Antique or vintage, traditional or rustic, art deco or retro, French provincial, modern, or contemporary, there is a style of furniture for everyone. But getting a good value in certain styles requires some homework.
Furniture Styles Don’t Have to Be Confusing
There are so many styles of furniture available in stores and online that it is hard to know what is what. This article explains the terminology of furniture so you can find the style of furniture that matches your lifestyle. Chances are that you have some familiarity with the terminology of furniture styles but you are not quite sure where one style starts and contrasting style stops, so this article is organized in terms of similar furniture styles that are often confused — because they are confusing even to furniture experts.
Table of Contents
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Vintage vs. Antique
Bargains abound with vintage furniture. All vintage furniture is at least second- or maybe even third- or fourth-hand. Vintage furniture is used furniture that could have been used in the lifetime of someone you know. It is between 20 and 100 years old. When the furniture is less than 20 years old, it is still Contemporary (a category we will examine in more detail below).
Vintage furniture is perfect for mixing and matching and filling out a room. It is often less expensive than furniture made more recently, and it is available everywhere. Anyone who looks long enough can find the perfect pieces to reflect their personality by shopping for vintage furniture.
Genuine antiques are at least 100 years old. These pieces reflect the materials of their times, most often wood. Their unique features reflect their rarity and collectibility, which determine their value. Antiques may have a provenance, a documented chain of ownership, or they may be independently verified by an expert who can appraise their value.
Reproductions of antiques are very common. There are even companies that make reproductions of antiques to customer orders. They may look great in your house. With very few exceptions (such as famous forgeries), they don’t make good investments.
Most budgets restrict the purchases of antique furniture. Nearly everyone, however, can find some small piece of antique furniture that looks just right in their interior design. But everyone who is just starting out with antiquing should read the Frequently Asked Questions section below.
Both Antique and Vintage furniture are available in shops and online at eBay, Etsy, Jayson Home, Chairsh, AptDeco, Everything But the House, and One Kings Lane.
Retro vs. Art Deco
Have you ever seen reruns of The Brady Bunch? Or maybe you are sufficiently mature to have watched the series when it was in the first run in the late 1960s and early 1970s? If you have seen this program or many others about families fifty years ago, you have seen many examples of retro furniture.
Retro furniture comes in modular, geometric shapes. It is spray painted or coated in pastel colors. The set of The Brady Bunch, for example, had a tulip table. The kitchen counter had an orange splashback. Retro furniture in general captures trends of the recent past which are no longer fashionable but can create an emotional connection to the previous generation. The retro-style captures the “goldies” from the “oldies” that your grandmother might have chosen for her house if your grandmother was alive in the 1950s and 1960s. Retro is the kind of furniture that just needs some refreshing to be made good as new, or good as new for you.
Art Deco, short for Arts Décoratifs, originated at an exposition in Paris in 1925. It combined the fine craftsmanship of the Victorian Era with modern materials and a distinctly new style. Art Deco was intended to capture an attitude of glamour, luxury, modernity, and faith in progress. Art Deco accompanied the arrival of jazz, talking pictures, cocktails, and convertibles. It is the style of furniture used on the sets of the current television program Boardwalk Empire and the movie The Great Gatsby.
Art Deco is a style that emphasizes geometric shapes, but instead of a variety of colors, it uses a variety of materials. Art Deco pieces may include glass, chrome, mirrors, and shiny fabric. Because the Deco movement included the design of buildings, planes, trains, and automobiles and even radios and vacuum cleaners, you will often encounter Art Deco pieces in historic neighborhoods built during its heyday.
Wayfair carries Retro furniture. Art Deco furniture is available from Wayfair, Etsy, and Chairish.
Traditional vs. Rustic
“Traditional” furniture “traditionally” refers to the furniture of the style popular in the reign of England’s Queen Victoria, who ruled from 1837 to 1901. It is a style with plush cushions, elegant fabrics, overstuffed cushions, and hand-crafted dark woods. Under the general heading of traditional furniture, modern shoppers can find:
- Chippendale. This Victorian style is recognized by straight lines with artistic embellishments.
- Queen Anne. Elaborate ornamentation characterizes this style of Traditional furniture.
- Sheraton. These pieces have delicate legs and intricate inlays.
