There are plenty of different styles of furniture on the market, but with so many terms getting thrown around it’s hard to know what is what! Here we have broken down the most commonly used terms to give you a hand with choosing your ideal furniture style.
Read on to get tips on how to recognize the differences between furniture styles that are often confused:
- Antique vs. Vintage
- Traditional vs. Rustic
- Art Deco vs. Retro
- Shabby Chic vs. French provincial
- Modern vs. Contemporary
Plus we’ve pulled extra information for you on each of the styles.
Antique vs. Vintage
Antique furniture includes pieces from an earlier period. It is often crafted out of wood and its age, condition, unique features and rarity determine how collectible the piece is and therefore, how high its value. Genuine antiques are, by definition, at least 100 years old and often have to be purchased from experienced dealers to guarantee authenticity.
Vintage furniture on the other hand is between twenty and one hundred years old and is easily recognisable as belonging to a particular period within that time. Once you know what you’re looking for, spotting it is easier than it sounds!
Traditional vs. Rustic
Traditional furniture is formal furniture from the Victorian period. It combines features from the Queen Anne period – graceful and elaborately decorated, Chippendale style – artistic embellishment and straightened out lines and Sheraton style – delicate pieces with tapered legs and contrasting inlays. Together this creates a comfortable and warm environment with hand crafted, dark timber pieces, over stuffed, plush sofas and elegant fabrics.
Rustic style furniture is influenced by many different styles coming together to create warm, natural and honest interiors. If furniture is rustic it will often be made of a warm timber or a natural material like animal hide, cotton or linen. It has a worn and homely appearance and is often more relaxed then formal. Scandinavian and industrial furniture design are usually synonymous with being rustic.
Art Deco vs. Retro
Art Deco is an eclectic style that combines Machine Age imagery and materials with traditional crafts. The style is characterized by geometric and angular shapes, materials like chrome, glass, shiny fabrics, mirrors and mirror tiles as well as stylized images of aeroplanes, cars and skyscrapers. With the success of The Great Gatsby movie and TV series like Boardwalk Empire, Art Deco is back in full force.
Retro furniture can be harder to define. When we think of Retro design we usually conjure up ideas of mod, geometric shapes in teal, yellow and brown or flashbacks to the kitchen from the Brady Bunch with its tulip table and orange splash back. Technically, retro furniture design is defined as aspects of modern culture which imitate trends, modes and fashions of the recent past which had come to be unfashionable.
Shabby Chic vs. French provincial
French provincial furniture is exactly what its title depicts. Characterised by the styles popular in the French provinces in the 17th and 18th century, this furniture style has a classic yet country feel to it. Ladder back dining chairs with woven seats, simple scalloped carving, large armoires or French sideboards with decorative moldings are all key features of this style.
Shabby Chic furniture, while similar, is more casual and often has a distressed appearance. The Furniture is typically white with a feminine and romantic feel. Like French provincial, this style originated from country houses but incorporates more up-cycling and salvaging of furniture.
Modern vs. Contemporary
Modern furniture originated under the modernist movement in the early 1900’s. It often combines leather, vinyl, steel, moulded plywood and plastics with a monochromatic colour scheme to create sleek and stylish interiors. Big name designers like Herman Miller, Hans Knoll and Charles and Ray Eames are the faces for this design era and you’ll often find replicas of their modern furniture designs on the market today. The Barcelona chair is a timeless example of modern design.
Modern furniture design is a defined style and will always refer to the modernist period of time, contemporary furniture design however, refers to furniture that is popular and used now, in the present. Furniture will often be described as “modern and contemporary”, which is where the confusion comes in between these two styles.
Now you’ve got the difference between the various styles sorted, we’ve pulled together some buying tips and additional information on each of the styles:
- What is antique furniture?
- What is vintage furniture?
- What is retro furniture?
- What is art deco furniture?
- What is french provincial style furniture?
- What is modern furniture?
- What is contemporary furniture?
