Life is full of rules about not putting opposites together, mostly for good reason. Mixing acids and bases, for example, creates toxic fumes. Mixing conservatives and progressives makes for awkward cocktail parties, at least if the talk gets political. But at times, introducing opposites makes life interesting in a good way.
Hooking up jumper cables to a car battery and touching the positive and negative ends together (also not recommended) provides a glimpse into this dynamic. You’ll get sparks and heat, and that energy, when properly channeled, can be put to good use. (Like starting your car.)
Good designers know this trick, and they deliberately introduce contrast into their work to make it more energetic and interesting. London-based Emily Chalmers has channeled the technique using contemporary and antique design elements for interior decor, a strategy she explores in her book, Modern Vintage Styl e (Ryland Peters & Small; $29.95; hardcover, 160 pages).
For Chalmers, the trick lies in balancing clean or sleek modern elements with the comfort and familiarity of traditional styles, avoiding the sterility of the former and the tired, musty quality that can result when older furnishings are used exclusively. She credits “unexpected pairings” of new and old with creating a personalized and engaging home, offering her version of the three R’s: restore, reinvent and rescue.
Aside from the fun aesthetics, she says, the method has other benefits as well. For starters, it’s affordable. Whether through secondhand stores, yard sales, or online and print classified ads, resourceful individuals can get oodles of stuff on the cheap or even free, provided they don’t mind cleaning or repairing some of it.
There’s also an environmental benefit, either from diverting items away from the landfill or by not needing new items that require energy and raw materials to produce. And there’s cultural value, she believes, in learning to appreciate things that have lasted for many years. It reminds us of the importance of quality, and like people who endure, these older artifacts can grow in character and uniqueness as they age.
Juxtaposing old and new does present some challenges, Chalmers concedes. Done poorly, it can result in a disjointed or confusing space that unsettles rather than welcomes. Preventing that requires some unifying elements, especially color, that can create natural visual connections among the room’s separate objects. The smart strategy is to include multiple categories of furnishings, treating each individually:
• Furniture: Because of their large scale relative to lighting and accessories, furniture pieces often serve as visual anchors or focal points in a room. Most rooms will have a dominant piece, such as the sofa in a living room or the table and chairs in a dining room, and they will make the key style statement. Using other contrasting styles adds energy and frees you up from finding matching pieces, and this freedom extends even to mixing chair types around a table. Expect to perform “style surgery” on some furniture pieces, giving them a new personality with paint, new fabrics, or other modifications.
• Lighting: Considering that electric lighting fixtures have been around barely a century, the variety available is astounding, especially among older pieces. Like jewelry, lighting fixtures can be attention-getting accessories that dress up a space. Chalmers suggests doing a lot of comparison shopping to get familiar with vintage styles, which include late Victorian, Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, mid-century modern and even some industrial fixtures. Always check with a qualified technician to make sure the fixture can safely accept modern bulbs.
• Textiles: This category includes quilts, rugs, linens, tablecloths, lace, draperies, and other fabrics, which represent some of the easiest and most affordable options for adding accent colors and textures to a decor. They can be especially effective for softening or warming a space that might have an otherwise clinical or stark modern look. There aren’t hard-and-fast rules for what you can use, but Chalmers defines vintage textiles as any dating from 1920 to about 1980.
After profiling the potential “ingredients” for a modern/vintage look, the book turns to Chalmers’ strategies for using them. Subsequent chapters flesh out suggestions for decorating primary surfaces such as walls and floors, using distressed paint techniques and/or wallpaper to give them more texture and character, and how to recognize signature colors from various decades. Pastels marked much of the 1950s, for example, while earth tones and neutrals ruled the 1970s.
Other topics featured include collection displays and the appropriate treatments for creating a “modern vintage” style for specific rooms such as kitchens, living rooms, entry spaces and bedrooms. Hundreds of color photographs highlight spaces designed or chosen by the author, so there’s no shortage of visual inspiration to accompany the advice found here. Most of the examples shown are in Great Britain or Europe, as are the resources cited for designers and materials, but American readers should find the ideas ready-made for their use also.