Rustic furniture is much less formal. Makers of rustic furniture seek to capture a warm, homey feeling. They may use animal hides or raw timbers. Warm colors predominate over dark colors, and finishes may or may not be smooth. Rustic furniture has simple lines without ornamentation.
Ethan Allen, Basset, Wayfair, and many other online and brick-and-mortar retailers carry traditional furniture. Rustic furniture is available at Pier One and many other retailers who carry imports from Latin America. It is also available directly from individuals who build furniture all over the United States.
French Provincial vs. Shabby Chic
There are two traditional styles of French furniture. One style of French furniture is the furniture designed for the king and court, aristocrats, and rich upper bourgeoisie. The Parisian furniture is rare and highly collectible. It appears in museums and in the homes of the very well-to-do.
But there is another style of French furniture known as French provincial. This style originated in the cities of Blois and Orléans in the Loire valley, and at Lyon or Liège. (Liège is in Belgium, but it is in the cultural orbit of France.) French Provincial is a style based on designs popular with well-to-do families living in the French provinces, that is, outside of Paris, in the 1600s and 1700s.
A good example of a French Provincial style that is still popular today is the ladder-back dining chair. In France, this ladder-back chair would come with a woven seat. Modern versions are more likely to use solid wood seats. French Provincial pieces include over-sized armoires and sideboards with decorative, scalloped carving.
Shabby Chic could be described as distressed French Provincial. It is also a style that originated in elegant homes in the French countryside, but it involves more up-cycling of furniture showing signs of daily use over a very long time. It has a feminine feel, but it lacks the smoothness of the Provincial style.
Many of the retailers that carry Traditional furniture, such as Ethan Allen and Bassett, also carry French Provincial. The best buys in Shabby Chic are found in small, independently owned furniture shops.
Modern vs. Contemporary
“Modern” furniture design is not exactly new. The modernist movement started in the early 1900s. The furniture-buying public, used to styles approved by British royalty, was shocked by the appearance of chairs that mimicked the curves of the human body, tables on a pedestal rather than on legs, and couches that were angular and upholstered in leather rather rounded and covered with plush cushions.
Sleek and stylish, Modern furniture in the 2020s combines leather, vinyl, plastics, molded plywood, and steel in a single-color scheme to create a sleek design. Most of the “Modern” pieces for sale today are not originals but rather reproductions. Originals from the Modernist period have become highly collectible, rare, and expensive antiques.
Contemporary furniture is furniture that is popular here and now. Contemporary furniture offers an incredible range of choices. You can buy children’s furniture to match your child’s favorite Disney theme. Or you can buy ergonomic furniture that is designed to improve your children’s sense of balance and help them learn more when they study.
Modern shoppers can find a robotic Murphy bed that stores itself into a wall during the day to create more room in a tiny apartment during the day. They can buy a smart chair with sensors that help them maintain good posture to prevent back pain. There are Remo drum tables sold as furniture specifically designed to help depressed people express their feelings.
Nearly all national chains with brick-and-mortar furniture shores carry Modern and Contemporary furniture. These styles are also available online at Wayfair, eBay, and Etsy.
Frequently Asked Questions About Styles of Furniture
Now that you know the basic styles of furniture you can ask the questions posed by smart shoppers. We’ll take a look at the kinds of information consumers need to make the best choices in each style. Here are some of the questions that furniture buyers most frequently ask.
Why would anyone want to buy used furniture?
Good-quality furniture is built to outlive its owners, and great design is timeless. No single piece of furniture is going to appeal to everyone, but anyone can find something they like if they look in enough second-hand shops. Pre-owned furniture can be reupholstered and refinished to conform to contemporary tastes but use caution when modifying antiques.
How do I identify good value in antique furniture?
When you are starting out buying antique furniture, it is best to visit multiple dealers to get a feel for prices and what is available. Honest, experienced antique dealers can help you find unique and beautiful furniture that will retain its value and maybe even provide you with a good return on investment should you decide to sell it later.
Antique furniture is inherently expensive because any antique is a collectible. Knowing whether a particular piece of furniture is really an antique, however, requires considerable expertise. Antique dealers should be able to tell you the age of a piece, and how they know it. They should be able to give you the provenance of the piece, a history of ownership that tells you how it came to be available in their shop. And they should be able to give you an informed opinion on the rarity of the piece.
