Forget theme — the secret to distinctive decor is knowing how to pull off a hodgepodge. These on-trend, timeless pieces will help you get started.
We’ve all been awed by them — those talented homeowners who somehow manage to turn a tangle of styles, eras, and shades into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. How do they do it? Erin Kiley, co-owner of the Portland Flea-for-All, a second-hand shop with a cultish following among designers and design-savvy homeowners, may be uniquely qualified to tell us. Sprawling and filled to distraction, the Flea is like the collective attic of your eccentric grandma and her highball-drinking friends. Here, some 50 vendors sell vintage furniture, art, and home goods in all varieties of too old to give a damn. Nothing quite matches, which is precisely the point.
Mix-and-match decorating makes your home feel more like “a thoughtful collection as opposed to an ode or a tribute to a specific time,” says Kiley, who opened the Flea with her husband, Nathaniel Baldwin, in 2012. “It’s more evocative of the curator and visually stimulating to be able to challenge your guests to see the connections.” We asked Kiley which items are currently flying off the floor at the Flea and how you can use them to create your own eclectic schemes.
Danish Draw-Leaf Table
Versatile classics like the Danish draw-leaf table are important anchors in a diverse vintage ensemble. Made of teak or walnut and dating from the mid-century, the draw leaf is known for its warm-toned wood and streamlined design; Arne Vodder and J.L. Moller created some of the finest examples. Unlike hinged drop leaves, draw leaves are stored underneath the tabletop and slide out when needed. How ingenious is that? “Our house is a mixture of Danish, Modern, Victorian. There’s some Early American, some Oriental,” says Kiley. What makes it all work are “these central pieces with clean lines that go with a lot of things.” The draw-leaf table is just such a central piece.
Average Cost: $250 to $750
Gently Worn Rugs
“Good designers are able to find through-lines in pieces from different regions and periods that make rooms feel cohesive,” says Kiley. “And I think the best way to do that is actually with rugs.” The colors in a rug can be used to underscore a room’s dominant color palette, harmonizing a disparate mix. Kiley favors Turkish kilim and Indian dhurrie carpets from the 1930s through the 1980s for their vibrant shades and hand-woven quality; minor wear (think small holes and slight fading) means you can have an heirloom rug without worrying about actually walking on it. When shopping, “buy what speaks to you” and try not to get hung up on size, says Kiley. “You can play with the rug in various rooms and move things around to accommodate it, but you really have to strike while the iron is hot because a good rug is hard to find.”
Average Cost: $100 to $400
“One of my favorite design trends is the incorporation of large foliage plants — people are using them almost like focal points in a room as opposed to accents,” says Kiley, who recommends hardy species such as birds of paradise, orchid cactus, and Monstera (a.k.a. “Swiss Cheese Plant”). Because intriguing greenery deserves an equally intriguing vessel, Kiley likes to display plants in vintage baskets and galvanized steel and copper basins; one philodendron in the store even sprouts from the bulbous body of an old disassembled floor lamp. Whereas typical ceramic and terra cotta can be “sort of sterile looking,” vintage vessels give the plant texture and warmth, she says.
Average Cost: $15 to $65
“Vintage lighting is a fantastic way to add personality to a room for less money than new lights cost,” says Kiley. Mid-century task lamps, which have an industrial look and skeletal profile that works well in tight spaces, are especially popular now. In addition to parking them on desks and beside sofas, Kiley suggests using the lamp’s spotlight to call attention to a favorite painting or plant. Another bright idea: Place a fixture on a buffet table to create a cozy ambiance during a party and illuminate food. Look for lamps with cords in good condition (no visible wear or tear) and test that the light works before purchasing.
Average Cost: $15 to $95
Fine Art Portraits
Call it a yearning, perhaps, for harmless mystery, but tintypes and vintage portraits of strangers are fashionable again. “These pictures, if they’re done well, show a lot of talent in the artist so you can have something for a reasonable price that is very high quality,” says Kiley, who pairs old portraits in her home to avoid a shrine-like focus on one.
A recent day at the Flea found several portraits of anonymous women in profile — artist’s studies, most likely, although no information had come with the paintings. “I love the complexity of how they look, serious and contemplative,” says Kiley. “Picture them next to a giant Monstera plant and a comfortable, worn rug and that is automatically a space that’s full of personality.”
Average Cost: $35 to $250