Decorating with Wood Antiques

By Kate Riley November 17, 2011

Have you ever wondered how to decorate with those antiques you’ve inherited?  Those precious pieces beloved by a grandmother or aunt that have been in the family for decades and now belong to you? It’s a question I received last month from a reader and one many people have struggled with. 

Today Courtney from Courtney Out Loud is back with his monthly contribution and the topic of the day is decorating with wood antiques, specifically those vintage pieces handed down from previous generations. Please welcome back Courtney and his artful analysis on how to decorate with antique wood furniture:

“Mixing antique and modern furniture styles helps create an individualized and multilayered room that reflects the owner’s unique taste and personality. However, many people adhere to one specific style when decorating their homes. This approach is great if you are truly passionate about a particular era or genre of design, however, for the majority of homeowners they tend to be at a loss when they happen to inherit a family heirloom. How do you incorporate it into your home’s personality and style?  Case in point, Kate received this email from a reader seeking help:  

    "My mom has a vintage buffet that I convinced her to hang onto. I want to use it in my home, but how do you incorporate vintage pieces with your regular decor, without making it feel like grandma’s house?"

Great question! Exactly how do you incorporate vintage and antique furniture into your home without having it feel too dated ?  Don’t fret because it’s as easy as following one of these six simple rules.

1) Determine Your Design Focus  A room filled with nothing but antiques can quickly make your home feel dated and more like a museum.  Unless you are purposefully going for a "boho" look, then you need to decide the primary style of your space – modern, traditional, contemporary – whatever it may be. Making the decision on what style will dominate the room will allow you to make conscious choices on what types of antiques will work with your aesthetic.  You can then begin to layer in vintage and antique pieces that suit your particular design focus and also add character.

scot mecham wood

Scot Mecham Wood 

Judith Balis

Judith Balis via HGTV

The two rooms above are perfect examples of how to choose a design focus yet still incorporate antiques and vintage pieces seamless into a room without overpowering the space.  The antiques are combined with more modern pieces to achieve a balanced “collected over time” look. 


2) Put Antiques To Work  Most of us have visited a house where there was a room designated "Do Not Enter" or worse, the furniture was slipcovered in plastic.  Antiques were originally made with a purpose, so put them to work.  Have a beautiful antique dining table set?  Break it up.  Pair the table with modern, industrial, or upholstered chairs then use the matching chairs in another part of your house, say as part of a reading room vignette.  By using these family heirlooms as functional pieces throughout your home, you breathe new life into them and into the rooms where they reside.   

sf girl by bay antique table

SF Girl by Bay 

deborah needleman lonny mag



3) There is Harmony in Discord.  Filling a room with antiques or vintage pieces simply because they are so is a road map straight to "Granny’s House". The impact of the pieces will be lost, so I suggest that you look for "harmonic discordance".  It’s a term borrowed from music, but by definition it’s when a composer purposefully uses off notes to emphasize a particular section of music. Using your inherited antique pieces to create visual dissonance is a fantastic way to break up the monotony that may arise from using one style in a room but also serves to highlight the fantastic qualities of the antique piece itself.    

skip sroka

Skip Sroka Design

judith miller

Judith MIller Design  

antique daybed house beautiful

 House Beautiful

These images exemplify the visual tension that can be created by pairing dissimilar pieces. Left alone, the pieces are fine but when combined with modern accessories, they make for real visual interest within the rooms.


4) Create a Space For It  This is a trick that merchandise stylists have used for years and has been appropriated by interior designers to work difficult furniture pieces into a room. Quite simply, create a "backdrop" for the antique or vintage piece you are trying to fit into the room. Paint large squares of color on a blank wall and use them to frame the piece, or anchor a corner of a room with a large period inspired painting or mirror and float the piece of furniture in front.  Consider as part of your plan an unexpected place for your antique.   Doing so allows the vintage piece to become a purposeful focal point and less of an afterthought.  

kerrie kelley image

Kerrie Kelley

ami designs

AMI Designs

robinson interiors

Robinson Interiors


5) Tell A Story.  Sometimes a connection between your antique pieces and the rest of your decor is not obvious. That is when you use accessories (pictures, lamps, mirrors and art) to create a subtle relationship with the rest of the room.  Setting a pair of modern crystal lamps on top of a burled wood credenza or using a vintage console to house your family photo collection are great ways to create unifying themes to the rest of the room.

grant k gibson

Grant K. Gibson

In addition to accessories, look to the innate aspects of the antique or vintage piece such as wood tone, leg shape, or finishes to echo other design elements in the room.

darryl carter

Darryl Carter

Pull together more modern accessories to surround your antique piece and you’ll achieve a personalized and stylish space that reflects your taste. 

bijou and boheme antique bed

 Bijou and Boheme


6) Let It Go   So you’ve made serious efforts but you simply don’t have the space for Great Aunt Sally’s piano or your Mother’s hope chest. Trying to shoe horn the piece in your home is a sure way to end up disliking it down the road. If a piece doesn’t fit, consider giving it away to a sibling or family member, donating it to a museum, or parting with it by selling to an antique shop. 

When I am dealing with clients who are having a hard time parting with a piece, I ask what is it about the piece that they love. Most times it is the memories associated with the piece, not the actual item itself. Remember, those memories are something you will own forever whether the piece is in your house or not. Whenever possible, I like to take an artistic picture of the piece as a keepsake for the client and have them create a scrapbook page that includes other relevant artifacts so they can retain some tangible aspect of the piece.

