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The New Rules of Decorating with Vintage

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Before striking out on her own in 2012 with the launch of Studio MRS, Michelle Smith worked under designer and architect Daniel Romualdez. It was here that she mastered the art of project management and discovered her great love of “non-color color,” which is how she refers to white with a hint of green and gray-blue. These skills she’s applied to her various commissions over the last few years, including fashion designer Prabal Gurung’s home and showroom and Iron Chef’s Emma Hearst’s Hawaii home. For Michelle, vintage adds a bit of character to a space: “Vintage and antique pieces do something to a room that new and custom pieces just can’t. And part of the reason why is that it’s just more organic and more fateful—these pieces came to you,” she says.

Her unconventional career has seen her arrive at interiors by way of a job at a big-time law firm in New York—though it really began with childhood trips to the local Home Depot with her mother, who renovated homes for the family as a hobby. As a teenager, growing up south of the Mason-Dixon line in Louisiana, Michelle developed a vocabulary for plumbing, tile layouts, and re-upholstery. Early design training came in the form of her own renovation: a two-bedroom 1930s apartment in Greenwich Village.

“My design approach is something like fifty percent vintage and antiques,” she admits. “The appeal of buying vintage is partially the thrill of the hunt, and partially that ‘whoa’ moment. Sometimes you find a piece and realize it’s going to guide the design for the rest of the room, or complete a room you thought was finished.”

Most recently, she’s been putting the finishing touches on a townhouse in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where she lives with her fiancé (a photojournalist). “We still have a few things left to do, but it already feels so homey,” she says. “I love it when people walk in and ask me, ‘Did you do anything to the bathrooms?’ The house was built in 1810, so of course we did something with the bathrooms. But I take it as a compliment—there are few telltale signs of the new.”

Here, we asked Michelle to give us a few tips to steal for ourselves—and a peek at some of her favorite decorating resources.

  • Rule #1: Collect useful vintage items rather than tchotchkes.

    As a rule of thumb, anytime you see a vintage serving bowl, ashtray, vase, or candlestick that moves you, buy it. You can store all of your vintage serving bowls on an open shelf in your bookcase for easy access and they’re great to look at when you’re not using them. Ashtrays work well for holding potpourri and dish sponges. Vases and candlesticks—those are no-brainers—look great lined up on an open shelf.

    Rule #2: For vintage art, it’s almost always about the frame.

    When you’re shopping flea markets or even online, if you see a good old frame, snatch it up. For small-scale art, especially art that you want to hang in groupings, the frame sometimes is the art. And think about atypical places to hang them up: hang a small vintage print just two inches above your sofa side table; a long rectangular painting over a doorway; or rest a small piece on your kitchen counter to hide an outlet on your backsplash.

  • Rule #3: Play with “non-colors” as your backdrop.

    I love a colored “non-color,” like white with a hint of green, a gray with a bit of blue, or cream with a hint of nude. They’re more cozy and enveloping than plain white, but less of a commitment than a true color. If I have a client who’s really into mid-century furniture, then I really push for a more feminine color for the walls: A mint-green or a blush-cream, rather than a true gray or white, gives a fresh perspective to the mid-century vibe.

    Rule #4: Respect the purpose of a vintage item (and avoid trends).

    You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and you don’t have to turn the wheel into a coffee table base either. Since I shop flea markets a lot, I see a lot of repurposing of vintage items. When you buy a vintage item, the beauty is that it will be relevant forever. Keep its end use classic and authentic.

  • Rule #5: Don’t be precious about using old (or expensive) things every day.

    You can make delivery pizza feel special if you eat it on your nicest china with a cloth napkin. I also use my Astier de Villate stoneware mugs for my morning coffee. I have two, admittedly overpriced, vintage green bowls I bought in Amagansett last summer—I really loved them, but they weren’t the right size for serving anything. Now I use them as food and water bowls for my dog. It’s so much better than having to look at a generic bowl all day.

MICHELLE’S LITTLE BLACK BOOK

  • Everything But the House

    Everything But the House

    It’s important that a home looks collected—a balance of old and new. Because EBTH has everything from Neoclassical chairs to vintage hand-painted screens, it’s a great way of incorporating a little bit of “maybe it came from your chic grandmother” into one’s house without seeming too fussy. It’s also a brilliant place to buy antique flatware sets you’d otherwise spend hours digging through flea markets for.

  • Antique and Artisan Gallery

    Antique and Artisan Gallery

    69 Jefferson St.,
    Stamford | 203.327.6022

    In Stamford, there is a block of large warehouses filled with individual antiques vendors. One of my favorites is the Antique and Artisan Gallery, where dozens of dealers sell everything from Baroque benches to French hand-painted plates under one roof. It’s an hour drive from New York City, yet it still feels like a destination flea-market shopping trip. And don’t miss must-stops Hiden Galleries and Hamptons Antique Gallery, nearby.

  • Round Top Texas Antique Fair

    Round Top Texas Antique Fair

    512.237.4747

    I try go to Round Top once a year with my mom and her two best friends. I shop mostly accessories—unique accessories can make a home much more cozy. But really, I go because I look forward to the margaritas every night at Las Fuentes, across the street from the La Quinta, where we stay.

  • Sage Street Antiques

    Sage Street Antiques

    114 Division St., Sag Harbor | 631.725.4036

    Right on the corner of Route 114 and Sage Street, owner Eliza Werner’s gem of a shop is something of a local secret. The small rooms are cluttered (in a good way) with kitchenware and sterling-silver serving pieces. I go for their great, one-of-a-kind serving dishes. The shop is only open on weekends.

  • Nellie's of Amagansett

    Nellie's of Amagansett

    230 Main St., Amagansett | 631.267.1000

    Owner Connie Dankmyer has an extensive assortment of furniture—ranging from American antique chairs to a marble top bakers table—and she brings in new product regularly. Once a year she’ll have family and friends sell their own antiques on the lawn of her story; it’s kind of like a massive lawn sale.

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