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How to Decorate With Vintage

Designer Natalie Papier shares tips on making cast-offs and thrifted finds look cool. Her North Carolina home reflects her approach: Strike a balance between old and new, and don't take things too seriously.

For designer Natalie Papier, a home isn't home without something vintage—be it a quirky portrait of a stranger or a midcentury modern banquette (once clad in orange vinyl and now reupholstered in faux leather and the anchor of her kitchen's breakfast nook). "I spent a lot of time in dusty rooms full of wonders and oddities, and that love of the hunt stuck with me through life," says Natalie, recalling her childhood years when she tagged along with her parents to flea markets and antiques stores.

In the June 2021 issue, Better Homes & Gardens turned the tables and tagged along with Natalie to a Chicago-area flea market (get her shopping tips here). The Illinois native and her family have since relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina, where Natalie continues to grow her interior design business, Home Ec. Insider caught up with Natalie to get her thoughts on decorating with vintage and transforming her "Charlotte Chateau," as she calls it, into a fun-loving family home.

Q. First off, how would you describe your style?

"I have a hard time pegging it myself. But it's an eclectic, nostalgic, art-forward design mix for me. I love to combine vintage with modern, as well as art and color, for a unique look that fits my family's personalities. There is an individuality each family member brings, so for me it's important that a home reflects that."

Q. What does adding something vintage do for a room?

"It instantly adds soul! There is such personality in a piece with history and a little patina."

Q. What's the most important thing to know about decorating with vintage?

"It's all in the mix. You need balance. You can have a house full of vintage, but if all the pieces are from a specific era or style, it can feel themey. For example, if all your vintage pieces are wood, it can feel heavy unless you bring in different materials and colors to balance that out. I might pair a gilded Victorian mirror with a vintage burl wood sideboard and add a midcentury ceramic lamp with a pop of color to let each piece have its own moment. Or I might drape a graphic, modern throw across an antique chaise. Playing with different textures and design styles helps to keep vintage from leaning too grandmotherly."

Q. What are some of your favorite finds, and how did you work them into your home?

"Oh man—that's tough. My house is full of them! To start with, I would have a hard time parting with my green velvet sofa. It was still pristine and covered in the original plastic. I purchased it for $400. It's so well made with a solid wood base and back, and it's a focal point in my front room. I also found a working, midcentury record player console at an estate sale for $150, and it's a prized possession of mine. And there's a rug that I get asked about constantly that's one-of-a-kind vintage I bought off Facebook Marketplace for $80. I get excited about deals like that!"

Q. Are people surprised when they find out that many of your items are straight out of the '70s—or older or secondhand?

"I love people's reactions when they find out three out of four sofas on my main floor are vintage, with their original upholstery. There is just so much personality when decorating with vintage. You can really find unique pieces that stand the test of time—and there's something so fun about having a piece that can't be replicated."

Q. That's impressive that you've kept original upholstery. Any rules for determining when it's OK to leave as-is?

"Do the smell test. I definitely don't want to bring in anything that smells of animal or smoke or that's musty. I'm more lenient with vintage fabrics and rugs, though, because, for the most part, those can be professionally cleaned."

Q. What about sizing up the structure of a piece?

"Stay away from any furniture that's no longer stable or is too worn. Check legs to make sure they aren't loose or wobbly. Sit on it. Open cabinet doors and drawers to see if they pull out smoothly. Sound structure is the most important part of purchasing a vintage piece for its specific functionality. I once bought a vintage sofa from Facebook Marketplace that I knew would need to be reupholstered. But before I could get to that, the whole wood base cracked, making the piece unsalvageable. It was definitely a big lesson to do the sit test first."

Q. Are there certain vintage items you love using—or things that would be good starting points for someone who's new to vintage?

"I love finding vintage art—portraits, landscapes, abstracts. I try to be intentional and hang art where it can be truly highlighted and admired. The edit process is important. Vintage lamps are also a guilty pleasure of mine. With lighting, know what you're getting into. I have had some finicky lamps and chandeliers rewired for safety. They can be taken to a professional electrician without it being too costly."

Q. Are you a purist, or are you OK with painting or altering a vintage piece?

"I always try to clean up the piece well by dusting, washing, or airing it out. I did paint the base of my vintage swan console table to make it feel more modern, but I usually keep my vintage as is."

Q. What words of wisdom do you have for someone who's just getting started—maybe just going to their first flea market or starting to check out vintage or secondhand stores?

"Go slowly—it can be overwhelming at times. But the main thing is to only purchase what really speaks to you. Even if you don't know exactly where you would put something, I promise you will find a place for things you love."

See more of Natalie's rooms and projects on Instagram @home_ec_op or her website homeecop.com.

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