What Makes Furniture 'Vintage'?



As collectors, we all know that finding a vintage piece you’ve been after or one you unexpectedly stumble upon is one of the best feelings in the world. As someone who aspires to achieve the ultimate aesthetic home, vintage pieces embody the style and polished elegance of the greats who just know how to decorate. What house guest can argue about your choice of decor when they are looking at a gorgeous table that’s twice as old as they are, with the stories to match? But, as vintage becomes more popular, maintaining a shopping savvy becomes ever more important.

Many aspiring home decorators, design aficionados and self-declared aesthetes like us find themselves lamenting over the trend toward knock-off vintage proffered by West Elm, Wayfair, and the like. When buying secondhand, identifying whether a piece is truly vintage or simply a retro-inspired mass-produced piece from 2018 can also be a challenge. No one is born being able to discern wood types, makes and models, after all. It takes practice, mistakes, and a community dedicated to helping one another.

In a world that is becoming not only more digital but also more sustainable, we find ourselves turning to the past when sourcing the objects that will bring our living spaces to life. In a way, vintage furniture brings a sense of deep connection and personalization into our homes. Whether that manifests as an iconoclastic sitting room filled with bespoke antiques and iconic objects or a single outstanding vintage coffee table in your studio apartment, the effect of a vintage piece that you truly resonate with is worth all the effort it takes to find the one.

A Brief History of Vintage Furniture

So, what makes furniture ‘vintage’? The generally agreed-upon inauguration for a piece to vintage status is 20 years of age. So yes, that does mean Y2K is patently vintage at this point in 2022 (We’re not even going to comment on how old that makes us feel). However, as with any category, the term ‘vintage’ when it comes to home also demands a level of abstraction that defies precise definition. Is the desk my mother purchased from Varsity Loft Club for my childhood bedroom in 1999 a vintage piece? Well…technically sure, but does it have the aura or patina that we’ve come to expect from vintage furniture? Probably not. On the other hand, something as quotidian as an Ikea Poäng armchair can absolutely veer into the vintage category, especially if you have a defunct model or colorway. Many pieces from the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s will boast the undeniable forms, materials, colors, and sometimes pedigree that we call “retro,” which has become all-the-rage lately thanks to Instagram and the resurgence of groovy-inspired fashion.

It is nothing new for families to seek out older pieces that, in the past, were more accommodating to smaller budgets. Sharing furniture between generations was its own rite of passage. Over time, people realized that it was a lot easier to pass down a pair of earrings than a velvet-upholstered couch, so modern pieces that were easy to manufacture became the new norm.

At the end of the last century, as technology rapidly took hold of society, anything that looked “old” was ruled unfashionable and, by default, abandoned. Clean, sleek design and minimalist-inspired palettes became the de facto style for every homeowner. However, in recent years, due to a number of factors including collective nostalgia, a commitment to sustainability, and a desire for individuality in the home, a love for vintage furniture has returned.

Thanks to the internet, it’s now also much easier to find vintage furniture that is both verifiable and affordable. While our parents and grandparents were limited to auctions, garage sales and flea markets, we have Instagram, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and hundreds of independent sellers committed to sourcing excellent pieces for us, to shop for our new favorite furniture.

What is the Difference Between Vintage and Antique Furniture?

With age comes wisdom and, if you’re a piece of furniture, usually a hefty price tag. If only we could net more profit each year just for being a little older. Sigh.

When shopping for pre-owned furniture, you should make sure you understand the difference between vintage and antique as well as refurbished and upcycled. While furniture generally becomes vintage after 20 years, antique furniture is — at least according to several customs laws — at least 100 years old and, as a result, is nearly always more expensive (though of course iconic mid-century grails can compete with pre-War pieces in today’s market).

Vintage objects can also have a much more distinctive style and greater variance among its aesthetic. Retro kitchenware from the ‘50s, mid-century chairs from the ‘60s, Memphis-style fixtures from the ‘70s, or poppy waterfall tables from the ‘80s are all ‘vintage’ while antique furniture often falls into historical styles guided more by aristocratic fashions — Georgian, Louis XVI, Regency, Queen Anne — than by the innovations of star designers and schools.

Antique furniture in 2022 will date back to the 1920s or even earlier, so it is much harder to find in decent condition unless you have a huge budget. Even then, competition for such well-preserved artifacts can be fierce, so you’ll have to bring your A-game to auction.

And what of refurbished and upcycled pieces? These, too, can be vintage, but they have since been redone to either embody a more modern appearance or to fit a boho, shabby-chic aesthetic. This may or may not suit your vision for your space. In some cases, these names have nothing to do with their age at all. Be careful when purchasing anything that says “vintage refurbished” or “upcycled” online, as this may just be the seller’s way of making their object sound more enticing than “used.”

Finding Vintage Furniture Online

The rise in buying vintage furniture can be largely accredited to Instagram, which has introduced people by the thousands to the beauty and variety of classic pieces. Likewise, the app also makes a fantastic first stop for the aspiring collector or curious buyer who wants to learn more about vintage furniture. 

Following the #vintagefurniture hashtag can help you find great accounts that spotlight different companies around the world. You can also directly connect with a variety of stores and vendors who curate vintage pieces and promote their products online. Use our Seller Directory to find local sellers in your area or online shops that fit your aesthetic and ship.

With newfound passion for sustainability and a deep-rooted need for more expressive living spaces, people are taking to the web to find the best stores for online vintage furniture. Just Googling “vintage furniture stores in [Your City Here]” can yield great results. Look for sites that feature detailed descriptions, high-quality images and specific pricing.

When you find independent sellers online, you should feel comfortable inquiring with them before making any purchase. It is normal to ask for additional photos as well as any history the seller might have on the item. A reputable seller will be happy to answer any questions you have and ensure you’re nothing short of over-the-moon about your latest buy. Not only will you come home with a high-quality piece, you may also come home with a fantastic story.

The São Paolo home of Julio Roberto Katinsky by Ricardo Labougle for Kinfolk


Dendwell was a rigorously curated marketplace and magazine for vintage decor. From 2020 - 2022, we dug into the trends, tastemakers, and how-to's of vintage object collection. This is our archive site, and is no longer being updated.