Smart Tips for Antiquing Like a Pro, Straight from an Interior Designer

Flea markets, here we come.

October 23, 2018

We've partnered with Benjamin Moore to share design tips, tricks, and videos that highlight contemporary ways to incorporate vintage and antique finds into your home. One of our favorite ways to update newfound treasures snagged at the market: Give them a fresh coat of paint using one of the timeless colors from Benjamin Moore's Williamsburg Collection .

Few things can add character or history to a space like a one-of-a-kind piece from decades past. But navigating an antique market can be tricky, whether it's a huge show like Brimfield or your local weekend flea market. So we turned to Megan Pflug, a New York-based interior designer, for a bit of guidance. She's done her fair share of shopping at these treasure troves and has years of experience transforming heirloom finds into beautiful pieces of home decor.

Below, Pflug shares her essential tips—for beginners and seasoned pros alike—on getting the most out of any antique market. What to do with your new-old pieces now that they've found a forever home? Pflug's got a few ideas there, too.

Make a plan before you hit the market.

Before I leave my house I like to make a note on my phone with the dimensions of rooms that I might be looking to add a new piece to. I also make notes of particular items I'm looking for, or I'll bring along paint chips to get a sense of how a piece will look with the wall color of the space. I usually set a budget and try to bring that amount of cash with me. That being said, it's important to be open minded and set a little bit of your budget aside for surprise finds. Sometimes you have to be willing to take the plunge on something that you had no idea you were looking for.

Bring along a few essentials.

I always bring a water bottle and a hat because I'm obsessed with staying hydrated and days outside in the sun can be long and exhausting. I'll also bring along a tote bag or backpack—it's a safe place to hold small purchases and allows me to be hands free when shopping. If I'm looking for a larger item, I'll pack a tape measure to make sure the dimensions will work within my space. If you end up buying one of those larger items at a flea market like Brimfield, you can hire someone with a wagon to help you bring it to your car or truck (yes, some people also rent U-haul trucks).

Look for pieces that stand out.

When combing through antique pieces, I always try to look for something that's unusual or will give a room in my house special character. For example, right now I'm collecting cream color ceramic pots because I love the way they look against the dark walls at my newly renovated lodge in upstate New York. Oftentimes, price is a factor too, but there are always deals and steals to be found at any market.

Breathe new life into an antique piece by giving it a fresh coat of paint, like the color Pearl from Benjamin Moore's Williamsburg Collection. Photo by James Ransom

If you find something you love (even if it's unexpected), snag it.

One time while shopping in the South, I spotted a vintage breakfront (a large cabinet or bookcase with a central section that extends out). I was renovating our kitchen at the time, though I was not looking for a huge piece of furniture. But because I had a note on my phone with the dimensions of the kitchen, I could tell that the vintage breakfront would fit in the space. The next thing I knew, I was renting a U-haul and driving it back up the Eastern seaboard. While that piece was more than I was looking to spend that day on antiques, it cost a lot less than buying new cabinetry for the space so I decided to go for it.

When negotiating the price, be nice.

My number one tip is to always be nice. It's important to remember that a lot went into a dealer finding and bringing a piece to that market. For the most part, I think most people are fair. I typically say something like, "Is this price firm, or do you have a special cash price?" Sometimes, if you are buying more than one thing you can get a little bit of a deal. For me, what it usually comes down to is whether or not the piece is worth the price to me— if it is, I buy it.

Incorporate antique finds thoughtfully to avoid a "decorated" look.

Antiques give a space history and a collected feel. I always prefer that over a "decorated" look. When in doubt, throw an oil painting into your contemporary space, mainly landscapes and portraits—they add instant drama. I'm also a fan of collections. Using multiples of something helps smaller items to feel considered and less like a bunch of little tchotchkes. Preciousness is the enemy of cool when decorating antiques. Give some thought to how your belongings will work in the space; more often than not, I use natural wall colors that go with a lot of things. The trend now is to use cool tones like grays and whites, over warmer tones. I think wood and vintage pieces that tend to have a yellowish hue look freshest when paired with cooler, neutral colors.

Consider updating vintage finds with a fresh coat of paint.

Ninety percent of painting an antique piece is the preparation and using quality materials. From the paint to a good brush, it all counts. Cleaning or sanding something is almost always necessary, but may vary depending on the material. I like to try and adopt a very zen mindset for projects like this, so that I can embrace the entire preparation processes. And for the record, painting is one of my favorite things to do—but it can get very tedious if you try and rush yourself.

Think outside the box for overall design inspiration.

Figuring out exactly how I draw inspiration for my home decor is tricky—I don't know exactly where it comes from. I love to craft, so materials are always inspiring. Like everyone else, I spend a lot of time on Instagram and Pinterest, and you can find a lot of inspiration there. A few of my favorite accounts that I follow are House of Brinson, Joanna Hawley, and Erica Reitman.

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Other than that, I love old decorating books, like A Pattern Language and Decorating Is Fun—it's interesting to see everything that has already been done, and how trends evolve. I also love movies and spend a lot of time marveling over location details and the way set decorators create a mood. One that I always come back to is Rosemary's Baby—it has that great 1960 style layering on top pre-war details. It's basically a decorating moving until it turns into a horror movie.

You're all set to go treasure hunting! Make sure your new special antique finds have the perfect backdrop with our partner Benjamin Moore, makers of premium home paints in gorgeous colors including the Colonial-inspired Williamsburg Collection. This historically accurate collection of 144 colors is the perfect way to blend antique finds with a contemporary design sensibility.

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Erin Alexander is the Associate Editor at Food52, covering pop culture, travel, foods of the internet, and all things #sponsored. Formerly at Men’s Journal, Men’s Fitness, Us Weekly, and Hearst, she currently lives in New York City.