The vintage homewares market is booming. From the art of the auction to mid-century must-haves, five shop owners talk trends, insider tips and how to bag a timeless treasure
Antiques were once reserved for the ‘monied’ but, in the last few years especially, there has been a surge in interest in vintage, retro and just about anything not of this era. Nostalgia is in, but then the beauty of vintage is that nothing ever really goes out of style, and there is always something retro having a moment in the design world.
During the pandemic, we sought comfort in nostalgia, a common psychological response in times of crisis, but there is also an ever-growing focus on sustainability and respect for craftsmanship: people care about the story of their furniture now more than ever. The trend is being driven by thrifty shoppers, eco-conscious consumers and the budget-conscious looking for a bargain with a story.
For some, the thrill is in the chase; for others, it’s a slow process to find the ‘right’ item, and it can often be overwhelming ‘haggling’ with grace while getting the item you want. So start measuring up those empty corners and get ready to hit the markets with these tips from some of Ireland’s experts.
Joy Thorpe, Joy Thorpe Decorative Antiques & Interiors, Kilkenny
A small, stuffed squirrel peers out from behind a Victorian bell jar next to a distressed French pot and a Moroccan Tamegroute fruit bowl; a 19th-century Swedish pine cabinet with beautiful intricate inlay sits against a wall next to a 1940s tanned leather moustache sofa on which resident pooch Earl is usually to be found. This is Joy Thorpe’s very personal edit, a well-curated, eclectic mix of her best-loved finds from around the world. An appreciation of design comes naturally to Thorpe, who studied textiles in NCAD before becoming a visual merchandiser and a textile artist. It’s evident in the pretty vignettes staged around the shop, something that’s integral to her business given she’s selling much of her stock online, so the visual is key.
“I’ve been interested in all things old since I was a kid,” she muses. “I like pieces that have lived a good existence and are perfectly imperfect, rough and worn; they bring warmth, history and grounding to interiors. I just love anything with a nostalgic feel.”
Much of her sourcing is done in France, the UK and Ireland, but her favourite place for finding treasures is Marrakech, where she literally gets lost in the Medina. There’s always an adventure and a story behind each find. “I recently went to Enniscorthy to buy six wicker shopping baskets and came home with a 46ft container of 1980s wicker from Poland,” she laughs. But then, that’s what it’s all about, the unexpected treasures on the way. As the saying goes, someone else’s trash is another one’s treasure. “You might think, ‘Who on earth would buy that?’ but everything sells eventually, and once you attend a few auctions, you soon come to realise there’s a market for everything.”
Lately, she’s noticed a big interest in leather club chairs, kitchen dressers, apothecary bottles, banks of drawers and kilim rugs, the more unique the better. “Customers now more than ever want to know the history. Sustainability is also a huge reason for the interest in vintage homewares and antiques; although it may be tempting to buy cheaper items from a high-street store, investing in solid antique pieces for your home will mean your pieces will stay with you a lot longer and keep their value and condition, plus your home will feel full of character and personality.”
There’s a real art to finding the right piece and knowing its value, especially at flea markets, which require a laser focus for spotting needed items while trying to remain open-minded to amazing things you never knew even existed. “Ask yourself, ‘What would it cost new?’ Is it a piece you see yourself holding on to? I usually do some research online to see if I can find similar items and compare costs. But, essentially, it’s about that item that stops you in your tracks or catches your eye. Sometimes I look at a piece and can’t really figure out if I love or hate it; I almost always purchase it, and they have been some of my favourite finds.”
Some treasured possessions include a French club chair she bought on a buying trip to Shepton Mallet, and a bell jar containing a glass bird that she couldn’t part with. “Mostly I look for pieces that I instantly think I can’t live without. Ironically I then sell them!”
Darran Robinson, Decor, Dublin
“The more unusual the better,” says Darran Robinson, perched between a tribal headdress from Indonesia and an architect’s cabinet from the 1950s on which sits an amputee’s wooden leg. He can’t keep wooden amputee legs in stock, apparently. This is Decor, his haven of the ‘unusual’, which he has owned and run with his wife, Lorraine, for the last 30 years. It’s a bit like walking into a theatre prop house with a ‘melange’ of pieces that shouldn’t work together but somehow do. Here, Robinson indulges his passion for the quirky.
