How to thrift furniture for your home

When furnishing a home from scratch, flatpack furniture is all too often the go-to choice. Charlotte Abrahams shows us how antiques can often provide a far superior, greener and even more affordable way to fill our houses…

How to thrift furniture
Philip Durrant
Published: February 20th, 2022 at 10:00 am
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In November 2018, fine art and antiques auctioneers Sworders sold a set of seven Regency dining chairs for £340. They were made from mahogany and boasted elegantly turned legs beneath their newly upholstered seats. Whoever bought them got a bargain. Even with the auction house premium (typically 20 to 25 per cent of the sale price), the cost compares favourably with the high street; and you can be pretty sure that the average mass-produced, contemporary chair wouldn’t be made of a solid hardwood. ‘Antiques were often handmade using the best quality materials and the most exceptional workmanship,’ says antiques dealer Ed Butcher, who sells mainly mid-century pieces from his eponymous shop on London’s Lots Road. ‘This results in something truly beautiful that will stand the test of time and won’t depreciate in value the moment you get it home.’

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How to thrift furniture
This contemporary apartment in Covent Garden, designed by Sophie Ashby, blends quality antique furniture and accessories to chic, modern effect Philip Durrant

Of course, there are many contemporary designers and manufacturers producing exquisitely made furniture from the finest materials, but such craftsmanship often comes at a premium and is out of the reach of anyone furnishing their houses on a limited budget. The more affordable end of the new market offers a wealth of (mostly good-looking) choice but, largely, it is not built to last. The UK throws away around 1.6m tonnes of furniture and bulky waste each year, according to The Great Recovery, a project run by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), most of which ends up in landfill. As the damaging environmental impact of our disposable lifestyles becomes more evident, reusing what has already been made makes ever more sense.

Antique furniture has personality, too. Older furniture comes with a back story – even if you don’t know the provenance of a piece, you can imagine the previous owners and the homes it has lived in – and you are far less likely to find that your best friend or neighbour has bought the same piece. As antiques-loving interior designer Sophie Ashby says, ‘Antiques offer so much style and character compared to high street furniture, and finding a piece that’s special and more than likely can’t be found elsewhere is deeply satisfying.’

How to thrift furniture
In this bedroom, designer Sophie Ashby chose an art deco, marble-topped bedside table – its quality and beauty sings Philip Durrant

If you're interested in furniture, check out our round-up of the best furniture upcycling and restoration courses available online and in person.

How to find antique furniture

But where to start? There’s a plethora of places to find good quality furniture at the lower end of the budget spectrum – flea markets and antiques fairs, auctions and shops, both physical and online, all offer a dizzying array of antique, vintage, salvaged or otherwise pre-owned furniture, lighting and accessories.

According to James Pickup, Auctioneer and Valuer at Sworders, auction house sales are no longer the expensive, intimidating places of stereotype. ‘Our existence relies on us being accessible,’ he says. ‘While the top end of the market is very expensive, the lower end [for example, unattributed pieces, brown furniture, anything that has been restored] has fallen by about 60 per cent in the last 20 years, so buying at auction can be extremely cost-effective.’ His top tip for success is to be prepared. ‘There are no refunds at auction so you need to be sure the piece is right. Get the catalogue before you go, highlight lots that are of interest and arrive early so you can look at everything thoroughly. Measure things, open drawers and cupboard doors to assess the condition, and ask questions. When it comes to bidding, make sure the auctioneer can see you and bid with confidence up to your budget limit.’

How to thrift furniture
A Georgian oak chest of drawers sold for £220 at Sworders in November 2018

Knowing what you’re looking for and careful inspection are the keys to successful antique furniture shopping, wherever you choose to buy. Even online dealers such as Gemma and Simon Jones of Mustard Vintage recommend hands-on scrutiny wherever possible (ask for close-up photos and detailed information about the condition if you can’t see a piece in person), while Will Thomas, Managing Director of International Antiques & Collectors Fairs, which runs large outdoor fairs such as Newark and Ardingly, urges anyone buying wooden pieces to ‘look for evidence of woodworm, check the joints and ask whether it has been restored’.

