The answer is: antiques are objects of high quality that were made over 100 years ago, an object or piece of furniture that is less than 100 years old can be classed as 'vintage'. For years the term 'collectible' was used in the place of vintage, but in the 80's and 90's the term Vintage became associated with mid-century wares, so anything made between 1940 and 1970.
'Retro' is also often used as being similar to 'vintage' but the key difference between retro and vintage is that retro refers to a revival or reproduction. Therefore, retro furniture is not necessarily old but could be made new in the style of a different era.
How to identify antique furniture?
The definition of 'antique' is as follows:
a collectable object such as a piece of furniture or work of art that has a high value because of its age and quality.
Source: The Oxford Dictionary.
Therefore the item or furniture, needs to be able to 'prove' its age in some way in order to be valued accurately as an antique.
Luckily it is quite easy to date furniture and therefore identify whether it is an antique or simply 'vintage' or 'collectable'. Most furniture will have characteristics that are associated with a specific period in time and so long as you can identify these you are closer to finding out when the furniture was made.
For example, long, thin, tapered legs are a common trait of mid-century furniture, whilst low ornate or gilded furniture is typical of the 17th century. Often the legs are a good starting point for dating a piece of furniture to a specific era and a few quick google searches will lead you in the right direction. After that, the overall shape, type of wood, specific use of the furniture or even the type of upholstery are all tellers for finding if you can class it as 'antique' or simply 'vintage.' For example, if your chair has been upholstered with foam then it's definitely not an antique, as modern upholstery techniques did not develop until the mid twentieth century. However, it is always possible that the piece has simply been re-upholstered since its first incarnation.
If you are looking for more information on how to identify antique furniture then I can recommend any of the Millers Antiques and Collectables guides. Judith Miller is a renowned antiques specialist who, over the course of her career, has really risen to become one of the leading voices in the field. Both her books and her blog are a great source of information on the subject of antiques.
How to identify vintage furniture?
Vintage is more commonly used for furniture or items that is considered to be old but not yet antique and in some cases vintage has become synonymous with mid-century, meaning anything made between 1940 and 1970. Many authorities do not consider objects that are 20 years of age or less to be 'vintage', but more 'contemporary.'
How to identify mid-century furniture?
The mid century era was the golden age of space exploration, the market had suddenly exploded with consumer goods and 'high-tech' gadgets such as washing machines and televisions, and a need for easy-to-manufacture, simple but stylish, furniture.
Gone where the days of Victorian chintz and hustled in by a select group of primarily Danish and American designers, came a new age of slim-line, essentially cheap furniture that made them accessible to all. The primary characteristics of mid-century furniture can be summed up in traits such as slim tapered legs, upholstery that used foam and was often kept to a minimum, cheaper woods such as birch and teak, and a more functional or utilitarian approach to furniture rather than pieces that where solely decorative and not suited to a specific purpose other than sitting.
One of the best things about vintage furniture is that often, the documentation is so much better than that of antique furniture. We have more records of these furniture in print, in company archives, in advertisement, in stores compared to most antique furniture.
Here are some examples of mid-Century or vintage furniture:
Shop for mid-century and vintage chairs in our online store.
How to date vintage furniture?
Here are some top tips on how to more accurately date your piece of vintage furniture, than simply 'mid-century' or 'vintage'.
- See if your furniture has a stamp. This may be a small plaque, a sticker, or an ink stamp, and it may be well hidden. If there is a stamp, try googling the name as most manufacturers are recorded somewhere on the internet and this will help you to see when your piece of furniture was made, where it was made and who it was designed by. This is all information that adds value to your piece, so if you do find a stamp, leave it intact!
- Colour can also be an important teller. For example Eames started producing with just three colours, griege, elephant hide grey and parchment. Later they added sea-foam green, red and yellow. Then they went wild and started producing in sky-blue or red-orange, which are the more popular finds nowadays as these where manufactured in large numbers. Where's pale blue or grey are more rare and likely to be worth more.
- The legs are always a good starting point and occasionally the base shape of a chair will stay the same but the legs get an update to a different construction or arrangement. Compare chairs similar to yours online and establish a rough period when each of the different types were manufactured.
- What is the material of the piece and how was it constructed? For example is it plastic, is it wood, is it bent wood, or plastic that has been moulded in two directions. This is definitely more technical, but if your piece has any outstanding features, then it's worth seeing when these manufacturing techniques were developed. For example, after the war there was a severe shortage of plywood to make furniture and so in the 1950's many manufacturers switched to using particle board. Likewise, early Eames chairs were produced using fibre glass and later on with plastic. Getting to know the material or the grain of the wood can tell you a lot.
Do you have more tips for identifying the date furniture was produced? Tell us in the comments below!