Antiques. The very word that conjures a variety of vivid mental images, often different for each of us. From the ornate and gilded to the understated and elegant, antiques throughout the home, as they have for all ages, invite attention and conversation. For so many, the mere variety can be overwhelming. There are Chinese antiques, mid-century modern American, classic British, Georgian, Victorian, ornamental French pieces, Colonial, and the list goes on and on. That’s to say nothing of the complex matter of authenticity, what has been repaired, refurbished, parts that were replaces, and of course, the dreaded fake antiques. After all, there are some very good knock-off varieties out there that confuse even some of the best self-proclaimed ‘antique experts’.
Antiques can be a cherished and charming item to add to a home, but there’s no doubt about it, purchasing antiques can be an exceptionally complicated matter. Even if you hire an expert, often it can be difficult to put your trust into someone else when spending large amounts on furniture and furnishings. Then there is the matter of cost. How much should you pay? How do you know if it’s a good deal? Not all antiques are outrageously priced, but it can be difficult to understand the value for something built 200 years ago.
Photo: Casa Gusto
Before you rush out to add an antique to your collection, read our discussion with antique expert and Interior Designer, Deborah Morcott of DDM Designs. Morcott’s extensive résumé includes a Master’s of Arts in Interior Design, a year studying with Sotheby’s in London, work experience at the prestigious Weschler’s Auctioneers & Appraisers in Washington D.C., and of course, a long list of happy customers that she has helped procure beautiful antiques to complete their interior design dreams across the globe. Here she offers a simple guide to antiquing, what you should be looking for, where to find it, and how to place it in the home.
PBSD: Tell us a little about your background! You have a wealth of experience with antiques. How does your knowledge and experienced working with antiques set you apart from other interior designers?
DDM: That might take awhile!! I have had careers in the entertainment, antiques and, interior design business, as well as a bi-weekly column in the largest Brasilian Newspaper and a local TV Morning Segment in Savannah. I have been blessed to study, live and work in many different places; 9 states and 6 countries! My college education was here in Florida (B.A. from Rollins) and in DC (M.A. from Mount Vernon/George Washington) I have lived in London, New York, Vienna, Washington DC, Savannah and West Palm, among others. But what I am most proud of is my fabulous son who is currently a student in the International Baccalaureate Honors program between William and Mary/St. Andrews. He is enjoying his second year of college in Scotland and playing a lot of golf!
I guess the take away from the above is that I endeavor to meld these varied experiences to produce a globally influenced interior layered with personality and texture; be it traditional, streamlined or modern. Personally, I love the incorporation of antiques and fine art into most interiors. Whether it is done sparingly or lavishly, I feel that it always always gives a sense of history and a patina to life.
PBSD: When was it that you realized you had a knack for antiques? How do you use this knowledge and passion in your everyday life and work projects?
DDM:I started in the antiques business, but career wise, I built upon it by earning a Masters Degree in Interior Design. I felt like I could successfully meld the best of both worlds. I actually think that most successful designers are very well versed in the history of furniture and interiors. How can you design for the future without understanding the past?
Vintage Austrian Biedermeier Blue Velvet Settee. Photo: 1stDibs.
PBSD: How do you like to incorporate antiques into interior design?
DDM: Personally, I love the incorporation of antiques and fine art into most interiors. Whether it is done sparingly or lavishly, I feel that it always gives a sense of history and a patina to life. I realize as a designer each client has a different comfort level on what and how to incorporate pieces in their home. But I think even a modern interior benefits from having a “known” piece added. Let’s remember that this spans hundreds of years. So you could potentially have an Aero Saarinen table next to a Chinese lacquered chest. Both are from different eras, but both add something extra to the room without being “new”. Clean lined is another way to describe some antiques. Maybe we need to start thinking about antiques as something other than grandmotherly and start thinking about them as excellent pieces of furniture with a history. They are the original “Reuse, Reduce and Recycle”!
PBSD: Who – or what – has been your best tutor on the subject?
DDM:Working in an auction house was by far the most valuable experience. The exposure to the myriad of items that you come across widens your perspective, understanding and knowledge. I would also say travel is extremely important. It gives you a different outlook. Walk the streets and look at the architecture and surround. If you can take in and internalize the atmosphere and environment, you can take it home and build from it.
. Powder Room. Photo: Courtesy of DDM Designs.
PBSD: When looking for antiques, how do you go about the process? Is it best to know the piece you’re looking for and build the space around that? Or do you suggest using antiques to fill in spaces where you need them, when you find them?
DDM: As an interior designer it is always best to start with a floor plan and elevations. This is the most successful way of looking for pieces that fit the correct measurements and proportions for the space. After the basics, it is always best to find pieces that the client will connect with emotionally. First it can be generally narrowed down by style and that is a discussion to have with the client when talking about the concept of the project. Are we creating a French feel, a Georgian sensibility or a mid-century modern feel? After that it is best to head out with an open mind because you never know what you will come across while hitting the antiques trail. Especially at auctions or estate sales.
PBSD: Do you have any quick tips for an amateur looking for antiques? What should we be looking for when we head out?