Restoration divides opinion, as serious collectors may avoid anything that isn’t in its original condition, but if you’re buying to furnish your home on a budget, a few well done repairs are nothing to worry about. Neither are some visible signs of wear and tear, providing a piece is structurally sound. ‘The patina of use adds character,’ says Adam Hills, founder of salvage specialists Retrouvius, adding that he is drawn to ‘unloved, neglected pieces,’ of the kind found languishing at the backs of salesrooms and market stalls.

How to thrift furniture
A Victorian ex-museum mahogany display cabinet cleverly repurposed as a kitchen island by Retrouvius Tom Fallon Photography

How to shop for bargain antiques

Opting for the scuffed and ‘unfashionable’ may require a shift in attitude, but it is a sure route to a bargain, particularly when it comes to more incidental items such as side tables, occasional chairs and cabinets. It also leaves you with more to spend on investment pieces such as sofas and dining tables.

Christopher Halls, an Associate at auction house Cheffins, recommends looking for pieces ‘in the style’ of well-known design classics as a way of getting the look for less. Jane Juran, organiser of the Decorative Antiques and Textiles Fair in London, suggests bargain hunters seek out carved Victorian lamp bases, Georgian dining chairs, and country stools and cricket tables, which are so simple they look modern. Simon and Gemma Jones tip old school furniture. ‘It was often incredibly well made and has a timeless, utilitarian look that can add character and warmth to a room,’ they say.

How to thrift furniture
An easy armchair in the manner of Howard & Sons with mahogany front legs and loose covers, sold for £300 at Cheffins in September 2018

Buying old rather than new inevitably leads to a more mismatched, eclectic aesthetic and, as Sophie Ashby admits, it’s not for everyone. However, if you’re looking for an interestingly layered, narrative-filled interior on a budget, antiques are the way ahead. And you don’t have to sacrifice modern style, as antique does not equate to old-fashioned. ‘It’s all about the mix,’ says Sophie. ‘Put something new next to something old and try placing opposite materials next to each other.’ You’ll need to experiment, but the other great thing about antiques is that they tend to hold their value, so if you make a mistake, you can simply sell the piece on. What’s not to love?

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Decorating on a shoestring

Meet Katie McCarthy, the savvy antiques lover who decorated her home on a shoestring.

How to thrift furniture

When Marketing Manager Katie McCarthy moved into her two-bedroom Edwardian flat in 2016, she knew she wouldn’t have much money to spare for the interior decor. ‘It needed a lot of work so the budget had to be spent on the basics,’ she says. Keen to draw attention to the age of the building, she decided to try to furnish the place with antique and vintage pieces and so began a protracted shopping spree that has taken her to markets, second-hand shops and even the local dump. ‘Shopping like this is so much fun,’ she says. ‘I much prefer the effect you get by incorporating older pieces – the colours, scale and finishes are often unique and these objects become talking points in your home.’

Her best buys include a hotel sign she bought for under £10 at a second-hand store, a round Victorian mirror with beautifully foxed glass found for £5 at the dump, and a green velvet seat made from an old sofa bed and upholstered using a pair of curtains that came with the house. ‘It’s practical and the fabric reminds me of the original history of the house.’

The end result is eclectic, of course, but Katie has learned through trial and error that old and mismatched can look modern and fresh so long as the background is simple. ‘I’ve kept the wall colours muted and the ceilings and woodwork crisp and white so the furniture and other pieces stand out and don’t have to compete with the bones of the house,’ she adds.

What Katie bought: a chest of drawers, an armchair, three rugs, a marble table, a set of mid-century chairs and more decorative objects than she can count. Total spend: £400.

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Best bargain: A ‘Pay at the Desk’ sign. ‘Old signs and typography are a particular interest of mine. I spotted this at the mechanics and asked if I could have it. He said yes!’

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