Here’s How a Pair of $50 Vintage Bistro Chairs Became the MVPs of My Tiny Apartment

published Apr 20, 2021
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Credit: Minette Hand

It’s hard to understand the incredible premium that New Yorkers place on square footage unless you’ve personally experienced the cutthroat real estate market for which the Big Apple is famous. Once you’ve been on that wild ride, the memories (and the residual stress) will never leave you. Take it from me: I spent 15 years living in tiny NYC apartments, determined to make the most of the itsy-bitsy pittance of space that I was allotted at any given time. Luckily, I learned a lot of lessons on how to pare down, how to optimize, and how to multitask.

When I first moved into my teensy 350-square-foot Brooklyn studio, my mother gifted me a pair of wooden bistro chairs (similar to this style) that she’d found at a thrift shop in suburban Connecticut. Their total purchase price? $50. These chairs, with their woodsy green coat of paint on the frames and a dark wood finish on the seat, fit my planned apartment color scheme pretty well. I figured that, if nothing else, I could use them as placeholders for other furniture items while I shopped around. After six years with my bistro chairs though, I found that these “placeholders” became indispensable elements of my apartment, both from an aesthetic POV and from a practical position. 

With their lean silhouette and sturdy construction, the chairs proved useful in countless ways. If I needed to reach something on a higher shelf in my kitchen cabinet, then I’d pull up a bistro chair and use it as a step stool. Instead of a nightstand, I set one bistro chair next to my bed to create an overnight resting place for my laptop and phone as seen below. There was no need for a coat rack or bag stand in my doorway — not when I had a bistro chair nearby, where I could hang my jacket and set down my purse. The bistro chairs definitely came in handy, too, when I had more guests than could fit on my very petite futon couch. 

Credit: Courtesy of Taylor Tobin

Using extra chairs for other purposes is nothing new; I can remember visiting plenty of college apartments with folding plastic IKEA chairs standing in for nightstands and stools. A set of classic bistro chairs though offers a touch of Belle Époque charm to your apartment’s overall look; mine feel like they could exist at any cute outdoor cafe in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, and their design elevates them beyond basic functionality. 

When I decided to move away from Brooklyn and into a (somewhat) larger apartment in Austin, Texas, my bistro chairs very much came along for the journey. They’ve retained their stability and cuteness over the years, so I plan to keep them around to use as seats, stools, and shelves for years to come. Interested in finding some vintage bistro chairs for your own home? Follow these tips from home designers and antique furniture experts to make sure you pick a pair that are built to last.

If possible, shop for chairs made of materials similar to those used for actual Parisian bistro chairs from the early 20th century.

Founder and CEO Kathy Kuo of Kathy Kuo Home says if you want bistro chairs that will stand the test of time, then look for styles similar to genuine originals. “The original Parisian-style bistro chairs, popular in the 1930s, were made from rattan and cane,” says Kuo. “If possible, source pieces that are constructed with these materials. Rattan tends to weather to a silvery patina over time and can be easily revived to its original look when rubbed with linseed oil.”

Additionally, Kuo says cane webbing can also be updated by lightly sanding the weave and reattaching any twists that may have separated with wood glue. “These materials are incredibly sustainable and when cleaned with a lightly dampened cloth will age so gracefully,” she says.

Turn the chair upside down to check out the quality of the seat.

If you spot a chair that you absolutely love in a vintage store or an antique shop, then do what designer and co-founder Jade Joyner of the Metal + Petal interior design firm does and flip it upside down. “I always turn a chair upside down if I can,” Joyner says. “I look at the seat and make sure it’s solid or see if it’s been repaired. If you see glue, that means at some point it’s been broken.” Might be best to skip that style, if you want to avoid extra maintenance down the line.

Before you buy anything, sit in the chair and do a wiggle test.

“Give [the chair] a test drive on the spot,” suggests designer Sam Jernigan of Renaissance Design Consultations. “Because [bistro chairs] are smallish and lightweight, you might also try shifting your weight from side to side and also front to back — y’know, like your Uncle George might do when pushing back from your dinner table.”

If the chair wobbles when you sit in it, take a look at the joints before giving up hope.

It’s obviously disappointing to fall in love with a set of chairs at a thrift store only to take a seat and discover a distinct shakiness. However, designer and HGTV host Tamara Day urges you to look a little more closely at the piece before moving on. “If the chair is feeling a little shaky when you sit in it for the initial ‘test,’ I would recommend turning it upside down and checking to see if all of the joints are correctly connected and secure,” says Day. “If it would be an easy fix with just a couple of nails or screws, go for it. If not, I would continue searching for chairs that are in better shape.”

If you notice the joints are glued and stripped out, Day says an easy DIY tip is to fill the hole with wood glue and then shove as many toothpicks into the hole as possible. “Wait for the glue to dry, then cut the toothpicks off to be smooth with the frame, and then re-drill the holes,” says Day. “The toothpicks give it stability and keep the chairs from being shaky.”

Credit: Minette Hand

Bistro chairs can be upcycled and even repurposed

If you find a great pair of bistro chairs at a flea market, rest assured that you can still make excellent use of them even if they’re looking a little shabby or even if they fail the sitting test, and you just can’t quit them. 

Designer and stylist Wendy Conklin of Chair Whimsy says spray paint can quickly and easily transform a wooden bistro chair. “Pick a few fun colors and give the chair some personality with stripes down the legs (mark them off with painter’s tape) or paint the seat a different color than the rest of it,” she says. “The sky is the limit!” 

Even if the chairs of your dreams don’t pass structural muster, it’s possible to reap their visual merits. “If you fall in love with the character of a wooden bistro chair but it’s just too shabby to sit in, you can easily turn it into a plant stand/planter as a piece of architectural garden art,” says antique furniture expert Jennifer Burt of Mississippi Maximalism. “For inside, I like the idea of hanging the chair as a piece of wall art. You can even place a piece of thin plywood over the seat and use it as a shelf.”