_ _ _ 

You are not your Grandmother, so stop worrying about decorating like her! Know that by choosing to mix antiques into your decor, you are creating a definite sense of place, history, and warmth in your home. Decorating with antiques and vintage pieces of one of the easiest ways to imbue your home with a sense of self and character. By remembering to edit your vintage pieces and juxtapose your antiques to the modern elements within your home, you will create a look that few will dare to compare to your Grandmother! 

Thanks so much Courtney for your valuable insight! You can visit more with Courtney over at his blog Courtney Out Loud.

courtney bio

What about you?  Have you inherited a piece from a family member that you have struggled to decorate around?  How have you incorporated vintage wood pieces into your own home? 




  1. Great post! I have furniture, lot of pictures & china that date back to my 5th great grandmother some of which I have no clue what to do with but I’m working on it :) The furniture though is tiny….I don’t know who the heck would have ever sat in these chairs! Teany Tiny! Anyway, good info :)

  2. Love this article….great advice for incorporating antique pieces without having your home end up looking like your grandmothers. My husband and I recently downsized to a contemporary home and it forced us to pare down, but the upside is how great our favorite antiques now look in this home. They stand out more and the juxtaposition with odd angles, skylights, and vaulted ceilings is so interesting.

  3. I love antique wood pieces! We have several hand me downs in our home but they work because our house was built in 1899. My problem is that occasionally the hand me down has been refinished to an awful colour (orange oak!). I worry the giver will be offended if I refinish in a better shade.

  4. Ashley – I wouldn’t worry about offending since they probably refinished it to their liking. It’s personal preference. I say refinish and find a shade that suits your tastes.

  5. I like to consider myself pretty creative, but I am still learning how to put living spaces together in a functional and stylish way. I just found your blog and I love it!! Please stop by mine if you get the chance :)

  6. Really sound, practical advice. The photos were great representations. While I am working on a more contemporary vibe for my home, I can’t help but think a well-chosen addition of an antique piece or two makes a room unique…after all, good design is good design!

  7. While modern and clean lines are beginning to have a serious impact in Guatemala, we are a country of colonial past, and so it is reflected in almost every home, with wood pieces (from sofas, to dining tables and chairs) many of which are inherited. The older the piece, the best!…and the priciest! If you go (or search through the Internet) Antigua Guatemala, you will “see” what I’m talking about: old pieces everywhere, combined with particular bright colors and fabrics/textiles that make it very unique, cozy and inviting.
    Personally, I have inherited a few pieces from one of my grandmothers, and they actually fit perfectly with what I already had :o) Not only pretty pieces then, but also pieces with a story behind :o)
    anyways, my two cents

  8. Wow, I am still grieving (occasionally) over a (huge) beautiful dining room table from the Civil War era. Finally, after wrestling it through 4 moves and never really fitting in and no chairs are quite right, I donated it to a children’s hospital thrift store. They were thrilled to get it. A big relief and a big sadness.
    I finally decided that most every old thing (that fits well in my home) belonged to someone’s grandmother, it doesn’t have to be my personal grandmother. And no grandmother would want you to be uncomfortable because of their stuff.

  9. Great advice!! I’ve always been a little afraid of antiques but after inheriting a beautiful hope chest I met my fear head on and it is now a sideboard of sorts. It is behind our couch in our apartment and helps separate the “living room” from the “dining room” since they are in the same space. I’ve also taken some sentimental pieces from family members that aren’t antiques but they are sentimental pieces and a fresh coat of paint or refinishing hasn’t hurt any feelings yet!

  10. Great article! I have a current design predicament involving a beautiful LARGE (as in 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide) buffet/wall unit inherited from my husband’s German grandmother. The piece is dated to the late 1700s, with a dark (almost black) stain, ornate hand carvings, and leaded glass. The piece definitely has a presence, and I love it. However, I am having a hard time with my existing dining room set up. How do I compliment such a distinct piece without competing? I would be happy to share photos with anyone with ideas :)

  11. I am also a lover of vintage and antique pieces and feel honored to have them in my house. This is a great article with lots of good tips. I think one of the freshest ways to use antiques is to a pair them with neutrals, which you can see in most of the pictures. Reupholster stuffy, silk florals with white or oatmeal linen. Use white paint as a backdrop. Or use them with a bold color, like the bright red chairs shown, or a piece of modern art. I also think finding a way to use black in the composition lends a modern edge too.
    Great post!

  12. Just popped in to peruse all the beauties and be inspired!
    Loved this post mixing in antiques!
    Just a quick thank you before I run back to work.
    Happy Thanksgiving!

  13. I love using antiques the way they were meant–which is why I love the big sturdy pieces, I hate worrying about things, so I just try to stick with pieces that are strong, so I don’t have to! This was a great, helpful post. Especially the tip about creating a backdrop.

  14. Hi Courtney and Kate! Thanks for publishing my question, I feel like a celebrity! haha. I finally got around to reading this and can definitely use some of the ideas in this article. I may be emailing Courtney a pic of the piece for some suggestions, though I think Kate has a similar piece somewhere in her house? (antique buffet with pics above?) Anyway, thanks again for this!!!

  15. Just found this blog and love love love the use of old and new. I too have many treasures that have been passed down to me. Mixing it up and using the unexpected is so much fun. A sparkle here and some dents there make it all better.

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