Ask a designer: Tips for flea-market shopping

Associated PressMay 2, 2014 

The arrival of spring means that flea markets are reopening for business around the country. Shoppers will hunt for treasures amid acres of used goods. A few will come home with just the right vintage art or quirky piece of furniture to make their homes more beautiful.

Jaime Rummerfield, co-founder of Woodson & Rummerfield’s House of Design in Los Angeles, sometimes mixes flea-market finds with high-end new furnishings to decorate the homes of her celebrity clients.

“The beauty of flea markets,” she says, “is you never know what you will find. There’s nothing like being outdoors or in a place off the beaten path rummaging through old treasures.”

Interior designer Brian Patrick Flynn, creator of the FlynnsideOut design blog, also hunts for vintage pieces: “Vintage and thrift is the best way to add one-of-a-kind flair to a space without insanely high cost.”

There is luck involved, of course. But skill also plays a role. How can you find the treasures that will give your home an infusion of style while avoiding decorating disasters? Here, Flynn, Rummerfield and another interior designer who shops for vintage decor – Lee Kleinhelter of the Atlanta-based design firm and retail store Pieces – tell how they do it.

When to go

Many people shy away from hunting for their vintage finds when it’s cold or gloomy, Flynn notes, so the market will be less crowded at such times. (Winter and early spring are perfect for flea-market shopping.)

“I usually show up just as the flea market opens to ensure I see every new item as it’s put out on display,” he says. “When you wait until the end of a flea market’s run to check out its stuff, you’re likely to find mostly leftovers, things priced too highly which others passed over, or things that are just way too taste-specific for most people to make offers on.”

Time travel

“It is amazing to see what people cast away,” says Rummerfield, who occasionally finds signed artwork and ceramics by noteworthy artists at flea markets and antique malls. Read up on the designers and artists from your favorite periods, she suggests, and then hunt for their work or impressive knockoffs.

A single flea market might offer goods from every decade of the 20th century. Can you put a lamp from the 1970s on a table from 1950? Yes, if the shapes and colors work well together, Kleinhelter says.

If your home has contemporary decor, it can be powerful to add one statement piece – a side table, say, or a light fixture – from a previous era.

But “a little bit goes a long way. Use vintage in moderation with contemporary spaces,” Rummerfield says. “It will highlight the uniqueness of the vintage item. You don’t necessarily want to live in a time capsule.”

Fixer-uppers

“Hands down, upholstery is the best deal to walk away with at flea markets. Just make sure you train your eye to pay no attention to the existing fabrics,” Flynn says. “Zero in on the lines of the frames instead.”

Kleinhelter agrees: “I usually gravitate toward the bones and frames of vintage pieces, and I make them my own by adding fun fabric or lacquering the base.”

The same goes for lighting. Buy it if you love it, but get the wiring updated by a professional. Flynn usually estimates an extra $50 to $75 per fixture for updating the wiring, so keep that cost in mind as you bargain.

Mix and match

Be on the lookout for pieces you can use together. “You don’t need multiples of the same chair or sofa to make a room work,” Flynn says. “Stick with those which have similar scale and proportion, then recover them in the same fabric.”

Once you get home, use flea market finds sparingly, Flynn says, mixing them in with the pieces you already own: “A few big pieces mixed with some smaller ones added to your existing stuff can instantly take an unfinished space and make it feel way more finished and remarkably personal.”

Money advice

“The best way to get an amazing deal is to buy a bunch of different items from the same vendor,” says Flynn. “This way, they can actually lower their prices since you’re guaranteeing them more sales, which in turn also makes their packing up and leaving much easier.”

You should bargain, but don’t go so low that you’ll insult the seller. One option is to negotiate for a 25 percent to 35 percent discount. And do bring cash.

“Mom-and-pop dealers don’t have the luxury of taking credit cards, due to the charges acquired,” Flynn says. “If you bring enough cash with you, you’re more likely to be able to negotiate successfully.”

Personal taste

Above all, choose items that delight you. And be open to serendipity.

“When I’m looking for furniture, I always stumble across a good vintage jewelry or clothing vendor and end up with a fun bauble of a bracelet or necklace,” Rummerfield says. “Prices are usually so reasonable, you come away with a good amount of loot. It is always a day well spent.”

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