7 Things Secondhand Shopping Experts Will Be Hunting for in 2023
As a lifelong thrifter, I love that vintage things have lost their whiff of mothballs. Rather, secondhand shopping is becoming more and more popular with shoppers of all kinds. That’s why I recently launched Mildew, a print magazine all about secondhand fashion, creative recycling, and the stories old clothes tell.
But I’m not just interested in the past lives of the clothes we live in, but also those of the objects we live with. I’ve always decorated my apartments with used furniture simply because it’s typically a great deal (once I went to go pick up a futon and the seller threw in a hexagonal dining table for free because they were moving that afternoon!) and because it lasts; if it’s still here today, it’s already stood the test of time. And just like the family heirlooms that connect us with the people who passed them on to us, it’s fun to imagine the lives of a piece of furniture’s previous owners, and to know that it’s taking on the patina of your life, too.
Shopping for vintage furniture used to mean haggling at flea markets or making my partner pull over the car because I spotted an estate sale sign. But these days my Instagram feed is full of professional pickers who scour their local attics and thrift stores for interesting pieces to rescue; it’s easier than ever to skip the mass-produced, disposable furniture and look for something both more sustainable and more special. What I really love about vintage furniture is that each piece is unique, an opportunity for personal expression. But of course, aesthetics and design trends emerge even in the world of vintage. If you’re new to secondhand furniture and not sure what to be on the lookout for, I spoke with six vintage homewares dealers about the pieces they’ll be hunting for in 2023.
Ryan Wagner of Hudson, New York’s Newlyn Lowly told me that he always has an eye out for things with a “poetic aspect — some kind of mystery or magic that makes it different, like a life lived.” In 2023, he’s specifically looking for eye-catching sculptures that will “interact with anyone who passes it,” like the antique bronze satyr fountain plaque or 1920s hammered iron and brass nude that have passed through his shop recently.
“When someone spends countless hours sculpting a piece of stone or wood or whatever with their hands, it puts a human energy into it,” he says. “It can be felt.” The first thing he looks for is quality in material, then style and uniqueness. Wagner recommends pairing a sculpture with mirrors and lighting so that light reflects off the mirror and illuminates the usually unseen back side of the sculpture, adding depth and perspective to the room. Or, as he puts it, it “makes the piece hit harder.”
“I love pieces that stand on their own as a work of art,” says Rusty Baker, curator of Life of Leisure, an “anti-beige” collection of ‘70s and ‘80s furniture which has booths at Grandview Mercantile and Eclectiques Antique Mall in Columbus, Ohio. “That’s the new minimalism, when the furniture does most of the talking for you. Instead of having a bunch of cluttered things everywhere, it’s one beautiful piece of furniture that makes a statement.”
This year he’s looking for curves, like the smooth contours of an ’80s Maitland Smith coffee table made of green tessellated tiles with rounded waterfall edges, or a cylindrical J. Wade Beam for Brueton console he recently sold. “It has this really beautiful curved cantilever design, where part of it juts out from a big circular base,” Baker says. “I instantly fell in love with it.”
Next year, Bianca Stilwell, picker for Joshua Tree-based collection of rarities Monte Visión, sees the pendulum swinging away from the ‘80s Art Deco aesthetic that has filled our feeds with pastels throughout the pandemic. “There’s started to be a rejection of that and a turning back towards darker woods and natural materials used in weird, whimsical ways,” she told me. This might look like welded steel sconces and candelabras, artist-made accents, or decadent woodworking.
She’s especially enamored with handmade details. “When I see something that’s handmade and kind of wonky, and I can tell grandpa made this in his woodshop, I love that; stuff that’s slightly off, slightly experimental, not perfect like it got extruded out of a machine in a factory. Beautiful, but unsigned; you have no idea who made it,” she says. “I love to extract that story.”
Studio-Made Arts and Crafts Pieces
Jordan Murray, co-founder of Brooklyn-based interior design studio Friends of Form, echoes that love for the singularity of handmade pieces. Right now, she’s specifically drawn to “‘studio made’ objects and furniture, particularly those reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century,” looking for one-of-a-kind or limited-run objects designed and made in a craftsperson’s studio. In these pieces, Murray sees a historical parallel with today’s return to handmade, small batch products.
