What’s the Difference Between “Vintage,” “Antique,” and “Retro”?

published Nov 1, 2023
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Ah, the joys of aging. Those jarring little moments in life when you learn that what (seems like) recent history for you is ancient history for others. Everything you buy for your home can be plotted on a timeline based on when it was manufactured and affixed with a generational label like “contemporary,” “antique,” “vintage,” or “retro.An item’s age is a key facet of its value, along with its condition, quality, and relative rarity. 

Why does the age of something matter?

The way people label the age of an item doesn’t just clue you into its actual date of origin — it can also help provide context about popular fashion and socioeconomic trends at a given point in time. For example, you’ve likely seen before that in uncertain economic times there is often nostalgia for decor from former decades associated with comfort and stability.

Still, not everything for sale has a certified date of origin. Instead, you have to rely on the often dubious claims put forth by a seller. A quick scan of Craigslist, Etsy, or eBay reveals that terms like “antique” and “vintage” are bandied about interchangeably and often illogically.

The most egregious abusers of the jargon are sellers who follow this (inaccurate!) “classified” historical classification system:

Antique. Something that is, like, really old. Probably musty, dusty, and moldy. Probably made of wood. Usually unstylish.

Vintage. Something that is too old to be considered “used” but not as old as Grandma. By calling it “vintage,” the seller tries to distract the buyer from the item’s blatant imperfections. Like many “retro” items, “vintage” items are often either mid-century modern (in style if not in fact) or related to bygone pop culture, junk food, or fashion trends.

Retro. Something that is basically outdated and out of style. By calling it “retro,” the seller hopes to assign sentimental or historical value to something that is simply no longer cool. Or, the “retro” item may actually be quite new but is “preloved” (read: pretty beat up).

But if common parlance is unreliable and inaccurate, what are the official definitions of antique, vintage, and retro? We talked to interior designers to figure it all out. Here’s what they had to say.

What is antique?

According to Merriam-Webster, an antique is “a relic or object of ancient times” or “a work of art, piece of furniture, or decorative object made at an earlier period and according to various customs laws at least 100 years ago.” 

Ruby Lane, an online marketplace of independent antique and collectible shops, offers a similar definition, explaining, “Most authorities consider the actual definition of the term ‘antique’ to mean an age of at least 100 years. If an item is not definitively datable to 100 or more years in age, it should not be directly referred to as an antique.”

Alison Koch, principal designer at Outfit Home in Los Angeles, agrees about the 100-years-or-older definition. Most of the time, she says, pieces this old serve as accents in the home. Think of an antique as an original period painting. 

“Like great art, antiques are an investment and are probably not your everyday furniture,” she says. “But when mixed with other styles, it can give fantastic depth and patina to your home design.

Credit: Emma Fiala

What is vintage?

If antiques are things that are 100 years old or older, what are vintage pieces? The definition of vintage is trickier. According to Merriam-Webster, the term “vintage” relates primarily to wine and is an altered form of the French word vendage, meaning “the grapes picked during a season.” One of its secondary definitions is “a period of origin or manufacture” (e.g., a vintage 1960s Mercedes).

Ruby Lane provides a much more helpful explanation, noting that “an item described as ‘vintage’ should speak of the era in which it was produced.” Vintage can mean an item is of a certain period of time, as in ‘vintage 1950’s’ but it can also mean (and probably always should) that the item exhibits the best of a certain quality, or qualities, associated with or belonging to that specific era.

In other words, for the term vintage to accurately apply to an item, it should be somewhat representational and recognizable as belonging to the era in which it was made. Ruby Lane also suggests that ‘vintage’ should not be used in reference to objects less than 20 years old.

According to Koch, vintage furniture pieces were made within the last 20 to 99 years, and they’re usually collectible, depending on how many pieces of a particular style were produced. “For instance, Danish mid-century furniture is affordable because there is still so much of it readily available,” she says. “You can get that vintage look without spending a fortune.”

What is retro?

The prefix “retro”— as in “retrograde” or “retroactive”— means backward in Latin. According to Merriam-Webster, retro is “relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past : fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned.” Retro furniture may not actually be old, but it references styles of the recent past. 

What does retro mean in your home? Samantha Gallacher, an interior designer at IG Workshop and founder of Art + Loom Custom Rugs, sees retro as a “contemporary reproduction that references a style from the past.” Those IKEA chairs that look strangely reminiscent of an Eames lounge chair without the price tag? A perfect example of an affordable retro throwback. 

Typically, Koch says retro typically means made in the last 20 years — and affordability is the point. “Often, retro furniture is a reproduction of a classic and comes with a smaller price tag,” she says. “If you’re on a budget, retro furniture is a great bet,” she says.

Catrin Morris also contributed to reporting and writing.