Decorating with antiques

Benedict Foley and Birdie Fortescue offer their top tips on how to buy and style antiques, as well as how to mix old and new in your home

Decorating with antiques
Published: June 15th, 2022 at 12:50 pm
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Top tips from Birdie Fortescue

Creating vignettes for this collaboration at home was an incredibly enjoyable exercise that gave us the chance to put together a completely fresh set of room schemes. The house itself dates from the early 19th Century and is very well proportioned although not overly large. This meant that the arrangements we curated could quite easily be replicated in a range of home settings.

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The furniture we chose from the upcoming sale was very much in the spirit of the existing interiors but in a different vein to our own items. Much of the furniture here already is French and is a mix of polished and painted so it was easy to slot in the new pieces and create some interesting juxtapositions.

Working with lots of brown furniture was a great opportunity to show just how versatile it can be when styled with contemporary soft furnishings and accessories. Our Loire collection, new for Spring/Summer, was the perfect balance to bring a fresh take on antiques for today’s taste. Styling with our contemporary textiles and lighting enabled me to curate a series of spaces that feels timeless, yet fun and original.

1. Display your antiques against a colourful backdrop

Decorating with antiques

Antique furniture is finally making a comeback and bringing with it the intrigue of the heyday of English country house living. Rich mahogany, textural rosewood and soft walnut are all perfect bedfellows for the bolder colours that are dominating the interiors scene. The much-loved jewel-toned walls of Georgian architect Sir John Soane are popping up in modern interiors in both in the city and the country, alongside softer earthy pinks and warm naturals.

This new palette not only provides the perfect backdrop for antiques, but also represents a better understanding of the ways we are impacted by our home environments. One of Farrow and Ball’s top five colours for 2022 is an unflinchingly cheerful yellow, which is particularly timely in light of the proven connection between the colours we surround ourselves with and our mood. It turns out that clinical whites and ash greys do not make for a happy home (surprise, surprise).

2. Don't be afraid to mix styles and eras

Decorating with antiques

The new outlook of styling with antiques is all about embracing character in order to achieve an overall scheme that brings pieces together from a variety of eras and styles. A 19th Century bench might sit below an abstract painting or a polished mahogany bureau could be styled alongside a contemporary coffee table. The idea is to use each item’s unique qualities to create a pleasing look that’s rich in narrative and personality.

This narrative needn’t be confined to home turf. As the world continues to re-open global influences are being used in bolder ways than ever. African textiles, Indian rugs and Chinese ceramics are being paired with modernist sculpture, contemporary photography and sharp, bespoke details for edgy eclecticism. Think the Grand Tours of the 18th-19th centuries but with a grandmillenial makeover.

3. Give antiques a modern twist

Decorating with antiques

Modern interiors call for a modern approach to decoration which is fresher, more relaxed and homely than in previous decades. Crucially, after the explosion of social media-driven fast homeware, this freshness is starting to look more grown up, with a greater conscience and sense of responsibility. Using antiques as the backbone of a scheme means that fewer new items are required for embellishment. Needing less newness gives greater scope for investment in better, higher quality pieces with trans-seasonal longevity.

4. Opposites attract

Decorating with antiques

Style antiques by contrasting the warmth of aged patinas with textiles and soft furnishings with plenty of eclectic decorative pieces. Textural rugs, statement cushions and embroidered throws will all hold their own in a scheme filled with characterful furniture. Adding unexpected touches and lighthearted accessories will keep the finished look firmly in the present day.

Crisp, contemporary glass, minimalist metal and on-trend shapes (yes there is a place for bobbins, bobbles and scallops) can all be used to introduce a touch of effervescence or humour, depending on the setting. The art of the mix requires a light touch and whitisism. A fossilised crab or taxidermy pufferfish might not seem like the most obvious of finishing touches, but true eclecticism is rooted in personality so think character by the bucketload.

5. Think outside the box

Decorating with antiques

Mixing antique prints with contemporary art is a great way to keep a scheme updated and on-trend. Aim to create bold pairings that break the mould - small scale checks with intricate Chinoiserie, bold geometrics with traditional damask or contemporary embroidery against gilt and inlay. Occasional clever combinations will elevate your look further. In this drawing room the rug and armchair share almost exactly the same trellis design but in different styles and scales.

Don’t forget that antique furniture is often surprisingly versatile with pieces lending themselves many different uses in a modern environment. If you need a small desk that’s chic enough to use as a console table in a drawing room, try using a games table. Equally, a 19th century bench could work very well when looking for seating in a narrow hallway.