Murray scouts out high-quality materials and “simple forms that celebrate the object’s construction. Think: doweled joints, exposed metal hardware, and unique carvings or inlay.” She has her eye on a rough textured, cut-steel bench and a 1950s Farmhouse dining table with sculptural details, awarding bonus points to any piece with mixed media. “After years of smooth lines and shiny, man-made materials taking center stage, it’s nice to return to the earth,” she says.
Animal-Shaped Coffee Tables
But Jonny Carmack of Danbury, Connecticut’s Vintage Show Pony — which he describes as “if Golden Girls met Barbie and Miami Vice” — isn’t letting go of that ‘80s glamor and shine just yet. Things were growing slowly but steadily for his online business until a couple months ago when he posted a coffee table with a bubblegum-pink panther supporting a glass top on its back. The photo blew up. “I’ve had so many messages — the most I’ve ever gotten on a specific item,” he says. “‘How do I find this coffee table?’ ‘Where did you find this coffee table?’ ‘Will you sell it?’”
Since then, he’s come across elephant coffee tables, polar bear coffee tables, and even swan-shaped coffee tables. Though “it’s definitely not for everyone,” he told me that his holy grail find for 2023 will be animal coffee tables.
The key details he looks for: a thick, beveled glass top (because it’s sturdier and nicer looking); a substantial ceramic animal base that’s not hollow, plastic, or cracked; and a level surface. “You don’t want it to tip over. I’ve seen some that aren’t 100% level, so place your phone on the table or, if you’re extra, bring a level so nothing will go flying off.” But the thing that Carmack thinks really makes his panther table stand out is colorful personalization. When he bought it, it was painted black “and it sat for like two months… But then I painted it pink and now I have literal waitlists of people waiting for this coffee table.” (If you ask me, now all it needs is a copy of Mildew on top.)
Ariene C. Bethea, owner of Dressing Rooms Interiors Studio in Charlotte, North Carolina, is also hunting for some color in 2023. “I’m looking at Murano glass bowls; they’re becoming really hard to find,” she says. The traditional glass-making factories in Italy have been hurt by COVID and the energy crisis, making their vintage pieces especially in demand. “They’re artful bowls, very colorful, hand-blown glass from the ’60s,” Bethea says. “They come in all sorts of bright colors: kelly green, blue, pink, red — they’re really eye-catching.”
She started collecting Murano glass bowls when she inherited her mother’s collection and styles them as ashtrays, candy dishes, bedside jewelry holders, incense burners, or simply a decorative touch on top of a stack of books or magazines. Right now for the holiday season, she’s filled hers with vintage satin Christmas ornaments. “It gives the space a touch of elegance,” she says. When sourcing Murano glass, she first makes sure that a piece isn’t cracked, chipped, or scratched; then, of course, she checks the bottom for that ‘Made in Italy’ sticker.
Mixing and Matching
One pro tip from every vintage furniture expert I talked to: Don’t be afraid to mix and match decades and genres. (Hello, Decade Dabblers.) The idea isn’t to recreate a period-authentic house museum.
“I put an archaic Chinese vessel next to a time-tattered leather Corbusier sofa, a 20-million-year-old petrified wood stump next to a modernist plywood chair,” says Wagner of Newlyn Lowly. Even if your room’s timeline doesn’t span the geological spectrum, “the most interesting spaces for me are the ones where you’re pulling together different eras and color stories,” says Stilwell of Monte Visión.
“Personally, I do the whole nine yards,” says Carmack of Vintage Show Pony. “But I have this really cool customer who bought a big, hot Mattel pink swan table, and she has it in a muted space with a natural wood dining table and wood benches. It’s really elevated to have that one pop of color in an otherwise very neutral room. It changes it from my vibe, which is maximalism to the max, to a statement piece placed there purposefully.”
Murray from Friends of Form agrees. “It’s nice to let these ‘heavier’ pieces breathe by surrounding them with contrasting objects from different time periods and origins,” she says.