If you’re an antique furniture fan, be prepared to invest both time and money into your furniture hunt. In return, you’ll wind up with unique and beautiful furniture which is also likely to have a good resale value further down the track.
When you’re buying, unless you’re very knowledgeable, it’s best to shop from experienced dealers. You will pay more, but you will also benefit from their expertise and they should be able to give you a full history of the furniture pieces that you buy. Antique furniture is at least 100 years old, and because of their age, antiques are by nature collectible. When you’re buying Antique furniture you need to examine and be aware of:
Age & Provenance - you should be able to get a clear confirmation of at least the approximate age of the piece, what is even better is if you can establish where the item has been through its life - who purchased it, where it was used, any other details that may add to its value.
Rarity - Here, go with your gut. If the piece is more common, it might be less valuable. However, if it’s something you love and want in your collection, don’t let this factor stop you.
Condition - Don’t necessarily dismiss furniture in less than perfect condition - it might be ripe for restoration.
Special or Unique Features- Sometimes an imperfection may actually prove to be a valuable value add.
Smaller household items such as a lamp, table clock or mirror can also be bought as antiques and this can be an excellent way to begin buying. Given the age of the furniture, you may not be able to find antique items that suit all of your needs perfectly - for example storage units and entertainment units pose a particular problem. Be prepared to re-purpose items and be imaginative with their uses.
Upholstered antique items can pose a challenge. Sofas, couches and bed mattresses will probably need to be either replaced or reupholstered before introducing them to a family home. When you’re looking to reupholster an item, take the time to find the right fabric and the right upholsterer. They need to be experienced in dealing with antique furniture and equipped to use the right materials which may mean brass tacks or studs, without damaging the frame.
Vintage furniture isn’t just ‘old’ furniture- it’s actually representative as being from a specific style or era. Mid-Century Modern is a popular and commonly seen example, being the ‘best’ from the mid-Century era. There is great variety to choose which will suit all budgets from high-end Danish or Scandinavian designs to local pieces that you find in special second hand stores. There is a lot of Australian made Vintage furniture available- it’s very easy to find a table, a coffee table, a couch or sofa in great condition for a reasonable price. Shop around and you’ll find great Vintage finishing touches to finish the décor in your home - a mirror, lamp or great clock will really tie your look together.
Vintage furniture pis also popular because it tends to be more affordable than antique or retro furniture. The Vintage style is perfect for mixing and matching and knitting together seemingly disparate furniture pieces and achieving an individual and creative look, injecting personality into your rooms.
You might be lucky & find vintage furniture pieces that have been in storage or have hardly been used and are in excellent condition, plus it’s a great way of reducing the carbon footprint of your new furniture purchases.
Retro furniture can very quickly be confused with art deco furniture or even vintage furniture, and it would seem that the jury is largely out when it comes to defining distinguishing features. Indeed, it may appear that some retro furniture items could be classified as vintage, or art deco and vice versa.
Another way you may wish to define retro furniture is to consider it as reviving the goldies from the oldies! Perhaps think of retro furniture as being anything that was created since your grandparents’ heyday and might have undergone a bit of a revival to find its cool once more.
When we think of retro, we think of that ageing vinyl sofa down the back of the second- hand shop; it’s something that just needs a bit of a spruce-up, some TLC, and it’s revived. It’s retro. It’s back in.
As the saying goes, everything that was old is new again, and we love that about retro furniture!
Art Deco furniture hails from the early 20th Century, and is a striking design period that has not only withstood the test of time, but has perhaps become more enduring and cherished by its modern day devotees.
Originating in Europe, the art deco period followed World War I but was most prolific from the 1920s to the 1940s. The term Art Deco was supposedly coined from the 1925 Parisian exhibition, the Exposition des Arts Modernes Decoratifs et Industriels. Art Deco comes from a time that celebrated the decadence and character of the infamous Roaring Twenties, as well as the hope and escapism of the oppressive Thirties.