Rarity increases price. If the piece is of a style with lasting popularity, the price of a rare piece will only go up. However, no buyer should reject a piece just because it is common or select a piece just because it is rare. Antique furniture that is a good value to you is always furniture that you like. If you fall in love with a style, don’t be afraid to buy a replica of an antique. Just don’t pay the same price for a replica that you would pay for the genuine article.
There is a consideration for antique furniture that seldom applies to other styles. Antique furniture can be buggy. Wood ants and termites can live in furniture. Signs of infestation are tiny holes on the bottom of furniture legs and traces of wood dust around the base of the furniture. Don’t take these destructive insects home with your purchase.
What can I do when I find antique furniture with good bones but worn-out upholstery (or a pattern I do not like)?
Older mattresses, couches, and sofas usually need to be reupholstered before they are brought into a home. Take the time you need to find the right fabric and the right upholsterer. Your upholsterer should be experienced with older pieces and have the equipment needed to install new fabric without damaging the furniture.
Isn’t “vintage” furniture just old furniture?
Vintage furniture is more than old furniture. Vintage furniture represents a specific era or a specific style. An inexpensive, locally produced piece can be vintage, as can expensive, imported Danish or Scandinavian furniture found in some specialty stores. Vintage furniture can be found in second-hand shops. It is not hard to find a vintage mirror, clock, coffee table, couch, or sofa that speaks to a specific era of time at a good price in shops specializing in vintage furniture. Some of the best values in vintage furniture are found in distress sales at storage facilities. Long-stored vintage furniture has little wear and tear and may be available at a bargain price.
What should I look for in contemporary furniture?
Contemporary furniture is the product of a twenty-first-century approach to design. Contemporary furniture usually looks “clean.” Its lines are simple. Its materials look fresh. Because the contemporary style is understated, contemporary furniture can be used to fill out rooms that emphasize furniture of other styles.
But contemporary furniture reflects a twenty-first-century approach to design in another way. Contemporary furniture is constructed to make life more pleasant. Here are just a few of the ways people can live happier, healthier, and more productive lives with the help of contemporary furniture design:
- Contemporary furniture can be designed to give an illusion of spaciousness in small rooms. This objective is accomplished by leaving more wall space exposed.
- Contemporary furniture can include germ-resistant surfaces, capturing as many as two-thirds of particles of the virus that cause colds and flu.
- Contemporary children’s furniture is available in fantasy themes. Ethan Allen, for example, has an entire catalog of children’s furniture designed on Disney themes.
- Contemporary furniture is designed with child safety in mind. Researchers report that twice as many children are hospitalized after falls from furniture as falls down stairs. Contemporary beds and chairs are designed to prevent children’s falls.
- Contemporary furniture is not limited to passive, sedentary use for adults. Researchers have found that using a standing desk one hour a day has been found to increase children’s test scores. A scientific study has also found that adults who work at stand-sit desks (desks designed to allow the users a chance to stand or sit as they choose) increase productivity equivalent to adding an extra minute to every hour.
How do I touch up scratches and marks on my furniture?
Amazon and most home improvement stores offer crayons and markers containing touch-up solutions. Be sure to match the color of the touch-up solution to the color of your furniture before applying the marker. Usually, you would not want to do touch-up work on antiques.
Is the fabric on Antique furniture flame- and fire-resistant?
Not only is the fabric on Antique furniture not usually flame- and fire-resistant, the fabric on Modern and Contemporary furniture is not flame- and fire-resistant indefinitely, either, unless it is labeled as inherently fire-retardant, permanently fire-retardant, or durably fire-retardant to government standards. Furniture that will be used in any room where there is an open flame or used by children should be upholstered with certified flame- and fire-resistant fabric or reupholstered.
Is there any one style of furniture that is better than all the others?
If your objective is to furnish a rental, a bread and breakfast, or an investment property, chances are that you are better off buying contemporary furniture. Contemporary furniture has widespread appeal. Contemporary furniture is easier to replace if it is damaged or stolen. Contemporary furniture does not appeal to everyone, but it is acceptable to nearly everyone and appeals to a greater number of people than any other style.
For your own home, the best style is the style you like. The person who has to be happy with your home is you. Use style as a guide to choosing the right vendors to find the furniture you truly want to call your own.
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