The antiques used in this collaboration will be sold at Cheffins Fine Art Auctioneers in Cambridge on 22nd and 23rd June.


Top tips from Benedict Foley

When we moved to our place in the country several years ago, we had things we’d brought with us from our respective London homes, we moved these in, moved them round, laughed a lot about what we’d thought would fit and didn’t, and then got to work on how we’d fill out the gaps that remained. It’ll be a familiar experience for anyone who’s moved to a place with a bit more space.

We both work in Design so the ability to make decisions quickly about what goes in a space is something that we use on the daily, however you may be interested to know how we reach decisions as a couple! How on earth you might think can they make so many joint decisions quickly and not have blazing rows? Dear reader, we aren’t saints, but it does help to have a process in place!

1. Measure before you buy

Decorating with antiques
Styled antiques in Benedict Foley & Daniel Slowik's home for Cheffins Fine Sale

It's important to measure (preferably twice!) before you make any big purchases, particularly when it comes to buying larger pieces of antique furniture. Utility furniture for things like storing your jumpers makes a huge difference to daily life if you move quickly. It doesn’t have to be the piece of your dreams, think decent construction and fill the space you have in mind efficiently. If you buy a workaday piece you can make it sing with a great lamp and a new shade. Just make sure it will fit!

2. Don’t be afraid to decorate your walls with antiques

Decorating with antiques
Styled antiques in Benedict Foley & Daniel Slowik's home for Cheffins Fine Sale

Decide where key items will hang, and the rest will follow. A painting of a good size over a sofa or an antique mirror over a fireplace are good places to start. These might seem obvious places, but they give you the focal points to a room and a framework for incidental purchases later. Small pictures next to lamps break the formality of a hang and are well placed to be enjoyed at night as well as in the day.

3. Buy large antique items

Decorating with antiques
Styled antiques in Benedict Foley & Daniel Slowik's home for Cheffins Fine Sale

The impact a great mirror or painting will make on your room cannot be underestimated. A sofa waiting to be recovered combined with a good wall colour and a great antique mirror will make more impact than a mid-range spend on all items. Size wise, over-scaling is better than ending up with something that's too small!

4. Collect antiques together

Decorating with antiques
Styled antiques in Benedict Foley & Daniel Slowik's home for Cheffins Fine Sale

If you live with someone else, choose an area you both might want to collect in. This is nothing to do with practical considerations, it’s just things you both enjoy. Try going through a few catalogues and marking what you individually enjoy, and then see where you overlap. If you have a joint collection in the house, it makes it much easier to live with your partner’s individual choices!

We collect paintings of Venice; we both love the city so it wasn’t hard to agree on that! Small pieces like ceramics for the table or glasses are a great place to build up a harlequin collection, everyone in the household gets to add things without it needing to be a joint decision every time!

5. Have fun with your antiques

Decorating with antiques
Styled antiques in Benedict Foley & Daniel Slowik's home for Cheffins Fine Sale

A pop of colour or a funny face can make all the difference in a room. It lets people know your sense of humour and keeps everything fresh. Auctions are usually full of curious items. What could be better than something unique and amusing?

Also remember that new made items are not a no no, just buy well-made items with real significance to you. Get to know the brand who makes them and you’ll find there are lots of people making great things in the UK, and small businesses tend to be low waste!

6. Don’t keep your antiques for best

Decorating with antiques
Styled antiques in Benedict Foley & Daniel Slowik's home for Cheffins Fine Sale

We have antiques we use that are precious and give us a sense of occasion. If it’s the weekend and you've got friends over for dinner or drinks, use your auction treasures! It’s a great talking point - sharing what you love about things - and marks off the week, especially if you’ve been spending more time working from home of late! Handling things as you use them reminds you of what you love about them (yes, that even includes the washing up!)

7. Don’t dwell on missed antiques

Decorating with antiques
Styled antiques in Benedict Foley & Daniel Slowik's home for Cheffins Fine Sale

Sometimes at auction you see something you love and it sales well beyond what you were prepared to pay for it. Don’t be dejected, clearly you have great taste! The whole fun of auctions is that there are so many unique items out there, as well as models which are similar. If you regularly view antiques sales you’ll get a sense of what is readily available and when to bring the big guns out. See it as fun!

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You can see the full Cheffins calendar here.

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