Indeed, when you consider some of the common themes of classic Art Deco, it becomes apparent just how beautifully this design captured a particular period in history. For instance, art deco often embraces geometric patterns and shapes, which are considered a means of paying homage to the industrialisation of the time. In contrast, it also celebrated the female form; a reference to signs of early newfound freedom and liberation for women. This ‘dawning of a new era’ was also exemplified in Art Deco fountains and sunbursts, long considered symbols of new age. Interestingly, Art Deco design also harbours a fascination with Egypt and Greece and therefore references from these two cultures can also be found in Art Deco.
Art Deco furniture is of course, perfectly at home in an Art Deco house or apartment, and an overall Art Deco décor can be incredibly stylish and impactful. Indeed, there is a truly timeless quality to an interior that completely embraces the character of Art Deco. That said, Art Deco furniture can also be equally complimentary in an otherwise ultra modern home; by selecting key Art Deco pieces such as a much-loved chair, or an Art Deco sofa, an amazing lamp, statue or an amazing geometrical designed mirror, can add a lot to a space. Want to know more? We’ve written a detailed in depth guide on the Art Deco style.
French Provincial has been a popular style for interior decorating for a number of years, and continues to be popular for many homeowners. French Provincial decor is inspired by the styles popular in the French provinces in the 17th and 18th century. It is the perfect balance of the luxury and ornate craftsmanship found in the lavish estates juxtaposed with the laid back style of French country homes.
The furniture of this style is mainly timber, either stained or painted in white, muted grey, taupe, deep red or duck egg blue. Often the finish of the paint work is distressed, giving a worn patina to the furniture. Timber pieces like drawers and buffets feature ornate moldings and brass or glass handles. Upholstered pieces will often feature piping on the cushions and soft damask or floral motifs. The combination of natural materials with elegant finishes creates femininity and longevity for French Provincial furniture.
Modern furniture is furniture produced from the late 19th century on wards, under the influence of the Modernist movement. It is distinctive and highly prized- and very collectible.
When this furniture was first produced, it was a shock to furniture fans. It was a big departure from more traditional furniture forms - now Antique forms - that used heavy, dark wood and ornate carving.
The designers of the Classic Modernist movement used new materials- steel, molded plywood and even plastic to create furniture that was dramatically different. A chair suddenly mimicked the curves of the human body. A coffee table might now have one elegant curving central leg rather than the traditional four legs. A dining table might now be made from glass with a mirror-like chrome frame. A couch or sofa was suddenly angular, and covered in leather.
These radical changes heralded an entirely new period of design that still appears fresh and bold today. Today, the majority of Modern furniture pieces on the market are reproductions. These can be very close to the originals and can be hard to spot. The major difference here is price. You’ll easily figure out if what you’re being offered is genuine - if it sounds too good to be too, it probably is.
Despite that if you’re comfortable with a reproduction and the originals are out of your reach - and you’re comfortable with the ethics of purchasing a knock-off design- you can always fake it till you make it! Otherwise you might want to start with purchasing low-end originals, or smaller fixtures like a lamp or clock, while you save up for that original modernist piece.
Contemporary style furniture can be really difficult to define, apart from saying it is furniture designed and made in recent times, and by that might mean anything from the late 20th century up until today! The level of creativity and the variety of materials available mean that contemporary furniture, which might also be referred to as modern furniture, is unlikely to be pigeon holed. Despite this, it is probably fair to say that contemporary or modern furniture often looks ‘clean’ – lines are simple, uncomplicated, and the overall appearance tends to be fresh. For this reason, contemporary and modern furniture can lend itself beautifully to other interior design periods; it tends not to overpower rooms and can look equally at home in retro surrounds as it might alongside art deco furnishings, for example.
A significant benefit of contemporary furniture, apart from its ability to blend with and complement an array of other periods, is its widespread appeal. If for example, you intend to furnish an investment property, then it would be advisable to err on the side of caution and seek out contemporary or modern furniture. It is a similar logic to that of painting the inside of an investment property white; it’s more of a blank canvas that has a stronger chance of appealing to a greater cross section of the population.
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