Mixing old and new is a great money-savings idea


By Melissa Rayworth

You probably didn’t realize, when you put an ornate old picture frame next to the sleek Pottery Barn sofa in your living room, that you had your finger on the pulse of America’s design culture.

But you did.

What some interior designers call “transitional” decorating artfully mixing contemporary pieces with vintage ones is “the No. 1 featured style in magazines like House Beautiful, and in Elle Decor on a fine level,” said interior designer Mallory Mathison.

It works in any room, and helps you get style mileage out of things you already own or buy second-hand. It’s also environmentally friendly and practical to use older items in otherwise contemporary rooms.

“There is something to be said about a well-made, 50-year-old piece still doing its job in your present home,” said designer Brian Patrick Flynn. “A lot of older things were just made better. But mixing those quality older pieces with something new gives them a fresh look.”

Another money-saver: The look can be easily tweaked and ages beautifully, unlike all-modern or all-traditional rooms. “If everything is brand new and matchy-matchy,” Flynn said, “your home will look like a catalog or a showroom and appear flat or dated.”

Designer Janine Carendi agrees: “Interiors that do not age well,” she said, “are those that are designed without any reference to other styles.”

Mixing old and new has its challenges, of course. But it can be done just as easily and more affordably than sticking with one style. “Contemporary is hard to pull off without looking cheap if you don’t have very fine things,” Mathison said. “And traditional can get old and staid if you don’t have very fine pieces also.”

Another bonus: This approach is all about personal expression.

“I have never come across a client who is one-dimensional,” Carendi said. “And interiors should reflect their experiences, tastes, travels and personalities. Mixing old and new is a way to achieve this.”

Sounds appealing. But how do you create an eye-catching combination of old and new, rather than a jumbled hodgepodge of conflicting styles?

Texture, scale and shape

“It doesn’t matter how many old or new pieces are mixed together, but rather how it’s done,” said Flynn, whose trademark style is creatively combining the two. “A muted, traditional sitting room can be totally updated with one piece of bold modern art. On the flip side, a super-minimalist modern space can be given that unexpected touch of traditional with a crystal chandelier hanging above a sleek dining table.”

One good tactic is using contrasting textures, like smooth and rough or shiny and matte. “If your new pieces and old pieces all have the same or similar textures, the room will fall flat,” Flynn said. “If your new sofa has the same type of upholstery as an old ottoman, break it up by introducing a new texture with throw pillows.”

“In my old loft, I paired a sleek 1960s vinyl sofa with rustic barn door window shutters, a gigantic traditional brass chandelier sprayed red, chrome 1970s club chairs and a super plush kelly green shag rug. It worked well because it was balanced and had a collected look. The different styles were all united through color and scale.”

You’re aiming for contrast, but not cacophony. “I would not mix more than a few styles,” said Carendi, but the percentage of old versus new is up to you. “It depends on your concept. Is the room meant to be more traditional? Then use more antiques. And vice versa.”

Apparently, size matters. “Ensure that the proportions of the furniture do not fight and that the size of one does not overwhelm the other,” she said. “Look at the individual shape of each piece.”

Where to do it

Mixing old and new can work in any room, Carendi said, “even nurseries.”

For bedrooms, said Flynn, “I like to go new with the actual bed and bedding, but pair those with old side tables and accessories. The sleek, tailored look of a new bed with aged furniture and accessories makes a beautiful combination.”

For dining rooms, he said, try “rustic farm tables paired with clean modern seating.”

Style strategies

One easy approach, said Mathison, is grouping several of the same items from different eras. “Hang five mirrors on a wall,” she said, “maybe an old one from your grandmother, an old one from a flea market, a new one from Pottery Barn. It looks like a lot of thought and design went into it.” You can do the same with pieces of china or other types of items.

Old lighting fixtures or lamps from flea markets (or your attic) can bring cool contrast to an otherwise modern room. “Just have them painted, rewired, or get new lampshades,” Mathison said.

You can even do a mix of old and new within a single item: Take a traditional piece of furniture, perhaps something Queen Anne or Chippendale, and have it reupholstered in a bold geometric print or brightly colored solid.

You may want to spend a few days or weeks tinkering with the final design. And you can always adjust it periodically.

How do you know when you’ve struck the right balance?

“The best way to keep it looking good is to plan from the beginning,” Mathison said. “If you’re hitting antique malls, it’s good to go with an idea in mind, rather than just buying what you see.”

But in the end, she said, trust yourself: “It’s really about pulling together things you love. — AP