Being an artist himself (Dr Dublin), his fingerprints are all over the city in various bronze guises, from restaurant rooftops to Georgian house interiors. “I buy what I love, and a lot of that happens to be art, given my artistic background,” he explains. You’ll find limited-edition Andy Warhol screen prints and Picasso lithographs as well as rare tribal art. But there’s also a huge collection of rugs and carpets from an ex-Soviet embassy in Hungary and a giant whale skull brought back from Indonesia; something for all tastes, it seems.
“There aren’t necessarily trends in this business, but where once we couldn’t keep wooden trunks and pianos in stock, now we can’t sell them. Mid-century pieces, too, are being elbowed out a bit by Hollywood Glamour and English country style; now it’s all about Art Deco and taxidermy.”
Having grown up around the Meath Street markets in Dublin, his skill for hunting and haggling was well-honed by the time he opened his first vintage clothes shop at 15. He completed an art degree in NCAD and then opened his shop on Wexford Street. For years, Indonesia was the pool in which he dipped, but since the pandemic, he’s had to pivot the business to allow for delivery issues. “Shipping a container from Bali went from €12k to €22k and took an additional seven months, so it was unsustainable.”
Instead, he’s been hunting down treasures in the Baltics, bringing a new angle and style to the shop. “We’ve found barns full of the most incredible pieces, from hospital equipment to marble and industrial lighting.” It also happens to be where the amputee legs came from. “Every single barn was full of wooden amputee legs,” he laughs. “You’d be surprised how popular they are.” With three 40ft containers and a shop full of ‘finds’, it doesn’t sound like he needs to do much more hunting. “I don’t need to buy anything, but I love travelling and like to chase down the unusual.” As a result, he has to sell fast and often cheap. “There have been plenty of times when I realised after the fact that I may have sold something too cheap, but I like to clear the stuff out as quickly as I can and make room for more. The profit is in the buying. If you can get a good deal when you’re buying, then it’ll be easier to sell on.”
He recommends keeping an eye out for hotel silver, which can be found in charity or thrift shops and often mistaken for being cheap replicas when, in reality, it is the real deal and could be worth thousands. And buy what you love, like that silver-plated whale skull. I get the feeling he might find it troublesome to part with it. “It’s actually part of a fossilised whale skeleton that was in a cave in Papua New Guinea. It had to be brought up out of the cave, carried over a mountain to Bali and cleaned up before we shipped the whole thing home. Most of it was sold to dealers in Paris, but I kept the skull, which has a kilo of silver in it.” It’s priced at €26k but some things are priceless.
Emily Woodcock, Molly’s Vintage Vibes, Dundalk
Difficulty sourcing the right pieces of mid-century furniture for her own home along with a ‘grá’ for all things vintage from a young age spurred Emily Woodcock to set up Molly’s Vintage Vibes from her humble garage in 2021. “Sometimes I think I was born 60 years too late,” she laughs. “I was studying to become an interior designer and realised there was a niche in the market for authentic mid-century furniture.” It started small. Inventory was low, selling via Adverts and DoneDeal, but with lockdown came a surge in interest in our homes and sustainability — a national reaction, of sorts, to the mass-market homogeneity of homewares and an unexpected opportunity for Woodcock.
Sustainability is the world’s strongest trend, and vintage and antiques fit the trend better than anything else. “I sold a lot of desks during that time, as you can imagine. There’s a comfort in mid-century’s perceived timelessness: you can own your own little piece of history, but customers are really valuing the source, the story behind each piece, and seeking products that will last rather than end up in landfill. The careful, thought-out approach to design means mid-century pieces last a lifetime if well looked-after.”
