vintage. For whatever reason, I've seen foam in 50 year old sofas that was just fine, as well as foam in 30 year old sofas that had completely turned to dust. Springs and webbing are another structural component that can help you establish the age of a piece of upholstered furniture. If you sit in a chair and the seat feels overly bouncy, it probably means that the springs have lost their tension over time, and will need to be replaced or at the least re-tied. Likewise, if you turn a chair over and you see rubber webbing that is hard and brittle instead of rubbery and flexible, you know you're definitely dealing with an old piece.
It should be noted that while all of the above issues can help you distinguish a piece of vintage furniture from a contemporary knockoff, they are also all problems that will need to be fixed if you plan on seriously using the piece of furniture. An experienced upholsterer is your ticket to fixing all of these problems. Sometimes the foam/springs/webbing of a piece will have gone bad, but the fabric has held up and does not need to be redone. It is usually possible to replace any of these components without completely reupholstering the piece, which will, of course, lower your cost. However, keep in mind that foam is still fairly expensive. To entirely replace the foam in a piece, you would need to budget between $100-150 for an average lounge chair and $300-400 for an average sofa. So, if you find a sofa for $100 and all it needs is new foam, you could potentially be into a "nearly new" vintage sofa for under $500, which is not too shabby! However, it is important to keep these factors in mind when you're shopping for vintage pieces, because if you're not prepared, the bill at the upholsterer might be a lot more than you bargained for!
Above is a before/after shot of an incredibly Hollywood Regency style slipper chair that we completely restored from thrift-store condition to showroom condition. We refinished the frame and upholstered the chair in a high end Italian cut velvet. Do you have upholstery projects that you've been meaning to get to but haven't found the time or don't have the resources? Let us help! With our extensive collection of "vintage friendly" designer fabrics and our ace upholsterer, we can take your thrift store finds and transform them into pieces that you'll be able to use and enjoy for years to come!
Stay tuned for our next post, coming this Thursday, where we will discuss using your powers of observation to distinguish vintage wooden furniture from contemporary knockoffs!