This was it, the home they'd been looking for. An 18th-century white farmhouse in Merrimac, MA, weathered with chips and cracks—and accompanied by a barn. It got better when Chelsea Gray and her husband Joe stepped inside and laid eyes on the kitchen. Spacious yet cozy, it was soaked with sunlight, and smelled warm, like apple and cinnamon and...coal from a double-sided working fireplace.
What they were less excited about? Its upgrades. “Most buyers would be relieved by this, but we were disappointed that no one would guess that the kitchen, along with the rest of the home, was built in 1755,” says Chelsea.
It wasn’t just the kitchen—much of the the farmhouse's insides had been more recently updated. However, having grown up with an architect father and a mother with a talent for interior design, Chelsea was up for the challenge of restoring its vintage charm. Along with Joe, and his handy toolbox, she began returning some of its “old-home magic,” room by room.
It began with a few cosmetic tweaks in the kitchen. One of the first things to get replaced were the brown, glossy oak cabinets, in favor of handmade open shelving. To fill in the leftover space, they would add as much white subway tile and shiplap as they could find. However, with this cosmetic change came the complication of having less functional space for storage. It was time for them to get creative.
When Chelsea saw that her workplace was ready to toss a very large, functional hutch in the trash, she decided to take it. She envisioned it fitting nicely into their home as they worked on restoring it, giving the kitchen some much-needed character—and storage space—but after months of trying to make it work, she just couldn’t get it to look like it belonged.
It did, however, convince her that incorporating vintage finds would help create the vision they dreamed of.
Chelsea and Joe took long road trips to look at pieces they spotted online. Finding something that might fit in perfectly and at a bargain price, she says, was like "chancing upon buried treasure." One of the first pieces they bought was a unique looking cabinet with numbered pegs inside, that the seller believed was once a key-holder for an old hotel. She took one look at the piece and decided it’d make the perfect functional pantry: "We didn't have the budget to build a walk-in pantry, but this worked beautifully."
Similarly, when it came time to look into an island to fill in some empty space, Chelsea was drawn to an old dresser: "We were concerned a regular island would look too new. Plus, we've always repurposed furniture; throughout the home we've use old crates for storage and antique chests as coffee tables." They bought it.
Despite dreams of a fully antique kitchen—complete with dinners cooked over an open flame—Chelsea says they understand the need to balance it with items they can rely on everyday. And that means letting in modern appliances. “Our kitchen is home to a newer refrigerator and stovetop, and brand new mixers and blender” she says. “And if I totally fall in love with something I must have that isn’t functional enough to meet our everyday needs, we find a purpose for it and make it work,” she adds. Case in point: a 1950s GE refrigerator they placed in their barn (yes, it works!).
“It’s been thrilling to renovate our kitchen this way,” says Chelsea. She explains that adding in antiques for storage is a convenient option for people who don’t have, or simply don’t know how to use, tools that you’d need to build out cabinetry—and definitely more fun than someone else building them for you. "It is also budget-friendly. The dresser, pantry cabinet, and Hoosier (more on that later) all cost under $500 combined," she adds.
Scroll through for a look at Chelsea and Joe’s favorite pieces (you can also see more of their home here)—along with their tips for incorporating antiques into your kitchen.
Although they rarely "renovate" the pieces they find, Chelsea decided to paint over this cabinet, which was a mint green she wasn't thrilled about. They decided to go with milk paint because it flakes and cracks beautifully. "When it looks distressed enough, you can seal it so it doesn’t continue to chip," says Chelsea.
"Our Hoosier wasn't something we were explicitly looking for, but one of those pieces that found us," says Joe, "Luckily, I thought of the perfect place for it in our kitchen, took the measurements right away, and made the purchase." This step, he says, is critical. Had he not measured the space he planned to put it in (or decided to buy it anyway), they would've been stuck with a massive piece and nowhere to put it. "You can get yourself into quite a pickle," says Joe, "Don’t believe me? Take a look in our barn at the stacks of furniture I just had to have that a year later, I still don’t have ‘the right spot’ for.”
"We have a simple rule of thumb," says Chelsea, "if it’s for prepping, cooking, and serving, it has to be safe and functional; everything else is fair game. For example, we have a mix of pots and pans: newer ones that we use to cook everyday, and older copper and cast iron cookware—some usable, and others that we've added to shelves and walls to lend character."
Always be mindful of the intended purpose for a piece. "Our dresser wouldn’t be functional as an island if, a few months in, the legs gave out under the weight of a turkey fresh out of the oven; the same way our cabinet pantry wouldn’t be the best option if the shelving inside was too narrow, not sturdy enough, or covered in lead paint," advices Chelsea, "When it comes to buying vintage, always think about how long the piece will actually last."