Not only are mid-century pieces sustainable, they are versatile. True mid-century items are adaptable and well-designed, with both function and simple beauty in mind. You can add them to a room without having to rethink the whole space. It’s not a look that needs to be implemented wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling; pieces can be mixed and matched easily. Woodcock suggests starting small with one strong focal piece like a sideboard, for example. “For me, it’s all about silhouettes and clean lines: a credenza or an iconic chair, a dresser or a drinks cabinet elegantly lifted off the floor on dansette legs — pieces that add depth to a room. And go easy on the nostalgia,” she urges. “Less is more, so skip the shaggy rug and floral wallpaper, unless this is very you, of course. At the end of the day, your home should represent you.”
One of the main things to consider when looking for an authentic piece is maker marks. There are a lot of reproductions, says Woodcock, so checking maker marks will help determine when and where a piece of furniture was made so you can ensure it isn’t a modern attempt. Iconic pieces don’t hang around for long, so “grab it while you can”.
Starting out, Woodcock’s pool was thrift shops, house clearances and auctions. Although her collection runs the gamut from bar units to dining tables, sideboards are her “bread and butter”, which she now sources directly from Denmark, Germany, the UK and Sweden, and many of which she sells through Instagram, where she has a captive fan audience poised to slide into her DMs to purchase and fill their homes with stories.
“I bought a piece from an auction and discovered a folder hidden in the back drawer containing birth certs, wedding certs and cherished family photos. I could nearly imagine this family interacting with this cabinet. After a lot of legwork, I managed to track down the previous owners and reunite them with what they’d lost. It makes me smile to think about the earlier owners taking the same joy as I or new owners do in opening up a beautiful drinks cabinet or sitting at a vintage desk — you just can’t get that with a flatpack!”
Ray Sutton, Rummage, Roscommon
Nostalgia sells. And Ray Sutton, owner of Rummage in Roscommon, would know. Most days are spent meeting people who are looking for or spot something that reminds them of “the one their granny used to have”. It could be an old radio, a tea set, a kitchen chair or a toy. “We all remember something of our childhood, something that triggers a fond memory. If it’s useful, inexpensive and evokes nice memories, a customer will invariably treat themselves to it; there is someone for everything.”
However, Sutton and his partner Catia Da Nova have noticed a move away from larger furniture pieces in recent times. Even people who own larger homes are choosing smaller pieces, which allows them to reconfigure a room more easily: gilt-frame mirrors, original artwork, good-quality everyday furniture such as Georgian or Victorian chests of drawers and brass candlesticks will always sell, plus the odd quirky collector’s item.
“I remember the day a man decided to buy a Victorian chimney pot and asked could he use it as an umbrella stand in his hall. He then asked could it be used outside as a garden planter. I reminded him it was a chimney pot, so likely to have been outside on the roof of a house for the last 150 years,” he laughs. “People see different things and that’s the beauty of it I guess.”
For some, browsing flea markets and car boot sales is about finding the perfect piece to bring home; for others, it’s like an addictive game of poker, where knowledge is power and the stakes are high. For Sutton, it’s about the thrill of the find having spent Sunday afternoons as a child “rummaging” at markets in Kildare. The excitement of not knowing what he might find, the buzz of looking for things, and the satisfaction of actually finding them are in his bones. In his teens, he was collecting stamps and other ‘smalls’ and had Antiques Roadshow on repeat, while Da Nova was gathering and reusing old items around the house. Together they spend three days of the week sourcing and collecting stock from auctions and estate sales, and have fine-tuned their buying techniques.
Sutton suggests going for a browse at a local car boot sale or market to see what stirs your interest. Look for some small, inexpensive items that you can introduce to your home, or can be repurposed as something other than what they were originally designed to be. A vintage wooden step ladder, for example, covered in colourful splashes of paint, can make a beautiful and quirky towel rail in a bathroom.
