Worth a Second Look

Create elegance and interest by mixing worn and quirky furnishings with new items.
By: Connie Nelson


With its rustic furnishings, this potting shed is a study in flea-market style.

There's an overstuffed sofa covered in richly colored, slightly worn velvet. The walls are painted a vibrant blue. An ancient gilt picture frame leans against the wall above the mantel, sans picture. The paint on the wooden farm table is peeling.

This isn't a room left to neglect or made derelict by time. This is a room with style — flea market style.

Since the introduction of shabby chic in the late 1980s, decorating with obviously aged furniture and accessories has gathered steam. But now the look — which got its start with sloppy slipcovers and an all-white palette — has evolved into bolder, salvage chic that trades on comfort, nostalgia and personality.



This kitchen island is created from a counter from a general store and a section of cabinetry harvested from a house in north Minneapolis.

"It's an eclectic style that you can make up as you go along," said retail consultant Nancy Durand. "This is personal style to the max."

The style goes by many monikers — vintage style, secondhand style or even junk — and can be broadly interpreted to encompass everything from old-money European elegance to a mid-1950s funky feel.

But it distinguishes itself by these constants: aged, distressed or outright beat-up furniture and accessories sprinkled in with new; a reliance on interesting, unusual or quirky pieces, and clever adaptations of old items to new uses.

In flea market style, a vintage teapot without a lid becomes a flower pot, a rusted iron garden gate functions as a headboard, a corroded oil drum serves as a base for a cocktail table. In fact, the mantra of aficionados is: "What else can this be used for?"



Finding one-of-a-kind furnishings, like these vintage magnifying glasses, is at the heart of flea-market style.

Partly because pieces often are adapted to new uses, repaired or repainted, furnishings don't have to be authentic antiques to fit into flea market style, said Kim Salmela, co-owner of Belle Epoque and Paris Flea Market, two flea market-style stores in Minneapolis.

"It's about patina, not pedigree," she said. "It's about finding the beauty in the worn."

Because the look draws more on creative — rather than cash — reserves, it has long had a following with flea marketers, garage sale shoppers and the do-it-yourself set. But scouring flea markets, antique shops and salvage stores isn't the only way to achieve the look.

Books on the style abound, and in the past couple of years, shops have sprung up, such as Salmela's, which carry a mix of new and vintage pieces. Even major retailers are getting into the act.

One-of-a-kind is the watchword for flea market style, which some say is a reaction to mass-market interiors. "It's a backlash to the Pottery Barn kind of look and mass production," said Wendy Lubovich, a consultant for a Dayton's department store in Minneapolis. "People want their house to look different from everyone else's house."



Vintage tiara collection belonging to Dayton's consultant Wendy Lubuvitch. (Photos courtesy Tom Wallace, Minneapolis Star-Tribune )

In her Afton, Minn., home, which was featured in the June 2000 issue of Midwest Living magazine, Lubovich pairs a new Victorian-style wicker daybed with a vintage slippered chair. Her kitchen boasts an old baker's table, a section of kitchen cabinetry salvaged from an old house and a farm table made from barn board. Like other advocates of the style, Lubovich believes the eclectic, personal, playful look of flea market style is here to stay.

"I don't think it's about trend," she said. "The essence of this look is that it's a look for a lifetime. It's about finding a piece that you love. And you'll find that if you love everything in the room, it will somehow go together."

Others, however, maintain the look is already on the wane. "It's a trendy look," said Jennifer Severson, an interior designer with Gabberts in Edina, Minn., "so trends come and go."

Still, there are signs that flea market style is less likely to disappear than it is to merge into the mainstream. In a way, it already has. For the past few years, many furniture manufacturers have been making new furniture look old by using finishes that are rubbed rather than glossy, adding vintage-look hardware and sometimes even distressing furniture to make it look as though it were a flea market find.

"People don't want anything that's plastic-y and new and glossy," said Helen Jane Martinson, a senior designer with Dayton's. "They want to incorporate special items that show where they're going and where they've been."

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