DDM: Be prepared with measurements and an adventurous spirit. Try to think outside the box. If you are not buying big ticket antiques, but more vintage pieces then they can be adapted for 21st century interiors, with paint, stain, modern pulls, new upholstery, new legs etc. Use your imagination and pay attention to the “lines” of the furniture piece!
English Regency Mahogany Sofa, 1900-1909. Photo: 1stDibs.
PBSD: Any tips on the difference between a real and fake antique?
DDM: Patina! If it looks too perfect, has no wear and tear, or if a shop has too many of one item with all the same finish…then buyer beware. Construction is also a good indicator, as well as condition of the wood. Wear on an antique will be uneven, but on a fake maybe a bit too even. An understanding of the history of furniture would really be the most valuable tool of all because recognizing a piece stylistically is the first indication of real vs fake vs reproduction.
PBSD: Often, antique dealers and store owners can be a wealth of information. While they may love telling you everything you could ever want to know about the piece, it is their job to sell you a piece at the end of the conversation. How can you know who to trust, and what questions to ask when considering an antique?
DDM: Many reputable dealers will belong to associations. The National Antique and Art Dealers Association of American is one of them, Antique Dealers’ Association of American is another. As with all purchases, if you are buying a high-priced item definitely make sure the dealer is a reputable one via the associations/organizations, their reputation, as well as references. Trust is largely built over years in a community so if the word on the street is good that is always a positive sign. As is longevity in the trade. If you do purchase an antique make sure you get a bill that denotes exactly what you bought. A reputable dealer will always stand by their product.
If you are going for the items that are old but largely for decorative purposes, they probably do not carry the same ticket price, so you can afford to be a bit more trusting. I find that if I ask questions and listen, then most dealers can tell me about the pieces they have in their establishment. Remember they are there to build a trusting relationship too. They need and want repeat clientele!
PBSD: Can you tell us about price points? How would an amateur know how to price out an antique?
DDM: Auction records are very telling. But remember that an auction price and a retail price are generally different. Basically, the price of antique is worth what it brings in the market at a specific time. At the moment, it is a buyer’s market!
PBSD: Antiques can be expensive. What about those of us looking for antiques on a budget?
DDM: Don’t worry about going big right off the bat. Just remember that a lot of reasonable antique pieces cost the same or less than many new pieces. You can still make your space decidedly on a budget. As I mentioned, it is a buyer’s market right now. You can still afford an antique or a vintage piece. Maybe not a pristine 18th century one…but a 19th century one will still work, or a good reproduction. As long as it is in your price point and it adds to your story then it is a successful addition.
PBSD: Tell us a little about how you mix antiques with modern furniture.
DDM: Changing upholstery is a big one. If an antique piece has nice lines…then try reupholstering in a solid contrasting fabric. If it is a vintage piece then paint works wonders. Or you could just embrace the eclecticism…and put a quirky old piece next to a more modern one. The Europeans do this quite well and very successfully. Just be careful not to overdo the eclecticism as it can easily tip over into a busy clutter interior.
PBSD: What’s the difference between antiques and “vintage”?
DDM: Age! The general rule of thumb is that antiques are over 100 years old. The term vintage and collectible can be applied to items less than 100 years old. As with all general rules it gets a bit slippery at points, but the thing to remember is that whether a piece is labeled antique/vintage or collectible has no real effect on the value of the item. The value is based on what the demand for that item is in the market. For example: there are outstanding 18th century antiques being sold for less than a 20th century collectible because the new piece is fashionable at the moment. My advice is to not get caught in the hype because what goes around eventually comes back around! Buy what you like because it makes you happy, not because it is the “latest trend”. A good designer should be able to help you incorporate any piece into a fresh and lively interior.
PBSD: What are some of your favorite places locally to go antiquing?
DDM: Personally, I love the auction houses, especially regional ones: Hindman Auctions here in West Palm Beach (and other locations), IGavel.com hosts many different local auctions across the country (Everhard Auctions is my favorites from Savannah), and there are always the big ones; Sotheby’s and Christies. For dealers/stores locally, my favorites would be the following: Casa Gusto (such style!!), The Elephants Foot, Revue Antiques (great smalls), James and Jeffrey (great store and warehouse sales), Authentic Provence (beautiful!), D&G Antiques, Kofski Estate Sales, Heath and Co Lighting (antique, vintage, new…amazing selection)…and there are so many more!
PBSD: Can you tell us about a particularly amazing find?
DDM: : I have found so many unbelievable things over the years. I just recently purchased a Federal Chest of Drawers for less than something from CB2 or Pottery Barn! But my BEST finds were paintings; one by Alvaro Delgado (Spanish) and the other by Max Ferguson (American). Although on paper they are worth more than I paid, that is not the point; they are hanging in my homes to be cherished and admired! And I love them for adding an extra element, and giving me a really GREAT story to tell about how they came to be there!
Deborah Morcott is the Principal Designer at DDM Designs. She has lived in six different countries, and borrows from her life experiences in creating a design aesthetic. Her designs utilize art and antiques, melding the traditional with more streamlined forms for a globally influenced interior. Morcott’s career has included focus on high-end commercial and residential design with two world renowned, award-winning architectural firms prior to establishing DDM in 1998. For more information on Deborah Morcott or DDM Designs, visit www.ddmdesigns.com. Happy hunting!