When it comes to price, the right price is the price someone is prepared to pay. “You’ll soon realise if something is overpriced. If buying at an auction, always decide what your maximum bid should be and stick to it,” he advises. “Also remember the auctioneer’s fees. Otherwise buy what you like and what makes you happy or makes you smile. I tend to buy items that make me stop and stare. As a general rule of thumb, if I can’t take my eyes off it, then it’s for me! We have an old farmhouse wonky kitchen dresser, which started life as a bookcase. It’s full of charm and home to lots of lovely cups, plates, platters and oddball items we actually use. As William Morris once said, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’”
Dee Brophy, Dee Brophy Decorative Antiques, Naas
“I think of thrifting and antiquing as saving on a grander scale,” says Dee Brophy, owner of Dee Brophy Decorative Antiques, located on the grounds of Killashee House Hotel in Kildare, in the very building where she attended junior infants 30 years ago. Serendipitous given the nature of her career that you could say is premised on nostalgia. Having grown up in an old house on a farm, she spent endless hours playing house, going to auctions with her mother and aunts to find pieces to furnish their homes. Even as a child, her pulse quickened with the prospect of discovering something new that was old. Years later, when she lived and worked in Brussels, she would furnish her apartment from the local flea markets. Her passion piqued in 2004 and she gave up her corporate job for a life of antiques.
“Exposure to old and beautiful objects hones the eye and never ceases to open new avenues for me.” Instead of buying a piece that is inferior in quality, thrifting, she says, is knowing the difference between saving money in the long run by spending more on a sustainable piece that is ethically made and environmentally friendly.
The pandemic changed how many of us view and live in our homes, making us more conscious of what surrounds us. “There is nothing as constant as change, and people are changing how they live. A lot of my customers have a keen eye for craftmanship and quality. They invest their time and energy into things that have stood the test of time, and they appreciate the journey it takes to source the right pieces.”
But if you don’t have a keen ‘antiquer’ to steer you, what should you be keeping in mind when shopping? “How will you transport the piece having bought it,” she laughs. “But also, don’t get hung up on price. There’s no right price as such. Sometimes you need to let your heart rule your head and buy what you love and see value in. It’s your space after all.”
Outside of auction houses, there are bargains to be found at markets, junk shops and online. If you’re a beginner, she advises starting with magazines, museums and markets to get a feel for what you’re after. “Looking is an essential element for any beginner. There is so much to learn from looking and studying the construction of a piece itself. Get into the habit of browsing regularly and always carry a little black book with your measurements. Scale is vitally important when placing a piece or object in a space. Trust your gut, it generally won’t let you down.”
In the world of thrifting, nothing stays the same for long, so be prepared to swing by every few days or weeks to check out new stock and hopefully score something great. It’s also worth timing your search to certain periods, such as the end of the season or holidays when people tend to clear out their ‘clutter’ and donate or sell items online.
That treasure might be right above your head, so don’t forget to check out your parents’ attic, garage or barn. “My cottage is full of things I found in my granny’s attic,” says Joy Thorpe. From first-edition books to old toys, there could be items you could sell for a small fortune or help add that personality to a space that’s lacking.
Embrace the imperfections
Don’t let minor scratches put you off. Many of these pieces have been around a long time, and the scratches tell a story of their past. There are plenty of quick tricks that can fix minor flaws: mayonnaise may be your best friend when it comes to furniture repair!
Make a list and take measurements
You can be easily distracted and overwhelmed at the onslaught of products in a flea market or charity shop. It helps to make a list of items you might be looking for before you go and keep your home measurements, and a tape, handy – there’s nothing worse than finding (and purchasing) that dream cabinet only to find it won’t fit through the front door.
Always bring a magnifying glass and your phone when going rummaging. If you find something interesting with a mark on it, use the magnifier and the Google camera on your phone to check its authenticity. The camera scans the mark and, while it’s not always precise, it will tell you, for example, if that kilim rug is Persian or from Afghanistan, or what designer made those boots, and whether that book is a first edition, helping you determine whether you’ve just stumbled across that thing which will facilitate your early retirement.
Good things, small parcels
Look out for small, affordable items of today that are likely to become collectible in the not-too-distant future. Kids’ toys, for example: anything Lego or Star Wars related, will always have a following. Sometimes stores like Tesco will reduce the price of Lego packs (eg after Christmas). You can get great bargains, often for just a few euro, that will only increase in value as time goes on. Leave them in the box and wrap and store them safely.