Antique, Vintage And Retro Furniture: What Do The Terms Really Mean?

Antique, Vintage And Retro Furniture – The term ‘antique’ will often be used to describe furniture that is quite old, possibly somewhat broken and with bits missing, stained and/or cracked. But apparently it is antique, so this means that with a bit of restoration the piece will scrub up to become a charming bit of furniture with a rich history – at least that’s what the seller wants you to believe.

Perhaps they will find a buyer who, out of some misguided sentimentality and a moment of weakness, goes ahead and purchases it. The seller is usually ecstatic to be rid of it, and it will probably move from one garage to another.

‘Retro’ is another term usually used to convince you that an unstylish and rather hideously colored bit of furniture is actually a highly desirable piece, probably the one all your friends will admire most. If you are fooled and do indeed purchase it, your friends won’t have much to admire – except for your exceptionally bad taste in ‘retro’ furniture.


Retro living room

Then there is the term ‘vintage’. Often interchanged with antique (though not quite as old), vintage is definitely associated with a certain era, but not usually in a good way. Basically the seller has something out of date and out of place with their aesthetic, and is trying to get rid of it while hopefully making some money.

These are just a few imagined scenarios when thinking about buying second hand furniture online – and of course, there are definitely exceptions. If you have an astute eye and are lucky enough to stumble upon actual retro, antique or vintage furniture, then you have a very good chance of ending up with a stunning and perhaps even elegant piece of furniture that will connect with you and your home.

So what do these terms actually mean?

There is no hard and fast rule, but there is a generally accepted standard. When it comes to furniture, antique is considered to be at least 100 years old, vintage is at least 20 years old, and retro is older than ‘so last season’. But this is just referring to age; there is usually more to consider than just age when deciding whether something is antique, vintage or retro.

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Living room with vintage furniture set

What is antique?

Some would insist that, for something to be called antique, the piece of furniture must be over 100 years old and have been made by hand. However this would be the strictest of interpretations.

It was only after World War II that mass produced furniture was actually made ‘cheaply’. Before that period, much of the mass produced furniture was actually made quite well and with materials and methods that are uncommon today – for example dovetail joins and cedar-lined drawers.

Despite the high quantities produced, this furniture were still quality pieces and had the potential to last for years – something that you just won’t find today. Do you think that the coffee table you picked up from IKEA will last 100 years? Unlikely.

So for some the term antique refers to furniture that was built with materials and methods of a previous time, and has stood the test of time. For some builders of sustainable furniture this means that, if they build to a high standard, then these pieces will become antiques in their own right years from now.

Of course this definition of antique is simply opinion. It may not align with the legal definition of the term that some countries may apply to it, particularly when it comes to furniture.


Antique furniture living room

What is vintage?

One definition of vintage is ‘denoting something from the past of high quality, especially something representing the best of its kind’. In regards to furniture this definition would indicate that vintage furniture, while not being as old as something antique, is definitely from a generation past – and a piece that accurately and elegantly represents the best of its time period.

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For this reason vintage furniture is often called by the decade that it best represents – 50’s style, 60’s style and so forth. With each decade there is a definite trend or style that can be associated with it: just think 80’s or 90’s fashion and it will conjure images in your mind that you would sooner forget.

Arguably then, furniture needs to be at least a couple decades old to be vintage, since the style of a decade is not clearly seen until we are well out of it and have the benefit of hindsight. Still, some disagree, saying that this definition allows furniture makers to build new furniture in the style of a particular decade and legitimately label it vintage.

As you can see, the definition of vintage varies depending on your own personal view – or perhaps on whether you are buying or selling.


What is retro?

Retro is not so easily or clearly defined, for there are more than just a couple differing opinions. While the dictionary definition of retro is ‘imitation’, some argue that retro is more, that it needs to imitate something truly fashionable and nostalgic. Really, the definition of retro becomes a matter of taste: when is something retro, and when is something outdated and old fashioned?

Due to its vague meaning, many people will add retro to anything that imitates an old style, whether it should have gone out of style or not. Whatever the case, there is no denying that retro (defined as imitation) cannot be applied to something that is actually old.

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